A fascinating documentary about the Pastime Players, a Tucson troupe that showcases the abilities of people with developmental disabilities, is one of 18 feature films selected for the 2010 Arizona International Film Festival.
"Such Good Friends" goes behind the scenes with the inspiring ensemble, which took its name from the street within the Amphitheater school district, where the Pastime Players originated 25 years ago.
Under the constant and energetic guidance of Susan Claassen, Gail Fitzhugh and other professionals from Tucson's Invisible Theatre, the players have rehearsed and performed at Catalina High Magnet School since 1990.
You can see "Such Good Friends," a film by Claassen and Cyndee Wing, at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Crossroads theater on East Grant Road.
Although the documentary was first screened at the Loft Cinema a year ago, Claassen and Wing continued sharpening and shaping the film, and they consider Saturday's screening to be the premiere. Admission is $6.
The remarkably effective film, which includes footage of the performers and interviews with several sets of parents and caregivers, also was selected for next month's inaugural Black Hills Film Festival, to be held in the shadow of Mount Rushmore.
If you can't make it to screenings of "Such Good Friends" here or in South Dakota, you're out of luck - at least for now. The film is making the festival rounds, and Claassen hopes that it will one day gain national distribution.
In the meantime, you're invited to experience the Pastime Players in person next week. "The Me Inside of Me," a musical that is presented in some form nearly every year, will be performed Monday night at Catalina. Admission is free. The troupe will once again offer its take on "Alice in Wonderland," featuring documentary star Verl Foley as the White Rabbit and a rap performance by Raul Murrieta and Saul Rodriguez as Tweedle "D" and "Lil D."
As in previous years, there will be other songs, including one about pizza, and tributes to Elvis Presley and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The documentary didn't start out to be a documentary. Working without a script, Wing shot more than 120 hours of footage over five years.
"At first, I just shot one of their shows, and when I was shooting it, I realized that there was a much larger story to be told," says Wing, who has made several films, including "Toka," which won best documentary short at the 1994 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.
But documenting the struggles and triumphs of the Pastime Players proved to be a turning point for Wing, who had taught special-education students in the Sunnyside school district for 14 years.
"It was a huge experience for me because as a result, I realized how much I missed working with kids with special needs," she says.
"I wanted to do more than just filmmaking, so I went back to school, and now I'm a behavioral therapist working with kids. It changed my life."
"Life-changing" is the most common adjective used to describe the Pastime Players, several of whom have jobs around Tucson and contribute to society in more ways than lifting their voices to sing. A couple of them work for the Beacon Foundation, and one charismatic trouper earns a paycheck from Target.
Wing says she hopes audiences come away from the film with a "real understanding of how valuable these kids are."
The movie also opens a window into the background and family circumstances of a half-dozen of the Pastime Players, through revealing interviews with their parents and caregivers.
Each of the stories packs a devastating punch, including one from a Tucson couple who adopted Meg Hudman, who was placed in a crib and virtually ignored for the first three years of her life. Her story could have been the stuff of a stirring documentary all by itself, but "Such Good Friends" tells a half-dozen other equally wrenching stories.
"It was amazing how moving the parents were when we interviewed them," says Wing, and indeed the interviews provide the documentary with some of its most intense moments.
Claassen, whose main job is leading the nearly 40-year-old Invisible Theatre, has devoted countless hours to the Pastime Players, coaching and cajoling and daring to have high expectations for kids and adults whose potential for self-expression isn't often seen by others.
One of her peak experiences, she said, was the first public screening of "Such Good Friends" last April.
"More than 400 people turned out, and it was so exciting for the kids and all of us," she says. "We had a red carpet and arranged for limos to pick up the kids, the whole bit."
Amanda McBroom, a singer and songwriter whose credits include "The Rose," wrote the song that ultimately gave the film its title.
She and her partner had written the song several years earlier, but it remained stuck in a trunk, waiting for a place to shine, until Claassen heard it performed and got to thinking.
Next thing you know, "Such Good Friends" had found a home with the Pastime Players, whose wholehearted performance of it in a Tucson studio provides the documentary with a climactic moment.
"That was so wonderful," McBroom recalled, talking on the phone from Los Angeles about the session at Jim Brady Recording Studios. "It was such a high. They were singing their little butts off."
If you go
• What: "The Me Inside of Me," a musical presented by the Pastime Players.
• When: 7 p.m. Monday.
• Where: Catalina High Magnet School, 3645 E. Pima St.
• Cost: Free.
• Info: invisibletheatre.com