HANOVER, NH—Almost 80 percent of American adults with disabilities lack something that’s a key to having a place in the world: employment.
What could a better world look like? The new documentary film 25 Prospect Street offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield, Conn., which provides extraordinary employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The film will be screened on Sunday, March 3 at 4 pm in the Loew Auditorium at Dartmouth’s Black Family Visual Arts Center. Following the film, there will be a discussion with Prospector founder Valerie Jensen and several “Prospectors,” as the employees are called.
25 Prospect Street is the story of how Jensen, an unstoppable former school teacher, transformed an abandoned bank into a state-of-the-art movie palace that provides jobs and training for people with disabilities—often giving them their first real shot at being successful and self-sufficient. Of the approximately 200 employees, about 70 percent have disabilities–ranging from Down Syndrome to multiple sclerosis to major depression.
Nearly 500,000 patrons have been served since the Prospector opened in November 2014. Its four state-of-the-art theaters show a full menu of first-run films, preceded by video content created and edited by the Prospectors in one of the job-training program embedded in the operation.
Director Kaveh Taherian tracks the emotional first year of the fledgling cinema, while following the missteps and giant leaps of the new recruits, many of whom are earning their first paychecks. Along the way, the growing distance between Valerie and her younger sister Hope—who has Down syndrome and was the original inspiration for the Prospector—proves an even greater challenge: Hope has goals of her own which don’t involve working at the theater or even spending time with her sister.
The film offers a thoughtful and surprisingly humorous portrait of the Prospector team and the birth of a small business—one that is simultaneously on the brink of failure and on the cusp of serving as a new national model of how to put talented people to work.
Along with Jensen and Hope as well as Prospectors Kris, known as “K-Mann,” whose natural gift for showmanship finds its perfect setting at the Prospector while Kris expands his job skills; Rachel, a talented artist who yearns from independence and freedom from the label of “autism”; Markie, with a ready laugh and smile and a love of dancing; and Daniel, who through the Prospector opens up to people and begins sharing his passion for hip hop.
In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, Jensen said the idea came to her in 2010. “I drove by the building all the time. It was just this derelict building that I was so used to,” she said. “Then I read in the paper that it used to be a movie theater, and I made eye contact with it at a traffic light, and I realized it was such a crazy idea to do this that it wasn’t crazy at all.”
At the time, Jensen was president of Sphere, a Ridgefield organization that provides opportunities in education, recreation and the arts to the disabled. She had begun working there in 2002, shortly after graduating from Binghamton University with a master’s degree in elementary and special education. “My friends are so talented, so I was shocked to see how few of them had a job,” Jensen said. “And those who did were often put into menial roles that seriously undervalued their skills and capabilities.”
All the employees are paid and also are expected to learn skills beyond those for which they are hired, with the goal of helping them become candidates for meaningful work outside the theater.
In an on-site classroom, workers learn to make commercials and promotional spots; 15 minutes of videos made in-house are screened before each main attraction, rather than traditional trailers for coming blockbusters. A host introduces each screening and tells the audience about the house rules—turn cellphones off, don’t talk during the movie—and about the theater’s mission.
“So many of our employees are passionate about movies,” Jensen said. “We want to help them turn their passions into professions.”