A Class By Herself: A Conversation with Actor, Writer, and Producer Kelly McCormack

Kelly McCormack is not an overnight sensation.

Such a thing doesn’t even exist, not really. Not even in this age of instant fame via Instagram. For people like Kelly, it’s about a lifetime of work that gets them to a point where success is suddenly found. The actor, writer, and producer who stars in the third season of the hit sci-fi show Killjoys, is filming a feature film she penned for next year and recently travelled to Taiwan for an opera. A quick internet search has Kelly showing up everywhere, but as she told me over the September long weekend, her wild amount of on-the-go projects lends itself to years of diligent work.

If you were looking for a Cinderella story, this both is and is not it.

Natasha Grodzinski: 2017 has been and continues to be a big year for you. What do you have on the go right now?

Kelly McCormack: From my perspective, I’ve been so busy for so long working on a lots of different projects. You put irons in the fire and it just so happens that 2017 was the year they all exhibited. It’s been a bit hilarious because my acting career, my writing career and my producing career have all coalesced for this one year of bananas. I’m on the show Killjoys which is a huge deal. I went to the audition — it was the first audition of the year, I booked it, and that kind of changed my year, because I was shooting the series from January to May. The TV show I produced for the CBC, The Neddeaus of Duqesne Island came out. We found out we got to moved forward with my feature film Sugar Daddy and I went to Taiwan for this opera. It’s been a little bit absurd, but amazing. I’m a total workaholic — I get stressed out when I have time off to relax. So, it’s been a lot of fun.

NG: Being idle isn’t something you do well?

KM: Oh my god, no. Laughs. I say that so honestly. When I was seven years old, they asked me to do a project on a superpower I wanted. There were lots of powers I wanted, but when I was seven I wrote I didn’t want to have to sleep because I wanted to get more work done. When I was younger one of my uncles told me you sleep for half your life. I was so devastated by that. I don’t do holidays well. The best kind of holiday is how I went to Taiwan for this opera, where I have to perform a bunch but can explore in between. I can deal with moments of high pressure and I feel like that’s when I’m the most myself and the least stressed. You know, I was the girl who rearranged her room every month and had all these decisions about what she was going to do. All of my bucket lists were books. That’s it.

NG: I would say that’s working out well for you now.

KM: Yes, I suppose. I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I started my academic life of writing in university. Producing I just love. I love putting pieces together and making stuff happen. But those were all done in the service of telling more stories and getting busier. In my film Sugar Daddy I play a musician as I also came up through music. I didn’t mean for it to boil over like this but it’s great. Like I said, I don’t do holidays well. I like being able to turn off my phone for  a day, but then I think, “Oh god, there’s all these things I should’ve been doing.”

NG: You touched on one of those aspects of storytelling I wanted to talk about, which is starting your own production company.

KM: Well, it kind of came out of nowhere. About three years ago I was supposed to be in this play, but it fell through. I did have this sweet part-time job at Seneca College. You know I always say artists live or die by their part-time jobs. People are always trading advice and secrets.This one was sweet, it was the holy grail of part-time jobs, but I got laid off there and a bunch of things just fell though. I had a super busy summer, then my slate was wiped completely clean. I was so stressed because it wasn’t where I saw things going. Then Ingrid Veninger, a very well-known DIY filmmaker in Canada, was doing this challenge for filmmakers to make a movie for only $1000. I was hanging with my friend Kristian Bruun, we were just talking about it and I thought, okay, screw it, I’ll write a feature film, the two of us will produce it and we’l put our friends in it. It was this really sweaty, insane summer exercise. I wrote it in two weeks, we shot it in two weeks and we produced the whole thing for $1000.

NG: Holy god.

KM: Yeah, it was crazy. The way that we cast it, with a budget like that, the more creatively involved you have to keep people. Everyone thinks you have to call in all these favours — don’t get favours, get people who are so hungry to make something happen. The way we assembled this cast and crew was like this: I asked Kristian, “Who would you not make a movie without?” He said, this person. Then we asked that person the same question and so on. We assembled this ride or die clan of people. Kristian and I didn’t sleep for two weeks, I sublet my apartment to pay the $1000, because even with a low budget like that it’s a lot of money. We produced this film called Play the Film. It’s a comedy, it’s really weird. It’s about these actors who aren’t booking work so they put on this play. Very meta about our lives, you know. It goes horribly wrong and they end up improvisation stage and making the most offensive play every to be put before an audience. It ended up doing really well and went to festivals around the world. It happened that I needed to put a company name on this film. I have this super righteous dog named Floyd and for some reason we call him Floyder. I wanted to immortalize him so I called the company Floyder Films.

Of course as the acting, writing and producing are going well, I’m thinking, what else can I do? I’ve started thinking about how I can grow the company and about better ways to monetize my ability to bring people together who love to tell stories and hopefully bring in some business-minded people, and hopefully, you know, just be a really powerful CEO one day. Laughs.

NG: One step closer to world domination.

KM: Yeah! I can say these things in interviews, like over the phone you know I’m not saying it in a different way, but I’ll see myself on paper saying, “I want to change the world!” I think, “Yeah, I sound really full of myself.” I’m sure lots of men say stuff like that and don’t worry about it.

At the same time, I am an outspoken feminist. I care about the representation issue in the industry. I care about telling stories that represent women and casting and hiring people of colour. The impetus from wanting to be successful with my production company is because I want to invigorate and hire people who may not normally get that opportunity, I want be a change in the industry. I’ve started trying to option books, which is a really fun thing. You get to read your favourite books and stalk the author and publishing company to try and convince them to give you the rights. Doing that is fun. I’m a big sci-fi reader and am always thinking of how I can make this story into a movie.

NG: Science fiction is a really fantastic space for progression.

KM: For sure! And you have all these people watching Star Trek or Star Wars where there are futures where race and gender don’t mean a thing. Mothers are realized to be at the centre of societies. I was finishing Dune over the weekend and mothers who reproduce and populate civilization are gods. There’s this future that we could be heading towards but it’s like, come on people! Sci-fi’s already there! That’s what great bout being on a show like Killjoys. I get scripts for my character and you don’t get the same ick factor as you do reading other scripts, when you’re thinking, “Ugh this is so gendered and so mildly racist.” It’s a wonderful space.

NG: Is that a direction you want your company to go in?

KM: I do talk about this a lot, about making movies without gender pain, without the ideas of the expectations we put on masculinity and femininity. I have a documentary I’m working on, and another series, and they centre around that topic.

NG: In your own writing, you have the film Sugar Daddy, which had a very familiar concept to me, having heard about it at school, but I wanted to talk about writing the stories you want to see.

KM: Well, Sugar Daddy is, first and foremost, about this up-and-coming musician. And she’s trying to make it. She’s broke and has yet to cross that threshold where she’s making money or getting noticed. Even without the sugar daddy, that’s not a story we see often. There are so many movies about artists trying to make it, and they’re all men! There’s this obsession with the male artist and the tortured, struggling musician. We’ve seen so many movies like that.

[Sugar daddies, at the basest definition, are rich men, usually older, who pay younger women to date them.]

She learns to package herself for all these other men in different ways. Then she learns how to package herself for the already sexualized music industry. It’s about the commodity of art and self-worth. It’s about sex as a commodity and generally the sexual politics that every single woman has to negotiate on a daily basis. You know, “Oh, this guy bought me a drink, do I need to talk to him now,” or, “This guy bought me dinner on a date, do I have the sleep with him now?” The things that half the population has to think about on an hourly basis is really what the film is about. It’s told through the eyes of this artist who is then regurgitating it into her music.

When I was in New York and had a million part-time jobs and all my friends were trying to make it on Broadway, a bunch of my friends did this. This was years ago, before it became the cultural phenomenon. My first reaction was disgust, but it took five or six years of being a producer in the industry and going to these parties to see how you don’t really have a choice in being commodified.You have to go through that stuff anyway.

NG: When you’re looking at roles you haven’t written, what are you looking for?

KM: In general, the type of roles that inspire me, whether I get offered them or not, are depictions of women we don’t see a lot. I like playing characters that have endgames, motivations and locations that are not not involved with them falling in love with a man, though I’m not saying I wouldn’t do a romantic comedy. Laughs. Like Zeph, for example, the character I play on Killjoys, she’s a science nerd. That’s her passion, her focus, her drive. In Sugary Daddy, she’s an artist, that’s her drive.

In terms of types of characters, I want to play the most opposite of the one I just played. I would love to have a career where someone calls me a character actor. I don’t really have an interest in defining this “Kelly brand” and delivering this ongoing character of myself. I became an actor because I love pretending to be other people. I’ve had some opportunities to play bizarre characters and I hope when I get to put them together, people don’t recognize me part to part.

NG: One of the weird characters I had to ask you about, and I watched the whole thing last week, is on The Neddeus of Duqesne Island.

KM: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That show is probably one of the most proud things I’ve been a part of in my life. I produced that series and it’s written by Aaron Schroeder who came to me a couple of years ago with this crazy idea of making a faux NFB documentary. We shot it in the fall, and I also had the opportunity to be in the series as Eloida, the demonic twin. It was so much fun to be in. The whole point of the series was to mimic that ultra-naturalism from the documentaries, so it’s not about what you’re saying, it’s about the action and what you’re doing with your hands in the moment. The director Sam [Zvibleman] was really good at making sure the actors were not performing. I had this badass 70s costume that made the twins looks like the twins from The Shining. We went up into the woods in the fall and made this weird-ass show. The director would have us do the scene over and over again and improvise and by the end of the day, it didn’t feel like we were performing.

But yes, she was weird character. The dialect was weird and the way she stood was weird. She’s another interesting character where her motivation is actually world domination. That is Pinky and the Brain right there. Her interests are simple: she wants to rule the island and kill her brother. And going back to the roles I want to play, I don’t want to recognizable. I don’t want them to say, “Oh that’s Kelly McCormack.” I want them to say, “Who’s that weirdo? Oh, it’s Kelly!” Laughs. “Who’s that weirdo?” Those are the roles I want to play.

NG: If there were to be a brand, that would be it.

KM: Yeah!

NG: So with all the excitement this year, and with everything happening, where do you see these projects going?

KM: Oh my gosh good question. You know, as busy as it is, I have a constant fear that it will just end. As great as all this is, the upkeep is something that will require all of my energy. Killjoys got picked up for two more seasons, which is incredible. I don’t know what the means for me, but I didn’t die at the end of season three, so…

NG: That’s always a good thing in sci-fi. I didn’t die!

KM: Exactly, so who knows? Sugar Daddy is in the works and I have a couple of other TV shows I’m writing and pitching. I’m always upping the bar for myself. My standard and bucket list is growing. In terms of what’s next… I really want to focus on my production company and the types of films I’m developing. Because for me, I always say, I wanted to be an actor when I was seven and having this life of art was a dream. Then it became my life. It suddenly happens where you work hard and don’t have to do any more part-time jobs, you’re just supporting yourself off of your art. To me, that’s making it. That’s it.

Interview has been condensed for print. You can follow Kelly on Twitter here and Instagram hereContinue following our fashion and lifestyle coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

5 Women Working in Hollywood You Should Know About

If you ever watch the credits after a film, whether you’re staring at your laptop screen half-awake, waiting for a post-credit scene after a Marvel flick, or delaying having to re-enter real life after a particularly good escape, you see hundreds of names scroll by. It takes an enormous amount of effort to get a single movie onto the big screen, and these behind-the-scenes heroes never get as much press as the top-billed movie stars.

For women in these positions, that recognition is even harder to come by when working within a boys’ club. But despite the difficulties facing them, there are so many women working in Hollywood today who are creating incredible art and telling stories that need to be told.

We thought we’d tell you about a few of them.

Jane Goldman — Screenwriter & Producer

Image source.

English writer and producer Jane Goldman has left huge marks on action films so far in her career. Her writing credits include Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service, showing her to not only have a knack for writing over-the-top action scenes, but also for bringing much-needed campiness to the screen. Regardless of whether you liked Kingsmen or not, it was definitely memorable. She was in the news a great deal because of her marriage to British TV host Jonathan Ross, but it’s important to note her own accomplishments and presence in big-budget Hollywood. In an article in the LA Times, Goldman’s work is described as quirky and eccentric, and Tim Burton is quoted saying that Goldman is “…very creative, very intelligent…” With praises from well-known directors like Burton, and with more projects set for the coming years, including a just-announced Kingsmen 3, Goldman’s momentum shows no signs of slowing.

Jane Goldman’s IMDb.

Autumn Durald — Cinematographer

Image source.

While the directors of movies are responsible for the sequences of shots, cinematographers add their own vision and flair to the work. They are usually in charge of camera operations and lighting and make technical and artistic decisions related to each shot. They are also the ones to thank in that moment where you are overcome with the need to say, “That’s a good shot.” American-born cinematographer Autumn Durald is best known for her work on Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s directorial debut based on the short stories written by James Franco. That isn’t the extent of Durald’s resume, however. She has also worked on music videos for Arcade Fire, Tiesto, and London Grammar, as well as on commercials for Smirnoff and Coca-Cola. Durald has also leant her talents to a number of shorts over the years, but it looks like her next few years show more feature film productions, including Max Minghella’s directorial debut Teen Spirit starring Elle Fanning.

Autumn Durald’s official website.

Hannah Beachler — Production Designer

Image source.

If you’re wondering exactly what a production designer does, they are generally responsible for the overall “look” of the production, adding to set design and decoration. If Hannah Beachler’s name sounds familiar in that category, it may be because she is the production designer behind Beyoncé’s incredible Lemonade special, a fantastic collection of shorts and music videos that was actually nominated for multiple Emmys. While I would argue Lemonade is a film in its own right, Beachler’s feature film credits include Fruitvale Station, Creed, and the Oscar-winning Moonlight. While these three movies all had production design that was more raw and real, Beachler also has a knack for the more stylized and fantastical as seen in her work on Lemonade and in the upcoming Marvel picture Black Panther. The latter, of course, hasn’t been released yet, but based on the trailer alone, it’s clear that Beachler has a strong vision and talent. I’m so excited to see more of her work.

Hannah Beachler’s official website.

Lisa Lassek — Editor

Image source.

Continuing on a slight Marvel theme, let’s talk about Lisa Lassek, an editor who has worked within the franchise. This is surprising to some, but the majority of editors in Hollywood are actually women, and their job is to cut hours and hours of footage down to a cohesive sequence that is palatable to a mainstream audience. I want you to imagine editing something like Lord of the Rings. Just picture attempting to do that for a moment. Lassek has impressive credits, having worked as an editor on The Circle, The Cabin in the Woods, Avengers, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Lassek also has extensive experience with television, having edited episodes on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Community, and, most recently, The OA. Editing is a daunting task and is one of the main reasons post-production on films can take so long. The movie needs to have a decent run time. It needs to make sense. It needs to line up with the director’s vision. When all of these requirements come together, we are left with the movie we actually get to see, the one that’s played in cinemas. Some of what remains is put on DVDs as deleted scenes or put in a five-hour-long director’s cut.

Lisa Lassek’s IMDb.

Ava DuVernay — Director, Writer, Producer

Image source.

Ava DuVernay has truly become a household name in the last few years, gaining recognition for her work as director and producer on acclaimed films such as Selma and 13th, as well as her work as a film distributor with her own company AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement). Her powerful work and strong directorial point of view landed DuVernay a handsome amount of nominations and awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature for 13th. That documentary also landed her a BAFTA in the same category. While DuVernay has also directed a few shorts, TV shows and TV movies, a great deal of her time in Hollywood has so far been in miscellaneous roles in production and promotion on the Hollywood circuit. It is clear, however, that DuVernay’s talents lend her to different roles in film production, working in a diverse amount genres and subject matters. Upcoming projects for DuVernay include directing the TV movie Battle of Versailles, on the 1973 Palace of Versailles fashion show, and the fantasy flick A Wrinkle in Time, which is set to be released next year.

Ava DuVernay’s official website.

Director, Producer, Trailblazer: Ida Lupino

In the 1940s and ’50s, in what is considered by many to be the “golden age” of the film industry, few women were working behind the scenes. They could be seen on screen, usually portraying polarized female stereotypes: the virgin and the whore, the good girl and the villain, the love interest and the mother. Behind-the-scenes positions for women virtually disappeared after WWII, coinciding with the societal shift to focus on the nuclear family and feminine ideals. Any role that did exist were always given to white women — women of colour, if they appeared on screen, were generally only given roles that either cast them as servants or fetishized them. That’s an issue that’s still being addressed today. When it comes to contemporary female directors, we are finally seeing support and recognition for their works, but we are only still at the very beginning.

It was the same in the 1940s as it is now: in order to see the stories they want to see, women needed to make the movies themselves.

Ida Lupino did just this. In the 1940s, she was a big ticket actress, working alongside high-profile actors like Humphrey Bogart. She was top-billed, talented, and beautiful, but she wasn’t finished. She wanted to make movies. While on the set, she would watch the directors and the camera operators and learn from them, probably one of the best education a young filmmaker could ever get. While she was always a student of film, Lupino didn’t get a chance to direct until she sat in for director Elmer Clifton for the 1949 film Not Wanted when Clifton fell ill. Lupino was not credited, but it was her first unofficial project.

Ida Lupino. Photo via TIFF on Twitter.

In 1950 she opened her own production company with her husband, Collier Young. There, she wrote, directed, and distributed a number of films without studio backing and without famous actors. These were films with strong female characters, complicated women, women on the outside of society. Her topics were controversial for the time — sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, and mental health to name a few —, and even now, despite more open dialogues on these topics, the stories Lupino told and the films she created are still very relevant.

“She’s a humanist,” says Anne Morra, Associate Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “She doesn’t pack her films with known movie stars, so the audience has a character without a story attached to them. Her films could be documentaries.”

In her official directional debut, Never Fear, the subjects are professional dancers and lovers with Carol and Guy at its center. Carol contracts polio and loses the ability to dance, causing feelings of worthlessness and inferiority. In Outrage, Lupino tackles sexual assault, depicting a violent attack on a young woman and the subsequent emotional fallout and police investigation.

A still from Outrage (1950). Source.

These are topics that big production companies would never touch since the box office payoff would have been minimal at best. Who would want to see such terrible and unromantic things? Generally, films at the time were much more formulaic, falling under romance or crime. Think of the noir thrillers from the 1940s and the romantic comedies of the 1950s. The main characters are cool, competent men and the women are seductive, soft speaking side pieces. Lupino’s realistic, female-driven narratives were hardly what audiences at the time were used to consuming.

“She’s quite avant-garde in her role,” says Morra. “She learned from other directors but it’s important not to compare her because her works are very unique.”

Despite not fitting in with her contemporaries, Lupino’s works have staying power. This month, TIFF is hosting Lupino’s first-ever retrospective, showing a restored selection of her works as a director and an actress. Morra, who has done extensive research on Lupino, introduced the screening of Never Fear last Wednesday at the Bell Lightbox. The retrospective celebrates Lupino as both a pioneer for women on screen and in independent filmmaking.

“I hope [viewers] take away the idea of Ida as a revolutionary filmmaker. She was a woman working without a blueprint,” says Morra. “I hope they’re able to rediscover her or discover her for the first time.”

As someone who wasn’t very familiar with Lupino, I discovered her for the first time through Outrage, a movie that tore me up emotionally but impressed me with how it handled a story of sexual assault, arguably better, despite some religious overtones, than some television shows aim to depict it now. I was surprised by it, shocked by it, and thrilled to have discovered such a strong point of view from a female director. We now have many more female perspectives. We have Ava DuVernay, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jennifer Kent, and Kathryn Bigelow, all talented filmmakers with distinct perspectives and styles. It doesn’t make sense to compare them with one another, just as it doesn’t make sense to compare them with Lupino, who worked in a very different time and industry. What cannot be denied is Lupino’s effect on cinema, her legacy of a phenomenal body of work and the ground she broke in her time.

As Morra put it, “She’s someone who deserves to be seen.”

Tickets to Ida Lupino’s retrospective can be found here. The retrospective runs through September 2nd. Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Alice Ivy Makes Her Toronto Debut

Alice Ivy is a 23-year-old producer and artist hailing from Melbourne who will be taking the stage during the upcoming Canadian Music Week. While Alice is a newcomer to the Canadian scene, she is a touring veteran by any standard whose sound is often compared to the likes of The Avalanches and Mark Ronson. After completing two Australian tours as well as shows in the US and Singapore, Alice is making her way across the globe and sharing her music with those lucky enough to experience it.

Alice’s single, Almost Here, has collected 900,000 plays on Spotify combined with her smash hit, Touch.

With Canadian Music Week quickly approaching, one can easily be overwhelmed with the list of international artists gracing this year’s stage. This is one you don’t want to miss out on. We had the opportunity to chat with Alice about her upcoming performance, her musical influences, and her tour experience.

 Shot by @shotbyletans

Kimberley Drapack:  Welcome to Toronto! Have you been to Canada before?

Alice Ivy: Thank you, no! I’m super excited because this will be my first time.

K: Are you excited to play Canadian Music Week?

AI: I’m super nervous actually. Showcasing is a pretty hard thing to do. I am super excited to see a bunch of cool music, hang out with some like-minded people, and get to know the scene in Canada.

K: You are known to be quite active onstage during your concerts. What is your favourite part of live performance?

AI: I put 100% into my live shows. I really believe that a live performance is just as important as a recording, so I keep my shows pretty energetic and exciting. My favourite part of a live performance is being on the same level as the audience. I’m having a good time, they are having a good time.

K: How did you first get involved with music and creating music?

AI: I have always grown up with music, but the first involvement I had with creating music was when I picked up a guitar at 12. I used to play in lots of bands and never really had my own solo project going. When I began a music course at university, I started to produce and write my own beats. I love the freedom and control I get from doing it all by myself from a laptop, but sharing it with others in collaborations and live performance is the best.

 

K: Who would you say are your musical influences?

AI: I am a massive soul and motown fan. I grew up listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Curtis Mayfield. Now, I listen to a lot of Kaytranada, Anderson Paak, J. Cole, Kendrick, Onra, Gramatik, Gold Panda — a whole bunch of music really.

K: There is something about your music that sounds amazing when paired with a rap verse. Would you describe your sound as being influenced by hip-hop and soul?

AI: I love the mixture of hip hop and soul-based beats. Especially when performed live, it’s music that is exciting and made to feel good. That’s what I really aim for in my music.

K: In late November of 2016 you played at the Queenscliff Music Festival and the Paradise Music Festival, but afterwards you were taken to the hospital because you had broken your leg. Even though you had injured yourself, you still powered through and played your sets. What was this experience like?

AI: I’ve been healthy my whole life, so for a broken leg to stop me and cause me to take a step back was super hard. I spent a lot of time at home writing, which was awesome, but the break gave me a lot to think about when approaching my live set. I generally jumped around a lot on stage so I worked out a way of still doing that on one leg — a set of crutches and a stool, haha. It was a pretty crazy experience but I’m so glad it all worked out because I really didn’t want to cancel any shows.

Shot by Dom Schmarsel 

K:  You have been touring for some time now.  Do you enjoy it? Do you ever get homesick?

AI: I love travelling, I haven’t reached that point yet of being homesick on tour. The broken leg, however, has made me really appreciate the couch, so I’ll check back with you in a couple of months.

K: Almost Here (feat. RaRa) is my go-to anthem. How did this collaboration begin?

AI: I had been sitting on this track for so long. I recorded the vocals in London, the drums in Hobart, Tasmania, and the beat in my studio in Melbourne. I really wanted some rap verses on it and I have always loved RaRa, so I reached out to them. We then finished it off in the studio.

K: Your music seems to hold a nostalgia to it with a throwback sort of feel. What does this mean to you?

AI: I think just growing up and playing soul/Motown and listening to it everyday along with the memories associated with that type of music have given me a real passion for creating it. I just want people to have a good time listening to my music and watching a show.

K:  Who would be your dream artist to collaborate with?

AI: Missy Elliott, Little Dragon, or Anderson Paak.

K: What is next for you? When will you be releasing new music?

AI: I’m about to go on a really big Australian tour with Urthboy and then I’ll jump on a plane to Canada. I will release some music in between 😉

Check out Alice’s latest single, Get Me A Drink, and keep a lookout for her debut album coming later this year. Catch her set at Canadian Music Week on April 21st at Longboat Hall and continue following our fashion & lifestyle coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

A Voice For All: Jahmeelah Gamble

There are only so many hours in the day, and Jahmeelah Gamble makes every moment count. From her community involvement, facilitating programs for youth with disabilities, to hosting her own television and radio shows, she is the epitome of a superwoman.

1) First and foremost, can you talk about what you do? I was reading your website and it seems like you have your hands in everything, with a strong focus on disability and equality? How did you get into this and what is your background?

JG: I’ve been in the field for fifteen years, with a background in Developmental Services Working from Fanshawe College in 2010. Prior to that, I was involved in various day programs supporting children and adults with disabilities, and that’s when I decided to turn my passion into my career.

The way I got into it, well I really cannot say; I myself don’t have a disability, I don’t have a child or any family with disabilities. I’d like to say that God had a plan for me and thought that I would be a great asset to this field, so that’s how I got into it.Working in this field, I was trying to find different ways to be an advocate, but not be in the typical thick of things. Yes, I work for the School Board and I am an Education Resource Facilitator, but I wanted to go above and beyond that, so I started my own business, Ms. Jams. I consult with families, workshop facilitation, and community advocacy. There’s different organizations that have me come out, and I do workshops, whether it is parent empowerment or disability sensitivity classes with them, just to give them a really lighthearted and open perspective on how they can better understand disability awareness, and whether it is improving their business or just improving their attitudes, that is my goal when I go out and I support them. With parents I consult, especially with those first time parents whose first child is born with a disability, I help them understand the system and what the next steps are, and really remind them that they are first and foremost the expert of their child, and help them decide how they can be the best possible advocate for their children.

My show, A Voice For All, launched in 2014, and it’s hard to believe it’s in its fourth season. As I said, that wasn’t my educational background, but I did do an interview on Roger Television to promote Autism Awareness Month. The following year, I wanted to come back and talk about families, and that I was concerned that as a community, we didn’t do enough to help parents with children with disabilities feel welcome and understood. I wanted to pick which show I wanted to be on, so I thought that if I put my application in for Show Proposal, that that was me proposing to be on a particular show, and little did I know, I was asking to have my own show. I ended up totally winging an interview with a producer, explaining how I could have my own show and what it would be about, and next thing you know, I had a pilot then I had my first season, and I have not looked back since!

I am the host and the producer of the show. We proudly support people with disabilities, their support workers, the grassroots organizations that need more exposure, and most importantly, we provide support to parents. I have had parents come on the show and tell their stories, and it creates a sense of community for parents tuning in and they can learn from each other. What I love most about my show is when we have organizations like the Special Olympics come on, and there are athletes that rarely get mainstream television and they get ten whole minutes about why they are awesome, how they became the person they are, and regardless of what their disability or their cognitive level is, they made it work and they made it happen.

It’s been a rewarding experience for me, to better understand the organizations in our communities that really need our support, but also I’ve learned a lot about myself as an advocate. I’ve been doing this for fifteen years, but I still feel like I’m just getting started. The first couple years was me getting my feet wet and exploring who I am, and now that’s I’ve found this passion in media, whether it is magazines I’ve written for, my show, and I’ve recently launched my online radio program called Straight Up with Jam, where I talk straight up about disability issues and awareness within our community and around the world. The channel that my show airs on, Voices For Ability, is the only online radio show within the region that is for people with disabilities by people with disabilities, so I was honoured when they approached me about hosting a show. So I am speaking on the perspective as an able-bodied person, and identifying things that my fellow able-bodied people do that are not always right, but at the same time, trying to help the able-bodied community people with different abilities. We have various people from different organizations come around, and we talk straight up about the issues. It’s my way to contribute to an amazing group of people who are often misunderstood and I’m just doing my part.

2) What have been the struggles of doing this, as well as the rewards?

JG: The struggles of me being in this field of work is convincing people why they should pay attention, especially because I am able-bodied. I have been asked “Why are you so passionate about disabilites? You don’t even have a disability, and no one in your family is affected”. My answer to that is I have a heart, and my heart cares about individuals who do have different needs. When I go to different events, and especially mainstream events, my struggle is getting the platform to express to people to open their ears and their eyes and their hearts to what I am trying to promote. My struggle is a part of the story. When you have these setbacks, it gives you that fuel to keep going, and when I do come across these walls of people, that shows me that I need to work harder to promote the work that myself and other people are doing. There are harder days, when I am in the school system when I am seeing my students being misunderstood, I become sort of a mama bear, and showing people that they have a value and a purpose.

The rewards are the people I work with. I love my students, I really do. My previous student from last year was actually my flower girl at my wedding. She holds a very special place in my heart, so it was only natural that she be a part of our big day. I have had students and clients who have underestimated themselves. We have had big goals for them, and when we achieve that goal and I see that sense of pride on their face and their parents’ faces, that’s the biggest reward for me. Even with A Voice For All, and seeing how far it has come, that for me is a reward: having people understand what I am trying to promote. My work is my reward, every single day.

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3) Tell me about your dance classes and how they started.

JG: I am not a classically trained dancer, I just happen to have some rhythm! For a couple years, I was a fitness instructor for the YMCA, and a previous colleague wanted to partner with me to do an event for individuals who have disabilities, especially adults. What the general population does not know is that typically when people with disabilities get to about 18 years old, they are essentially pushed off the cliff by the system. There is not enough funding and programs to support them, so they are left to their own means. We decided to launch EmpowerMe Fitness and Education about a year ago, which is a non-profit fitness program for adults with developmental disabilities. We took my fitness routines and modify them to each class; so for example, if we have an individual who is in a wheelchair or someone with autism, we completely modify the class so everyone is up and moving and everybody included. We rely solely on public donations and are now exploring government funding as well, because we need to have programs like this running consistently. It’s come together by need, with my background in Developmental Disabilites and dance, and her extensive background in Behaviour Therapy, to create something that a lot of people and their families were looking for. Some people weren’t even meeting us, they just showed up because there was nothing else like this available. We are always expanding and growing because the need is there. In the future, we hope to work with more classically trained dancers and get into gyms to help the staff working better understand and connect with members with disabilities. EmpowerMe not only aims to support people personally, within our program setting, but also the population and the community at large understand how they can better welcome individuals with disabilities.

What is next for you, in 2015 and beyond? What are you most proud of?

JG: I am hoping that we can take A Voice For All on wider platform to reach a bigger audience. I don’t believe in five year plans, because I really do not know. What I want is to continue to be healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally, so that I can continue to do the work that I do. In the upcoming months, I want to continue to learn more, become more passionate, and become a stronger advocate. I want to be involved in greater opportunities that allow me to further my experience, connect with more people, and strive to become a person who can create change and understanding.

With confidence, I can say I am self-made and that I am always looking for ways to grow. Yes, I am a Teacher’s Assistant during the day, but I have my television show, my radio show, I sit on committees, I do events, I do public speaking, so that to me is something I am really proud of. In such a short amount of time, I have accomplished so much, and I have grown, and helped people grow, and we are just getting started.

Stay connected with Jahmeelah by following her @MsJamPccs and keeping up with her at http://www.msjam.ca/