In 2016, some of the nation’s highest-grossing films (Finding Dory, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to name a few) centered on themes of overcoming stereotypes, promoting tolerance, and celebrating diversity. They implored audiences to see differences and disabilities as strengths, rather than weaknesses. But despite this seemingly good press, adults with disabilities in today’s society remain undervalued and underemployed. One theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut, aptly named the Prospector Theater, has spent the past two years advocating for change and raising awareness about disabled adults in the workforce.
The first-run, nonprofit movie theater first opened in 2014, on the same site as the town’s very first movie theater, the Ridgefield Playhouse. The one-screen Playhouse operated for 30 years until it was turned into a bank, which ultimately went out of business. In 2010 the building was saved from demolition and renovated by local resident Valerie Jensen as the four-screen Prospector Theater, with a purpose of providing valued employment for people with disabilities.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2015, only 17.5 percent of persons with a disability were employed, compared to 65 percent of those without a disability. Jensen’s mission with the Prospector is to change that. She says the theater currently employs 105 people, over 70 percent of whom have disabilities ranging from mild to profound. “Employers are afraid to hire people with disabilities because they don’t know what they’re getting,” says Jensen, “but when they’ve got a reference, a recommendation, and a track record of work, then they’re totally hirable. There’s an untapped and amazing talent pool right there and right in everyone’s backyard.”
The Prospector strives to tap into the potential of every one of its employees (known as “Prospects”). “There’s something to match up with everyone’s passion,” says Jensen. With four screens featuring Christie digital projectors, two concessions stands, a bar, a café, a full kitchen, and an in-house production department, the state-of-the-art theater provides training programs in a variety of fields, from concessions and culinary arts to graphic design and video production. “We take whatever their talent is and we weave it into the operation of the movie theater. With all the marketing that comes out with each new movie release, there are so many opportunities built in right there,” she says. “The job skills here would be appropriate in absolutely any industry.”
According to Jensen, since opening in 2014 the Prospector has sold over 250,000 tickets, employed a total of 188 employees, and paid out $3.6 million in payroll. That’s a substantial impact on the community, and a substantial amount of wages going to a group of people who might have otherwise been excluded from the workforce.
Jensen hopes other theaters across the country will follow her lead. “Theaters have so much downtime,” she admits, “and we use that downtime for educating, training, and making new curricula, because even outside the movie industry there’s really no model of employment like what we’ve got here. There’s such a huge need for it.”
While the Prospector may be unique in its employment model, it is not entirely different from other entertainment venues. As at most movie theaters, patrons of the Prospector can expect a comfy seat, a hot bag of popcorn, and good movie all at a reasonable price. But the Prospector goes beyond what most would expect from a premium cinema. Patrons are greeted at the door with a smile. Ushers greet and seat moviegoers and offer fresh gourmet popcorn. Prospects introduce the film to the audience before each feature presentation. The in-house production team creates the theater’s pre-show content, which largely stars the Prospects themselves. The theater hosts sensory-friendly screenings and organizes field trips for local schools to come and meet the Prospects.
The entire theater has been designed to help break down the barriers of communication between patrons and Prospects. There are activities and games set up in the lobby, which act as a tool to foster connections between those with disabilities and those without. “To a kid, they might not realize that the person they’re playing with has autism,” says Jensen, “but they’re having that engagement so we’re learning how to make that conversation happen and giving people that opportunity where they don’t have to hide from disability. Creating those moments is what we’re good at and what we do here.”
What is perhaps the focal point of the theater’s interior is an eye-catching two-story art piece hanging from the ceiling in the lobby. Created by artist Warren Muller, it features reclaimed items that have been repurposed and reformed into a stunning, sparkling piece of unconventional beauty. The sculpture, for Jensen, represents the vision of the Prospector. “If you look at [the sculpture] and see the car parts, the toys, skates, sports equipment, etc., you can imagine the life these things lived before they became pieces of junk; and when you think of someone with a disability who’s always wanted to be in the workforce, or who was in the workforce and then got a disability, then they can feel like a discarded piece of junk. But with the right structure, with the right lighting, with the right environment, it sparkles. And that’s what people do too when they’re given the right kind of support.”
So what’s next for the Prospector? Jensen says they are currently looking into a second location several miles south in New Canaan, Connecticut. A second theater would provide new challenges and new learning experiences, but what’s most important is the opportunity for more for people with disabilities to gain meaningful, relevant employment. Jensen’s mission is never ending. “We love it,” she boasts. “People are really happy to come to work and want to make a big difference. “