Category: Family Movies & Television

BASED ON: Sundance/Windrider — ‘Luce’ and ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’

Tim Roth, Kevin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts in ‘Luce’/Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Larkin Seiple

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

Luce, directed by Julius Onah, based on a play of the same title written by J.C. Lee. The two also wrote the screenplay. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind written and directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, based on a memoir of the same title by William Kamkwamba.

Last month, I attended the Windrider Forum, an ecumenical Christian gathering of filmmakers and theologians held during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The year 2019 marked the first time the two worked in concert: Windrider moderating panel discussions, and the Sundance Institute (the film education branch of the film festival) supplying the filmmakers.

A Nigerian New Wave dominated the week’s proceedings. Chiwetel Ejiofor spoke of faith and reason elements in his environmental drama,The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

Grand Jury prizewinner Chinonye Chukwu stated her intentional staging of the execution scene as a crucifixion in the harrowing death row original drama, Clemency.

Julius Onah detailed his semi-autobiographical tale in Luce. All made reference to varying degrees of how their faith upbringings informed their films.

Luce began as an Off-Broadway play written by J.C. Lee and was adapted into a feature film with the assistance of Julius Onah. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. plays the title character, Luce Edgar. He’s a high-achieving high school student in every way imaginable: star athlete, straight A student and leader in various extra-curriculars.

As the story unfolds, however, we learn of Luce’s horrific back-story; warring marauders conscripted into child soldiering during the Congo’s civil war.  Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) are the overly generous parents who adopted him at the age of 10 and assigned him the best of therapists to work through his trauma. And he did. Or did he?

Octavia Spencer plays Luce’s history teacher. While he scores high marks in her class, it’s a recent writing assignment that raises her hackles. Luce chooses a violent revolutionary to research. That curious choice coupled with the teacher invading Luce’s privacy (she discovers a stash of banned fireworks in his locker) exacerbates a previously hidden penchant for lying and deceit.

My filming-going priest-friend, a professor of Catholic literature at the University of Portland, observed Luce derives its title from Lucifer, the prince of deception and lies.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind spins more of a family-friendly adaptation of a true story. A village in Malawi, similar to many villages in Malawi, suffers from a drought. A young boy named William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) read about windmills during his truncated stay in primary school. After much opposition from his villagers, his father (Chiwetel Ejiofor), included, he is eventually able to reinvent windmills into his context that produces water to flow into once-barren fields.

Maxwell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’/Netflix

The movie captures well the need for subsidiarity, as the absence of this principle leads to an overweening federal government that cares little about the village’s local predicament, and, in fact, acts as a deterrent to human entrepreneurship.

Somewhat lost in the movie, however, is the critique of indigenous religions, which the author terms “magic.” They believe prayers alone can bring about an end to their dust bowl. Instead, it’s the monotheistic communities and Catholicism, in particular, that see a God who created the natural world in a certain order, and scientific inquiry is really the impulse of someone uncovering the natural order.

Reading the book, I was reminded of the tale of St. Boniface, apostle to the Germans in the 8th century. To show the power of Christ, he demonstrated that trees were not to be worshiped and so cut down the Thunder Oak of Thor. The God who breathed into life the natural world was the one to be worshiped. Any creations of the natural world of his fell under the dominion of humans and could be used as they saw ethically fit. Hence, electricity, running water and the Christmas tree.

Image: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Larkin Seiple (‘Luce’); Netflix (‘Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’)

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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NatGeo’s ‘The Story of God’ Tackles the Resurrection (Or Not, Actually)

National Geographic Channel/Maria Bohe

The Story of God With Morgan Freeman premiered its third season on Tuesday, March 5, on National Geographic Channel with an episode on the Devil. Next Tuesday, it’s Gods Among Us, profiling people who claim to be deities, including Jesus Christ.

The series sends host and executive producer Morgan Freeman around the world to survey a wide variety of belief systems, from major ones like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, to smaller sects. I’ve seen the first three episodes of this season. It’s an improvement over a disappointing season two, which followed a fairly strong season one.

Glad to report that, unlike in earlier seasons and many other cable documentaries, believers and clergy talk about Christianity, rather than primarily just academics, who, though they may study faith, are not always people of faith themselves.

Here’s how NatGeo describes Gods Among Us, airing Tuesday, March 12:

  • Are there people walking among us who truly embody the divine? Many of us were taught that God is in heaven, yet we believe that it’s possible for people on Earth to have a direct connection to God. Christians think of Jesus as the epitome of the divine made human, but people of all faiths have sought God in charismatic figures. Morgan Freeman journeys around the world to explore the mysteries of these mortals, including a rare meeting with the famed Kumari of Nepal, a prepubescent living goddess.

One thing the episode doesn’t point out — and it’s what distinguishes Christ from others who claimed to be divine — is the Resurrection, the central mystery of Christianity. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

We bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this day he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus.”489 The Resurrection of Jesus is the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, a faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by Tradition; established by the documents of the New Testament; and preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross:

Or, as St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15: 12-19:

But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.

Yet, Gods Among Us makes no mention of the Resurrection. Recently, during the biannual TV Critics Association Press Tour, I did a roundtable interview with host Morgan Freeman and his fellow Revelations Entertainment executive producers Lori McCreary (a Christian, by the way) and James Younger.

I asked them about the choice not to include the Resurrection, and here’s what I heard, with the producers considering the perspective of religions that include a belief in reincarnation..

Younger: [The Resurrection] is a splitting point for you, maybe, as a Catholic, but it may not be a splitting point for a Hindu, or a Buddhist, who are much more like, everyone gets resurrected. So, this issue about coming back from the dead is not really a big deal, because everyone does.

Freeman: Yeah, trying to reach Nirvana.

McCreary: You bring up good points. Because, we have a lot of things where we’re really careful about how we present information, because we know we have multiple faiths watching this. It’s important, and literally a word can make a difference.

We spend a lot of time … James, he sends notes in the middle of the night, “You can’t say this. Please say it this way.”

We find a way. I hope we find a way where we’re presenting something that’s not offensive to anyone who has a strong belief in one of these different faiths, but also allows them to lean in, as opposed to saying, “Well, they got that totally wrong.”

Here are NatGeo’s descriptions of the rest of the episodes:

Visions of God (March 19)

  • Stories about visions of God are found in most religions, but where do visions come from? What do they have in common? Morgan Freeman sets out to explore the mysteries behind these visions, and his travels take him  to Lourdes, France, where believers claim to have been cured of physical and spiritual ills by the water flowing from its spring. He also meets with a member of the Anishinaabe Tribe in Canada to learn about the transformative power of a vision quest.

Deadly Sins

  • How do we grapple with the reality that we are all susceptible to sin? What Christians call “sin,” other religions describe with similar concepts, such as “karma” in Buddhism and Hinduism, or “guo” in Taoism. Morgan Freeman travels around the world to explore how different religions have developed ways to fight back against sin. He visits a local Hindu community in the United Kingdom to celebrate Diwali, and journeys to Vietnam, where he meets the commandant of the Hanoi Hilton, the notorious prison where the North Vietnamese kept prisoners such as John McCain during the war.

Diving Secrets (April 2)

  • Some faiths keep their entire religious communities hidden for fear of persecution. Other faiths have secret practices that only special initiates are allowed to participate in. Morgan sets out on a journey to understand why secrecy and religion are so often intertwined, and if the mystery of ritual can bring people closer to the mystery of the divine. Along the way, he travels to the spectacularly preserved Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii to see frescoes depicting the secret cult of Dionysus, which is believed to have performed rituals of animal and human sacrifice.

Holy Laws (April 9)

  • For many believers, the Ten Commandments are a moral guide and the foundation of Judeo-Christian and Islamic society. Around the world, other societies and religions also have divine prohibitions and prescriptions that the faithful must follow. Morgan Freeman travels to Jerusalem to meet with an archaeologist and examine a segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and crosses the globe to Nepal, where he explores the commandments of Jainism — the five great vows or Maha-vastras.

The Story of God airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic Channel.

Images: National Geographic Channel/Maria Bohe

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter  and YouTube.

‘Period. End of Sentence’ Wins at Faith-Inspired Windrider Festival, Then at the Oscars

Photos: Alex Dee/Windrider

Each year, during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the Christian-infused Windrider International Film Festival also takes place — and this year, one of its honorees also took home an Oscar.

Currently available on Netflix (with English voices over the original Hindi), the 26-minute-long Period. End of Sentence, directed by 25-year-old Iranian-American Rayka Zehtabchi, took home the 2019 Windrider Triumph Award. It then went on to win Best Documentary Short Subject at the 91st Academy Awards on Feb. 24.

The film tackles the persistent stigma and lack of knowledge surrounding menstruation in rural India. Told in a straightforward manner (with a slight feminist gloss), it shows how a group of women acquired a machine that allows them to make high-quality, effective sanitary napkins, which the makers then hit the streets to sell.

The machine’s inventor is Arunachalam Muruganantham, the son of poor handloom weavers in South India, who was determined to solve the sanitary-pad problem (to the initial irritation of his unimpressed wife).

Ecumenical and focused on community-building, Windrider incorporated elements of the Angelus Film Festival, with which Family Theater Productions was deeply involved for many years. We continue to be a presenting sponsor of the Windrider Institute, which encompasses the Windrider Forum at Sundance, Windrider Productions and the festival.

Our head of production, Father David Guffey, C.S.C. (upper left), and producer at large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C. (lower right), are regular attendees.

So, I checked with them to see what they thought of Period. End of Sentence. and why it’s garnered such honors.

What was your own reaction to Period. End of Sentence?

GUFFEY: As the film began I was quite uncomfortable, but soon into it you realize how the issue looms huge in the life of poor women in India and probably in many poor areas of the world.

KUNA: I thought the film was the best of the four that won awards at Windrider. (I admit some bias, as I overlapped USC film school with the director.) It was also the best of the five films nominated for documentary short subject Oscar.

Why do you think it won, both at Windrider and the Oscars?

GUFFEY: Windrider tries to find films that help people see the fullness of humanity and which give hope. The film exposes audiences to an issue that they probably do not think of, certainly most men would not think of, and then shows how people are working to address the issue in a positive way.

KUNA: Period. End of Sentence won the Windrider Short Film Showcase because the Indian village journeys on an arc from ignorance to knowledge, from ostracizing women to acceptance. It’s typically difficult for subjects to undergo a believable arc in that short amount of screen time.

I think it won the Documentary Short Subject Oscar because of some of the over-saturation of timely message films: racism, immigration, right-wing politics, etc. Period. End of Sentence is a timeless and universal film that differentiates itself from the pack. The film also best utilizes filmmaking tools (camerawork, sound design, editing) to contrast big city India with images of the small, quiet village most of the film takes place in.

What is the Windrider International Student Film Festival, and what are its goals?

GUFFEY: Windrider brings theology and film students together to screen movies and then discuss them both in terms of the craft and aesthetics of film, but also from a theological  and values perspective. They select some of the best of student work and screen it during the Windrider Forum at Sundance. That is one part of the experience.

Period was one of the selected films. Each day of the Forum, students also go to see films at Sundance. Then, each morning, there is a session with some of the producers, writers, directors or actors associated with the works they have viewed. The conversations have been amazing and not only for the students.

This past year, the Sundance organization approached Windrider about becoming officially recognized, in part, because Sundance filmmakers spoke of their positive experiences at Windrider. Many filmmakers long to have a deeper discussion about the meaning of their projects or the issues that inspired them. Windrider offers them that opportunity.

KUNA: The Windrider Festival is an ecumenical gathering of theology programs and film students during the Sundance Film Festival, highlighted by a student film festival on the opening night.

Each morning we gather and listen to a panel with Sundance filmmakers followed by a Q/A between filmmakers and attendees. Windrider hopes to inspire the next generation of Christian filmmakers through its student film festival and networking opportunities to established independent filmmakers.

It has met some of its goals in its pairing with the Sundance Institute, the educational branch of Sundance that hopes to bridge conversation between the faith community and mainstream filmmakers.

What is Family Theater Productions’ involvement with Windrider?

GUFFEY: Family Theater Productions is a major sponsor of Windrider. We have been working with their leadership, [entrepreneurs, filmmakers and brothers] John and Ed Priddy, for over 15 years, since back in the days when Family Theater Productions conducted the Angelus Film Festival. Windrider took over some of the aspects of Angelus and incorporated them into their programs.

KUNA: FTP remains a main sponsor of Windrider and presents one of the student film awards. The Angelus Film Festival that FTP used to run has been absorbed into the Windrider Forum.

How can someone get a film into Windrider?

GUFFEY: Windrider does not take public submissions but has a selection committee that seeks out films.

KUNA: See the following link to learn more about where to submit shorts. …

According to the site, Windrider is looking for:

  • Work by student filmmakers, emerging young filmmakers, and seasoned veteran filmmakers.

Next year’s Sundance Film Festival takes place January 23 to February 2, 2020, in Park City, Utah.

Images: Alex Dee/Windrider; Family Theater Productions

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter  and YouTube.

‘Watership Down’: The Dark Animated BBC/Netflix Bunny Show, and Its Violent Film Predecessor

Watership Down/BBC/Netflix

I never read the Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down, and I didn’t actually know anything about it before I watched the new animated BBC/Netflix limited series adaptation. The main reason I watched the series was because I saw it had rabbits in it and was rated PG, so I figured it was a go to watch with my kids.

After watching the series (click here for that) I watched the 1978 Watership Down film (available on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon and iTunes). I found both to be good (and disturbing!) in their own way.

What is Watership Down about? A lot more than a bunch of bunnies. The story centers around a group of anthropomorphized rabbits that lives in a community about to be destroyed by human construction. But this is not at all a lighthearted Over the Hedge-type story. These rabbits have their own folklore, idioms, hierarchy and culture. And their world is anything but bright and jokey.

Fiver is a rabbit who has strange visions of the future. His vision of their home being destroyed leads him and his brother, Hazel, and eventually several other rabbits, off on a search for a safe new home. Along the way, the rabbits encounter dangers in the form of other animals, humans, and darkest of all, other rabbits who are rather on the evil side.

Watership Down is kind of dark and scary. As I watched the series with my kids, I wondered at times if it was too scary or violent for them. My 4-year-old declared that he loved it and didn’t seemed fazed, but he’s exposed to talk of animal death on a pretty regular basis (since we have farming family members).

That being said, there’s definitely a fair amount of animal violence, and I’ve heard of adults being legitimately scared by it. Personally, I found the stellar computer animation of the series to make it that much easier to get invested, scared, and possibly disturbed by the Watership Down series. So I was hesitant to let my kids watch the 1978 Watership Down film.

I looked up the IMDB Parent’s Guide details (one of the few times I’ve actually used that section for my kids, instead of myself!), and my husband even told me he saw it in a YouTube compilation of most disturbing cartoon movies. But I decided to cautiously start it with the kids and turn it off it if it got too scary.

And my 4-year-old loved the movie, too. The violence in the film seemed a little heavier than the series, objectively speaking — more blood onscreen, discussion of a rabbit’s ears being ripped to shreds. But the old-style animation of the film made it seem much less realistic, and it was harder to feel the disturbing-ness like you can from the computer animation of the series. There is also a bit of mild language in both the series and the film, as well as the mythological aspect with references to their god Frith, that could be a little confusing for young Catholics.

So, which Watership Down is better? Having never read the book myself, I can’t say which adaptation stays closer to its source. But I do like the computer animated series better. The realistic look of it serves to pull you in pretty strongly to its plot and the plight of the interesting characters. One my favorite aspects in the series is the side character Bigwig. He starts out as kind of a hot-headed, blowhard bruiser of rabbit. But by the end, he’s grown and developed into a noble, heroic sort of guy — er, rabbit.

The film version doesn’t have as much of this character arc and is a little slimmer when it comes to character development in general. Both the film and the series are good — compelling, interesting, and very unique as non-comedy animated fare. But to me, the series feels like the more fleshed out and engrossing version.

Image: BBC/Netflix

Adrienne Thorne is a Catholic mom, blogger and screenwriter.

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Pop Sensation Sister Cristina on Lady Gaga and Singing for $1M on CBS’ ‘The World’s Best’

Sister Cristina, ‘The World’s Best’/CBS

Ursuline Sister Cristina Scuccia, who won The Voice of Italy in 2014, makes her second appearance tonight — Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 9 p.m. ET/PT — on CBS’ new reality-competition series The World’s Best.

The show, which launched after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, with host James Corden, brings in performers from around the globe, judged by Americans Drew Barrymore, RuPaul Charles and Faith Hill, and by a panel of international experts. The ultimate prize is $1M.

Sister Cristina, a twentysomething Italian, wowed the judges on The Voice of Italy, and became a social-media sensation, for reinterpreting pop songs. Here’s her The World’s Best performance of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way

Over at my Pax Culturati blog, I have a new email interview with Sister Cristina (she doesn’t speak English fluently), in which she talks about why she chose Born This Way, and what she’d do if she met Lady Gaga — who, despite some views out of line with Church teaching, considers herself a Catholic:

Why did you pick Born This Way to sing at the show? What does it mean to you?

Born This Way deals with the theme of diversity, and, in my opinion, it is important to remind everyone that despite being different, we are as precious as we are, because God does not make mistakes with anyone, exactly as the song says. We live in one evolved society that often tends to make differences and exclusions due to life choices or simply because the other is different from us.

Instead it is good to remember how diversity can only be an instrument of enrichment towards one another, can serve to build a more colorful world where everyone can bring his own color and we should not be scared of them!

Lady Gaga has a Catholic background — if you haven’t met her yet, what would you most like to talk to her about?

Lady Gaga is one of my favorite artists, and what strikes me, and I mostly like of her, in addition to her extraordinary artistic skills, is the courage with which she shows her great humanity. If only one day I had the honor to meet and talk to her, first I should contain the emotions and then I would ask her for advice and ideas to make the message of love that I carry everywhere through music even stronger (artistically speaking) and accessible to everyone (not only those who believe in God)!

She talks a lot more about God, fame, the Church and her message to young people. Read the whole thing here.

Image: CBS

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter  and YouTube.

‘The Dating Project’ is THE Movie You Need for Valentine’s Day

Boston College singles Matt and Shanzi, “The Dating Project”/PureFlix/MPower/Family Theater Productions

This Thursday is the first St. Valentine’s Day since the April 2018 release of Family Theater Productions’ groundbreaking documentary The Dating Project. It’s a frank, heartfelt look at modern dating, based on the work of Boston College professor Dr. Kerry Cronin, who’s been trying to reintroduce the nearly lost art of dating to her students.

Along the way, the film, directed by Millennial Jonathan Cipiti, talks to a two of Cronin’s students, a twentysomething woman in Chicago, a thirtysomething woman in New York and a fortysomething man in Los Angeles (which, we’re happy to report, has since married), about the challenges of looking for real love in the hookup culture.

And now, it’s Valentine’s Day. No pressure.

We don’t know a lot about the original St. Valentines (there are three), but we do know that they were all martyred for their love of the Lord. Along the way, that love came to represent love in general, especially romantic love. FTP’s online series Catholic Central explored just that and more in a new episode (more resources here):

If you’re one of those people whose Valentine’s Day is not all hearts and flowers, we think watching The Dating Project (website here) — whether streamed online or on DVD — will be eye-opening and ultimately uplifting. So, in honor of that, I fired off some questions to one of the movie’s producers, Megan Harrington (who’s also a co-producer of the upcoming pro-life film Unplanned, and is now an FTP staff producer) and here’s what she had to say:

What kinds of audience reactions have you heard since the release of the film in the Spring of 2018?

The feedback has been really encouraging from men and women across all age categories. Grandparents ask “How did this happen (state of dating)?” and want to get a copy for their grandkids. Parents who watch it with their children tell us how it opened up an honest and real conversation after. Single people have had an emotional reaction and been inspired. It really is a film for every single person, pun intended.

What’s surprised you about how the film has affected people?

I think what has surprised me is the film’s impact on married people. It has encouraged some to start dating their spouse again, which is awesome.

What more have you learned about the subject matter of modern dating?

I learned so much working on this film, both about myself and the world of modern dating. I believe the oversexualization of the culture has created chaos and uncertainty in what it means to be in relationship. We’ve replaced casual dating with casual sex, and the result is a profound sense of loneliness. I don’t see happier or more carefree people. I see brokenness and people who ache to have a real connection. Dr. Cronin’s “dating assignment” is an opportunity to reclaim the lost art of dating.

The work of Dr. Cronin to help young people relearn the art of dating goes on. Do you have any plans to work with her again on another project?

We would love to work with Dr. Cronin again, but her passion is teaching and I think that is where she will focus all of her energy. What a blessing for those kids who have the opportunity to sit in her classroom. They are receiving an education of the mind and heart, which is an incredible gift.

Did ‘The Dating Project’ accomplish what you hoped it would?

We wanted the film to be a conversation starter, and from the screenings and feedback received, it seems to have accomplished the goal. We hope the conversation continues to grow, and the film reaches colleges and communities far and wide. If you’re interested in group screenings, visit Yes, that was a shameless plug.

What’s been the most moving thing you’ve experienced as the film has made its way to audiences?

As the film has made its way to audiences, I’ve had an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I’m grateful to God for the opportunity to be part of this film and work side-by-side for endless hours with the most incredibly dedicated team. I’m grateful to God for introducing us to all the amazing people in the film. I’m grateful to God for every comment about how the film has changed someone’s perspective or direction.

Valentine’s Day is a source of joy for many, and pain for others. If your love life isn’t where you want it to be on Thursday, Feb. 14, is there any advice you can give for getting through it?

Well, my love life isn’t where I want so I’ll share what I’m going to do: eat chocolate and play sad songs. Kidding … about the sad songs. The only way to get through life is to live it. If Thursday is a painful reminder of the past, make it a day to bury those memories and embrace the present by inviting some friends over to watch “The Dating Project.”  And then…say yes to “The Dating Assignment.”

(The Dating Assignment is a literal assignment that Dr. Cronin hands out to students. You can try it yourself here.)

For a little more info, check out Dr. Cronin’s appearance on EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo:

Click here to see Harrington herself on Fox News. Below find The Dating Project trailer:

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Image: Pure Flix/MPower/FamilyTheater Productions

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter  and YouTube.