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As a child, Laura Long defied expectations. As an adult she changed history.
When Laura was a child, doctors told her parents that her mental disability was incurable and recommended that she be institutionalized. But the Longs were educators; they refused to believe that Laura could not improve. They were right. Surrounded by a theatrical family, Laura had her own dreams of being in the theatre. On a hot summer day in 1991, she met Candy Clapp Randall, a former Hollywood producer, and convinced her to start a small group of "exceptionally talented" actors. With a few songs and some short skits, the Merry Pranksters were born.
Laugh At Us: The Merry Pranksters Theatrical Troupe for the Exceptionally Talented is an inspiring close up of the actors, producers and the director who have changed the expectations and lives of families and audiences in a four-city area around Rock Hill, South Carolina. Laura's idea not only brought her new life, but it touched the lives of nearly twenty other mentally disabled adults in the troupe, as her brother and four-time Tony Award winning costume designer William Ivey Long states.
"'[The acting] brings out different sides of them that you never would see in the life that they've grown up in," he reflects. "They're changed. And they find they can do things that they never thought they'd do."
Besides chronicling the many rehearsals and performances of the troupe's 2003 performance of Pocketful of Miracles, Laugh At Us shares the stories of six of the Pranksters. Lucy Martin, for instance, nearly died in 2001 when her esophagus ruptured, but she fought for her life so she could rejoin the troupe. Tim Sangster, who has cerebral palsy, had always wanted to be an actor. Now he plays most of the male leads. Alan Franco's parents expressed their initial trepidation about allowing their autistic son to participate in the troupe, but cast members and crew appreciate the humor and hope that Alan brings to the stage. The stories of these actors and more are interspersed with Randall's reflections of their experiences together, which she admits are often fraught with tension as she has had to release some of her own expectations while working with the actors.
Filled with scenes of varying emotion, from joy to utter frustration, Laugh At Us depicts the world of the Merry Pranksters during its best and worst times as they rehearse for a performance. After the show is over, the Pranksters share expressions of relief and triumph, while a tearful Randall wonders if she has "pushed them too hard." And final reflections by cast members and their families as credits roll make the film worth watching to the very end.
"This is one of the most moving, heart-warming films I've seen in a long time," said Scott Davis, Executive Producer, External Productions at UNC-TV in North Carolina. "By the end you can't help cheering for the Merry Pranksters."
In fact, as the closing comments explain, the success of the Pranksters has inspired several other cities to form drama troupes for the "exceptionally talented."