South Egremont resident Cynthia Wade is no newbie to the awards show scene, having won an Oscar in 2008 for her documentary short “Freeheld.”
But her latest accolade, a 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Award, came from her stepping into a much different world — where cuddly Muppets roam freely and the war on hunger in the United States is very, very real.
“Growing Up Against Hun ger,” a “Sesame Street” special won for best Children’s Nonfiction, Reality or Reality-Competition program Sunday during the Creative Arts Primetime Emmy Awards. Some of the Primetime Emmy awards were given in advance of Sunday’s awards show, which will air at 7 p.m. on ABC.
Alongside her sister, Ali Benjamin, who did the casting, and her producer,Tim Spiedel, the Berkshire trio helmed the documentary that told four different stories dealing with hunger and food-insecure families in the United States.
”We are thrilled that the show won an Emmy, and hope that this will inspire more families to support their local food pantries,” Director Cynthia Wade said. “I … hope that the program continues to educate, move and inspire communities to reach out to families in need.”
“Growing Up Against Hun ger” was nominated after making the rounds in front of judges that discuss the merits of specials submitted by networks.
It was up against MTV’s “It Gets Better,” which focuses on the struggles of gay youths, and “The Weight of the Nation for Kids: The Great Cafeteria Takeover,”about unhealthy school lunches.
“All three specials tackled their subject matter in a unique way,” said Tim Speidel, the producer for “Growing Up Against Hunger.” “From a producer’s standpoint, it’s great that the stories of these families that we found are being honored in this way.”
Unlike the usual, morning episodes of “Sesame Street,” full of Muppet characters and catchy songs, “Growing Up Against Hunger” was a prime-time special and documentary that aired at 7 p.m. last October.
The special was book-ended with the series’ usual Muppet story arc focusing on a new Muppet character named Lily, who shares with fellow Muppets — and country singers Brad Paisley and Kimberly Williams Paisley — her trials and tribulations of living in a family that doesn’t know where their next meal will be coming from.
Almost all of the special took place outside of Sesame Street and in the world that Wade, Benjamin and Speidel caught in their documentary.
Working on a “Sesame Street” special created a “very challenging production schedule,” Wade said.
“It was an interesting and exciting hybrid,” she said. “You have to address a serious topic, but speak to children. But, you also don’t want to lose their older siblings. We wanted to speak to multiple audiences.”
Even though she’s previously worked on more adult, HBO content, Wade’s knack for quality, docu-style storytelling convinced “Sesame Street” producers. She was offered the gig after submitting a 22-page proposal that won the show’s officials over, and production began in June 2011.
‘Casting’ a light on hunger
Unfortunately, stories of families struggling to have stable meals seemed to be spreading; Wade and her crew sifted through dozens of stories before focusing on four unique, touching stories that differentiated themselves.
“We didn’t want to tell the same story over, and over, and over in the documentary,” Wade said. “‘Sesame Street wasn’t terribly specific, they just wanted us to find a story that would paint a picture of America.”
As the casting director, Benjamin had no previous experience in casting films or documentaries. But she was well-rehearsed in the film’s subject matter, having written the book “The Cleaner Plate Club,” as well as keeping up the book’s subsequent blog about healthy eating for children. That was more than enough knowledge to find the perfect stories that would be depicted in the documentary.
“We wanted to tell as complete a story as possible,” Benjamin said. “It’s not a simple story though. Hunger affects every race and religion.”
The four documentaries unfold within 40 minutes. The first is about a struggling family on Martha’s Vineyard that is the recipient of the donation of a section of a garden full of healthy fruits and veggies.
The second tells the story of an organization in Manhattan, called City Harvest, that donates healthy food choices in a part of the South Bronx that has few nutritious food options.
The third tells of a food bank in New Jersey that also acts as a culinary school for low-income families, and one mom’s journey in the program.
“That one was so cool,” Benjamin said. “It’s run by real chefs, and they can become ServSafe certified to learn the proper food techniques.”
The fourth story was actually the first one that Benjamin came upon, about the Gleeson family in Waterford, N.Y., which ended up receiving contributions from the food bank to which they once donated after their father was laid off. The daughter of the family, Zoe, donated 100 cans for a project centered around the 100th day of school.
“That’s the conventional recession story,” Benjamin said. “That ended up being the anchor of the documentaries. When I was talking to the mother, I got goosebumps. That little girl knew how easy it was to end up at a food pantry.”
For Speidel, as the producer, the most important part was meeting the people that would be featured, he said.
“We were going to tell a story about hunger, and it was going to be positive. It was like they were offering a small part of themselves,” Speidel said. “The effect it had on me is that I could suddenly be unable to feed my family, and that it could happen overnight.”
Diane Pearlman, the executive director for the Berkshire Film and Media Commission, recently saw the special.
“What I’m thrilled about is that people from the Berkshires made a documentary that will be seen by so many people,” Pearlman said. “It shines a light on our local talent, but also shines a light on an important topic.”
Though the bulk of the special was done by Wade, Benjamin and Speidel, none were able to attend Sunday’s ceremony.
Since hearing of Wade and Benjamin’s love for the Berkshires, Speidel picked the Berkshires as a place to live instead of New Jersey. He’s lived in Great Barrington for about a year.
“It seems to be extremely welcoming and accessible,” Speidel said. “We took a giant leap of forward, and we committed to the region all because of Elmo.”
As originally published in The Berkshire Eagle
by Adam Poulisse