Filmmaker unites 115 people to recite Maya Angelou work

Julie Walker
The Detroit News

Not all the actors had experience. One woman felt so nervous, she almost asked a colleague to hold the phone. But that seemed equally scary, so Sarah Cunningham steeled herself, hit record and recited the three-word line.

“Still I rise.”

Cunningham, a 38-year-old nurse working in a COVID-ICU from Rochester Hills, hasn’t hugged her children since March 22. She said taking part in the video, and seeing the result, made a world divided by social distancing feel cozier.

The project, “Still We Rise” from filmmaker and director Shana Gagnon, marries clips from 115 people around the world reciting Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” Like much art created remotely since the novel coronavirus began its global march, the idea for “Still We Rise” blossomed to counter a week filled with bad news.

The poster for Still We Rise

It started with a job loss. Gagnon, 37, worked at a staffing agency. Although the company successfully shifted to remote operations, the layoff notice wasn’t unexpected.

“It’s not like it was a huge surprise,” Gagnon said.

Later, Gagnon’s sister called with news that a nursing colleague and friend had died from COVID-19, a conversation that devolved into tears. She hung up and felt an instinctive desire to create, like she has done since childhood. The Rochester Hills native and 2001 graduate of Rochester High School attended Western Michigan University on a theater performance  scholarship before moving to Los Angeles.

After earning her Bachelor of Arts in theater and English from California State University Northridge, Gagnon expanded her roles to include acting, writing, directing and producing. She also worked as an acting coach during her 15 years in L.A., but filmmaking became her passion and a road back home.

Gagnon wrote, directed and starred in “Secret,” a 15-minute drama short depicting a young widow working through grief. It screened in more than 30 film festivals in the U.S. for three years, winning a plethora of accolades and awards, including ones for best actress and cinematography.

“Secret” was shot in Oxford and Rochester Hills, a deliberate choice by Gagnon, who wanted to showcase her home state’s beauty in the hopes of seeing tax incentives for film return to Michigan. Talented people are abundant in this area and shouldn’t have to leave to make a living, she said.

Poster for Shana Gagnon's award-winning short film, "Secret".

“But we need state officials to support the arts and filmmaking here,” Gagnon said. “There is SO much potential to film in Michigan.”

Her adventures in filming and on the festival circuit created much back-and-forth travel between Michigan and California. Gagnon, feeling she had to choose, ultimately bought a house in Rochester Hills. She’s now preparing to direct and star in either a full-length feature film or miniseries of the international bestselling book “Maude”, a true story based in Detroit about a woman’s life of overcoming hardship. Gagnon owns the book rights and wrote the screenplay version of the story written by Donna Foley Mabry. Mabry, Gagnon’s aunt, wrote the story based on her paternal grandmother’s life.

Donna Foley Mabry and Shana Gagnon (right)

Working on “Secret” and starting work on “Maude,” in addition to her day job, kept her busy, but Gagnon says the need for extra income is the reality for more than 90% of people in the entertainment industry. Although unemployment is expected to help, Gagnon said the job loss stings, expected or not.

Following the layoff and tough call from her sister, Gagnon went to her laptop and turned to a familiar creative inspiration, the late legendary poet Angelou. A clip of Angelou discussing “Still I Rise,” gave Gagnon chills. She got an idea, and started sending texts that day, April 4, not remembering until later how perfect the timing was – April is poetry month.

“I figured what a great opportunity to showcase Angelou’s work as a way of igniting unity and inspiration during a time of crisis,” Gagnon said. “I had just been part of a mass layoff at my day job along with thousands of other Americans, so I almost immediately felt the drive to get creative again with my free time.”

Gagnon had multiple goals: Helm a global tribute to a celebrated poet, honor the importance of arts with an inclusive and diverse cast, highlight essential workers and areas like Detroit, where the coronavirus hit especially hard.

Working with folks across the country and world in places like Germany, Ireland and Australia kept Gagnon up at all different hours, juggling time zones for calls and texts so she could assign lines for people to record. One note went out to an old friend in L.A. He said he got a sign that told him he couldn’t refuse, even before he knew all the details.

Actor Aris Alvarado has a clip in "We Shall Rise".

Actor and writer Aris Alvarado’s work includes roles in, among others, “Gilmore Girls”, “God Bless America” and “Kickin’ it Old Skool”. Alvarado caught Gagnon’s text at a busy time, so he made a mental note to respond later.

His tasks included the daily ritual of reading a poem.

“I work every day as an actor,” Alvarado said. “I work in my imagination…Poetry is a way to create imagery in my head.”

Alvarado’s has a book of 365 poems – one for every day. The April 4 poem? “Still I Rise.”

“I guess I will be doing this no matter what, because it’s a sign,” Alvarado said to himself at the time.

Alvarado applauds the final version, which debuted April 24 on Facebook, especially since all aspects were completed remotely. He loved the inspirational vibes produced by watching.

Aris Alvarado reads a poem a day for his craft.
The April 4 page from Aris Alvarado's book of poetry showing Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise."

Remotely working

Randy Williams had a similar “must-do” vibe when he got his version of Gagnon’s text. The 30-year-old Monroe resident, who would end up editing the video, saw the text after doing essential work at his day job -- stocking frozen dinners at a Meijer warehouse. He’d had that day a conversation with someone that touched on spirituality and diversity. When he got the text later, he read Angelou’s poem and found it ever-relevant.

“I was all in for it,” Williams said. “I instantly said yes.”

Williams started editing video at age 12 and studied at Specs Howard. He does his art myriad ways: Music producer, graphic designer, actor, movie production, etc. After finding work as an extra on local movie sets, he found he prefers working behind the camera. Mutual friends introduced him to Gagnon. He landed on the set of “Secret”, where Gagnon promoted him to assistant producer.  He, along with Alvarado, also will have an associate producer credit on “Maude.” He said he felt honored that Gagnon reached out to him for editing work on “We Shall Rise.” Williams estimates he spent anywhere from 70 to 100 hours working as the clips came in electronically.

 “We’re texting or calling each other,” Williams said of working remotely with Gagnon. “We aren’t sitting next to each other.”

“We turned out some pretty good work; It was meant to be.”

Gagnon said everything about the six-minute, 44-second clip felt like the right thing to do. She hopes Angelou’s timeless words can help heal and celebrate people of all backgrounds and cultures coming together in solidarity through art.

 “I also wanted to showcase our appreciation for essential workers on the frontlines…,” Gagnon said.

Like her longtime friend Cunningham, the nurse from Rochester Hills who got called back from a post in surgery recovery to work in the COVID-ICU. She spent a decade in ICU before but said it’s not the same in the COVID era.

“These are the sickest patients I’ve ever seen,” Cunningham said.

Like many of her colleagues – one lives in an RV for now, another has a basement cordoned off from the family – her home life has been disrupted. She sent her kids, ages 6 and 9, to temporarily live full time with their father. She hasn’t had them for more than a couple hours at a time since. Each visit must happen outdoors with a strictly enforced 6-feet boundary, no hugs, no kisses. 

Cunningham said she loved Gagnon’s concept, and felt like it narrowed the world in a good way while inspiring hope, something she hasn’t given up.

“We’re all in this together,” she said. “Things change, but you gotta adapt, and you can still rise.”