This weekend at The BIFF, definitely not your average Saturday night at the movies

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GREAT BARRINGTON — You've likely devoted a Saturday night or two to watching a movie, but you probably haven't spent one helping shape a film.

This Saturday night, spectators at the Berkshire International Film Festival's (BIFF) staged reading of "Mumbet" can impact the lines that ultimately will be uttered in the final screenplay just by responding to the ones they hear at the event. Held at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, the reading will feature a bevy of local actors voicing parts from selected sequences in Stephen Glantz's screenplay that examines the life of anti-slavery icon Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, based on the children's book "A Free Woman on God's Earth" by Jana Laiz and Ann-Elizabeth Barnes.

"The script, I think, is in a fantastic place right now," director/producer Alethea Root told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.

But that doesn't mean what you hear on Saturday night will make the final cut once the film is in production.

"We'll learn from the reading, and we'll do edits probably the next day on the script. It's this living, breathing thing," said Root, noting that audience reactions will be taken into account. (Root is producing with Kim Waltrip; Laiz, Diane Pearlman and Jameelah Nuriddin are co-producing; and Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Jayne Atkinson and Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer are executive producing. Casting and production dates have yet to be announced.)

Born a slave in the early 1740s, Freeman was eventually acquired by Col. John Ashley of Sheffield. Freeman was illiterate, so aspects of her personality remain undocumented.

"My challenge in Mumbet was finding her voice," Glantz said.

Ashley was one of the men who wrote the Sheffield Resolves, a precursor to the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution that stated "[a]ll men are born free and equal." Freeman heard those words after that document had been ratified and decided to sue for her freedom. She won, becoming the first enslaved African-American to triumph in a Massachusetts freedom suit and setting a precedent for the abolition of slavery in the state.

Nuriddin will read Freeman's part on Saturday. She said that she admires Freeman's methodical approach to gaining her freedom; she's fond of a line in the film that describes Freeman as "patient as time."

"Her power comes from [an] internal place," Nuriddin said.

Atkinson ("House of Cards") will read as Hannah Ashley. When Atkinson initially became involved with the project, the Great Barrington resident said she envisioned having a part in the film. Now, she's not so sure that she will. She's thoroughly enjoying her position as an executive producer.

"This is a new venture for me and a very, very exciting one," she said.

Atkinson's husband, Michel Gill, will read as John Ashley. The rest of the cast for the reading is Jerod Haynes, Johnny Lee Davenport, Otoja Abit, Ella Loudon, Jonathan Epstein, Thom Whaley and Nizae Aaliyah. (Adenrele Ojo will read stage directions.) Audience members will recognize some of the performers from Shakespeare & Company and other local stages.

Root, who grew up in the Berkshires but now lives in California, harbors a great appreciation for the county's actors.

"I've been watching them my entire life, so it's just kind of a dream come true to be able to work with them for this reading. Hopefully, we'll be able to cast locally for many of the parts [in the film]," said Root, who made her directorial debut with BIFF 2011 Audience Award (best narrative feature) winner "Part Time Fabulous."

A public screenplay reading is rare, Root said. This one came together because BIFF founder/artistic director Kelley Vickery wanted to show support for the film. When BIFF had to move its tribute night up to Friday evening this year to accommodate honoree Rachel Weisz's schedule, an opening for a different kind of Saturday night event presented itself. Its local ties were certainly a draw.

"I'm so proud that it's a uniquely Berkshires story," Vickery said of "Mumbet."

The reading will begin at the film's outset, continuing for about 40 pages, according to Glantz. Two 15-page sequences will follow, the writer said. (The entire script is approximately 115 pages at the moment.) There will also be live music.

"We're going to put on a good show," Root said.

A question-and-answer session with the cast and crew will be held after the reading. Root is thrilled to be returning to the Berkshires for the festival. Yet, as a director, she has mixed feelings going into a public reading.

"Completely petrified and excited all at the same time," she said. "Normally, you would do a stage reading with a handful of actors for a select group of people you trust because you want to hear it out loud for the first time. You want to get some outside perspective because ... it's hard to see the flaws, and it's also sometimes hard to see how amazing it is because you're so close to it."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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