Free Play: Thesis Project to Documentary – to Life Path

By Alex Astrella, documentary filmmaker, Blu Star Productions
A young white man in a brown suit jacket and slacks listens as a couple of people talk to him, and all are standing in front of a photo backdrop with the Blu Star logo on it.

Editor’s Introduction: Karen West of Gallatin, Tenn., is a former Governor-appointed member of our Council. She is also a 2015 graduate of our Partners in Policymaking® leadership institute. That’s how we heard about Free Play, a documentary released in 2023 telling the story of Gallatin Miracle Park – an inclusive playground born from Karen’s vision and passion. We connected with the film’s director, Alex Astrella, who kindly agreed to share about his experience making Free Play – and the impact the film has had on his life.


Free Play started as my master’s thesis project to attain my M.Ed. in Special Education at Vanderbilt University. I was fascinated by the idea of the Gallatin Miracle Park when I first heard about it through a local news story.

While living in California for most of my life, I had never seen an inclusive playground with as grand a scale as the Gallatin Miracle Park. With my background in filmmaking, I knew I wanted to create a piece to shed light on the incredible story behind the park’s creation.

That is how I connected with the families in the film:

  • Karen and Michael West,
  • Nathan and Amy Nixon,
  • Heather and Liz Broadaway,
  • Lisa Langford, and
  • Jodi Mahalo.

Free Play documents the perseverance of Karen West to create Middle TN’s largest all inclusive park. It also underscores the value that the park provides to the community through showing how families from various backgrounds come together as one while at the park.

I was lucky enough to find local freelance filmmakers who helped make Free Play the highest caliber film it could be. During the filmmaking, I used my knowledge from my coursework at Vanderbilt to ensure the documentary subjects were treated and represented fairly. I was thankful to have access to Vanderbilt’s vast resources to present why all-inclusive playgrounds like the Gallatin Miracle Park are instrumental in aiding the development of children of all abilities.

I learned invaluable lessons while researching, filming, and editing Free Play that will forever be a part of me going forward. It also made me appreciate the power that playgrounds like the Gallatin Miracle Park have to develop the creative mind. I am so grateful to everyone who was involved in making Free Play a dream turned reality.

poster of 3 children of varying ages on scooters, waving at the camera; text reads "Free Play - a documentary screening. Sunday, Dec 3., The Palace Theater, Gallatin TN. 2pm."

I was diagnosed with autism myself when I was 2 years old. I received behavioral therapy from ages 2-7. I used to repress and disguise my disability, as I was ashamed of being autistic. However, through projects like Free Play, I now cherish my autism – it’s a superpower.

That awareness is what led me to want to pursue a master’s in special education. I wanted to give back to the community and individuals that gave me the keys to unlock that superpower when I was a child.

In making Free Play, the sheer joy that the kids express when playing at the Miracle Park is palpable. Seeing the subjects of our film have so much fun brought me back to my childhood. I remembered how many precious moments I had on the playground myself as a youth. To see children of all abilities interacting and playing together at the Gallatin Miracle Park was heartwarming. It inspired me to want to make Free Play more than just a thesis project, but a film that will hopefully benefit the disability community in the years to come.

The joy I felt while on set of Free Play also inspired me to want to make an impact beyond producing my own content. This led to the formation of my production company, Blu Star Productions, in November 2022. The mission of Blu Star Productions is to empower and recognize the creations of neurodivergent/disabled artists across the globe. In addition to Free Play being the production company’s first official film, Blu Star Productions is also developing an ever-growing roster of disabled filmmakers from around the world. By creating films like Free Play, Blu Star Productions will change the stigma of the supposed “limitations” of those with disabilities.

Readers can watch the film by messaging me directly for a private screening link.

To learn more about Free Play and Blu Star Productions, readers can find us on instagram @blustarproductions . We are always looking for people to reach out at our website , where Blu Star Production’s other films and roster members can be found. You can also email me directly at

Alex Astrella is a documentary filmmaker based out of Nashville, TN. Through his work and production company Blu Star Productions, he aims to advocate for disabled creators around the globe.


a still shot from the documentary, showing an adult man with a gray t shirt and white beard standing behind a girl of about 10 or 11 helping her swing a baseball bat. the girl is in a white dress and has a visible disability. a young boy looks on from the background. they're all outdoors