For many of us, the mere thought of appearing on stage is enough to cause us to break into a cold sweat and for our legs to turn to jelly. But for a group of budding actors in Louth, the development of a new drama initiative has turned their dreams of performing on stage into a reality—with the opportunity to display previously hidden abilities and talents.
In partnership with the North Eastern Health Board, RehabCare have developed ‘Encore Productions’, a dedicated drama company designed to allow people with learning disabilities immediate access to the world of drama. The drama company caters for fourteen people with a learning disability, half of the places from RehabCare, and half from the St John of God Brothers’ Hilltop Services. The project, the first of its kind in the Northeast, opened in January 2002 and operates three days a week from RehabCare’s Resource Centre in Dundalk.
‘Participants in the drama workshop are offered the opportunity to experience all aspects of the world of drama, including acting in live performances, dance, mime, set-building, script-writing, costumes, lighting and set-costing’ said Aveen Toner, Manager of RehabCare’s Resource Centre. ‘However, there is more to the project than pure theatrical skills. The project also develops other skills such as independent living, literacy, numeracy and communication.’
The basis of the drama workshop lies with the overwhelming success of the Bridge Theatre Company which was formed in November 1999, based in Newry. The Bridge Theatre Company was a unique cross-border initiative which offered 28 adults with learning disabilities the opportunity to come together and produce/perform in a number of theatrical productions, developing a range of personal skills in the process. Within weeks of forming, the Bridge Theatre Company had devised and written its first production, Ticket to Hitsville’. Not only did the production wow audiences, it also greatly impressed adjudicators at the Warrenpoint Drama Festival 2000-
This was one of the first occasions that a theatre company comprising people with learning disabilities had competed alongside mainstream groups. The passion and enthusiasm displayed by the cast members was reflected in the quality of their performance, and the production scooped no fewer than four of the Festival’s top awards, including ‘Best Actor’, ‘Best Comedy’ and ‘Best Singer’.
Although little over a year old, Encore Productions has followed in the footsteps of the Bridge Theatre Company, with many successes of its own. Encore’s production of Our Day Out’ was greeted by rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, when it was performed at Dundalk’s 2002 May Town Festival.
For Mary Frances McAteer, Bronagh Boothman, Oliver Hanratty and the many other cast members, Encore Productions offers a unique opportunity to learn a whole range of new skills that include speech and drama, dance, music, script-writing and creative design. It has provided them with the opportunity to express previously hidden abilities and talents. By contributing to the planning, organisation and performance of various productions, confidence levels among the cast members have grown. As Bronagh Boothman remarked, ‘I didn’t think I could do it, but now I know I can.’
The cast members’ ability to articulate their own views and opinions within a group setting has also improved significantly. Perhaps most importantly of all, the project offers people with learning disabilities an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends.
Encore Productions are currently preparing their latest production, incorporating music and dance—an adaptation of the Wizard of Oz written to mark the European Year of People with Disabilities. Aiming to raise awareness of disability issues, it focuses on the themes of independent living, work access, advocacy and housing. ‘The cast members were involved in every aspect of the production—the basic idea for the script, designing costumes, casting and directing the production’, says Helen Joyce, Programmes Supervisor at RehabCare Dundalk. ‘We plan to bring The Wizard of Oz to local schools and youth groups to encourage a greater understanding and insight among young people into the talents and needs of people with disabilities.’
The remainder of 2003 seems set to be a busy time for the cast of Encore Productions. Dundalk Town Council has provided funding for a writer-in-residence to work with the production company for the next six months. The writer-in-residence will not only run workshops, but will also be involved in creating a special production maximising the capabilities and talents of each service user.
If you are in the Louth area, keep an eye out for Encore Productions’ latest production. Not only will you be guaranteed quality entertainment, you may also spot a future star of the stage and screen.