A hush falls over the studio rehearsal space in the Millennium Forum. The team of actors and actresses listen expectantly to what director, Kate Guelke, will tell them to do next - and then they do it, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary with the strength of their performance.
It’s a rehearsal day in the studio - one of two held every week by ‘Stage Beyond,’ an inhouse theatre group in the Forum whose members are made up of people with the learning disabilities.
But as Dee Conaghan, Artistic Manager of ‘Stage Beyond’ for the past 10 years, the group is all about “pushing expectations” and creating works of art which transcend traditional barriers.
It’s also, for the 23 members, a great social outlet and one in which they have the opportunity to work with people from the national and international theatre company of the highest standing.
With more than 20 years experience in the theatre industry, Dee has seen first hand that theatre can work in many positive ways to promote confidence, talent and social inclusion.
“I know that drama means so much to me in my own life,” Dee said, “that it has been a tool to get me through some difficult times - that I knew it was something that works brilliantly to help people build confidence.
“It is a safe place to explore emotions and feelings - and the flip side is that it helps you find the confidence to put your point of view across without the fear of getting things wrong.”
For the members of ‘Stage Beyond,’ as part of their outreach and education work, they have helped work with health and educational professionals to help them better understand what life can be like for a person with a learning disability.
“For example we worked with social workers on role playing exercises. We examined what it was like to be someone whose life has been decided for them - their daily routine laid out for them.
“With our actors, we did some role reversal. We asked the social workers to take on the role of the person with a learning disability while our actors challenged them about their routines and preferences. It was an eye opener for everyone.”
But educational performances are not the only thing Stage Beyond do. They have taken on some very serious performances - including a full length performance of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles Greek tragedy, Antigone. The Burial of Thebes was performed at the Millennium Forum last year before touring local schools - again as part of the company’s outreach programme.
With writer Ronan Carr, the group have examined the issues of internet safety, suicide, abuse and sexuality. “At times it was uncomfortable viewing - but it was a really powerful performance that was extremely relevant.
“It showcased the talent of our members,” Dee added.
As part of a high profile venture, the group works alongside the Lyric theatre in Belfast, arranging regular masterclasses.
As part of the ‘Off the Page’ Programme they are bringing the works of literary giants such as Seamus Heaney, Roald Dahl and Shakespeare to life in new and innovative ways.
In addition, the their outreach programme brings a tutor, newly appointed Mags Carlin, into a number of schools in the area to work on building confidence and theatre skills with young people.
“From the beginning this project has been very much led by our members. We are not a day care centre. People who are here, very much want to be here and have a passion for theatre and are committed to learning their craft.
“It is such a joyous experience to work with our actors. The great thing is that there is no ego - everyone wants the work we do to be the best it can be. Our members work incredibly well together.
“It is such a lovely environment to come into each day - and there is a real empathy among our members.
“The reality is, that perhaps sometimes people with learning disabilities live with low expectations their whole lives. But when people come here, they quite often are drawn out of their shells and embrace acting entirely.”
The next project for ‘Stage Beyond’ will be no less challenging than any of their previous works.
“We are working on Rashaman, a Japanese tale of a murder happening with four witnesses, each of whom have a different view of events.
“We will be staging it in the main auditorium of the Forum, putting our members once again on an impressive stage, where they belong.”