Gordon Smyth talks about going from joinery to heading up a theatre company for adults with learning disabilities
There's no mistaking the affection for Gordon Smyth at the Lilliput Theatre Company.
On Tuesday morning, with the sunshine bouncing off Derry’s Playhouse, Lilliput members are in rehearsal for their show ‘Farewell to the Foyle’ and it’s hugs galore for Gordon(63), who is retiring next week.
The company - for adults with learning disabilities - was Gordon’s brainchild.
When he trained as a joiner in the sixties, travelling from his home in the Waterside to Holland to work, Gordon couldn’t have imagined that decades later he’d be heading up a theatre company.
It was an initial short term contract at Stradreagh Hospital in Gransha which set the father of three on his current path.
“Times were bad back then and although I had to travel to Holland for work, I couldn’t settle,” said Gordon.
“So I came back and I saw that they were looking for someone to teach woodwork to people with learning disabilities in Stradreagh. It was a three month contract, but I thought I would apply and give it a go.”
Gordon was offered the job. “I loved it,” he smiled. “From day one it was great. Back in those days the work was 100 per cent with the clients. There wasn’t as much paperwork. Times were very different and we could focus totally on the people. I loved it from the very start.”
While working in Stradreagh, Gordon qualified as a social worker and when he was a Senior Day Care Worker in Stradreagh, Gordon spotted a notice in the paper for a one year drama course at Magee.
He enrolled in the course and during that year got his clients in Stradreagh actively involved in his course work. It was an organic introduction to the world of theatre for the group in an era where adults with learning disabilities did not generally get the chance to become drama students.
“The group absolutely loved it,” noted Gordon. “They didn’t want to stop doing it. When I had finished my course they said ‘can we not just keep doing it?’ and so we did.”
A 20 minute play donated by local writer, Jack Scoltock, led to the group’s first ever performance in the Playhouse.
“We put it on with a group of six,” said Gordon. “Jack Scoltock has been exceptionally good to us in that way and has given us a lot of work free of charge.”
That first show was a huge success. Gordon’s group then began to visit the Playhouse more and more and as changes within the Health Trust led to a more community led approach for adults with learning disabilities, the move to Artillery Street soon became a permanent one,
“Pauline Ross [Playhouse Director] asked us if we’d fancy becoming a residential theatre company and we’ve been here ever since,” said Gordon.
Those years in the Playhouse have seen Lilliput transformed from a small group into a force to be reckoned with in the world of the arts, education and drama. With the help of people like acclaimed writer, Dave Duggan, Lilliput have been widely praised for highlighting the challenges faced by people who have learning disabilities through drama.
The work has been so powerful that it is now used as an education tool for nurses and health workers.
“There are big changes for the better in terms of attitude,” continued Gordon.
“When I started out in this field the terminology which was used was awful and things have moved on. Peoples’ attitudes towards those who have learning disabilities are very different now. At one point, our members spoke about situations like being in the queue in the barbers and someone just ignoring them and skipping that queue saying out loud that they were in more of a hurry than the person with the learning disability.
Lilliput members have always wanted to stand up on stage and talk about those issues and I’m so proud of them for that.”
Gordon also claimed that being in the middle of the busy working environment of the Playhouse has also helped the members of Lilliput enormously.
“They’re in here working. In here, people don’t see the learning disability, they see the person.
When Pauline or Niall McCaughan [Playhouse Manager] see our members in the corridor, they refer to them by name. That builds so much self esteem. It’s amazing.”
The 23 members of Lilliput have become an extended family for Gordon. He’s has to hold back tears when he’s asked if he’ll miss it all.
“I think it’s all just hitting me now,” he declared.
Soon afterwards he says he’s not the best with technology. He wonders why people email more instead of picking up the phone or speaking face to face and says that those aspects of the work are the parts he won’t miss.
“I’ll be sad to leave the people. It’s always been about them for me.”
He’s seen what started as a group of six in Stradreagh Hospital grow successfully into a critically acclaimed working theatre company with 23 members. They’ve performed on stage in the Playhouse countless times. They’ve performed in Stormont and their work will continue to be viewed as a tool to educate professionals and the wider public.
Not bad for something which started out as the odd bit of a drama in the middle of woodwork lessons.
“They’ve done so well. So very well,” insisted Gordon. “Now my bit is done here and it’s time to hand it over.”