Drama group going a Stage Beyond to boost self-confidence and belief of performers with learning difficulties

Stage Beyond in Derry is setting the theatre world alight with clever productions from its talented cast and dedicated leaders. Gail Bell spoke to artistic director Dee Conaghan and chairperson Bernie Shiels to find out more

As well as putting on 'very, very good shows', Stage Beyond brings artistic opportunities to people with learning difficulties, while also helping them develop confidence, find their voice and learn about team-building and friendship
As well as putting on 'very, very good shows', Stage Beyond brings artistic opportunities to people with learning difficulties, while also helping them develop confidence, find their voice and learn about team-building and friendship

AS artistic director with award-winning theatre group, Stage Beyond, Dee Conaghan has usually plenty to say: an encouraging word here, some supportive advice there... something to boost the self-belief and confidence of the talented troupe of adults with learning difficulties who are radically changing perceptions of drama in Derry.

How strange, then, to think that the director and a founder member, a woman who makes it her business to galvanise and guide, to help the marginalised in society not just find their voice, but to use it effectively on stage and off, once thought she might never speak up again herself.

Dee Conaghan was just nine years old, living through the Troubles in 1970s Belfast, when she witnessed her father, Judge Rory Conaghan, being shot and killed by an IRA gunman posing as a postman.

A terrified child, standing beside her dying father, time stood still and became meaningless. Conaghan, who was championed recently for her dedication to arts provision for young people with learning disabilities in a National Lottery People's Portraits series (created by the digital artist, Yoniest Chun), says the experience made her retreat into herself, effectively shutting her down and initiating a "switch off" from all influences, good or bad, waiting outside the confining sanctuary of her bedroom.

And then she found drama. "That was what saved me; it was a sort of life-saver that reached in deep and brought me back to the surface so I could breathe again," she says.

"My mum and I moved to Derry and a woman called Eithne McCloskey – a real 'drama' person in the city and an incredible woman, ahead of her time – just took me under her wing.

"Drama rescued me and helped me connect with people – and with the world – again. So, after I found my voice, I was very much about helping other people find theirs.

"I wanted people struggling in different ways to find their confidence because I myself had been so aware of the positive impact drama had had on me."

It was while working on various creative initiatives, whether at the Playhouse (where she worked as programmer for many years) or Verbal Arts Centre in Derry, that Conaghan – who holds a degree in drama and also won a scholarship to study stage design at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London – began to devise projects "specifically geared" towards people with learning difficulties.

"My interest grew and I was really astounded at the lack of provision," says the artistic director and mum to grown-up son, Rory and Gabrielle (11).

"I was so passionate about it because I had discovered, as a child, the difference good drama can make to how you think, how you act, how you feel and how you perceive people – whether in a small way or in a way that is totally transformative.

"So, a friend of mine, Patsy Devine – who had worked in the arts for many, many years – and I got together and worked on a number of projects that opened up access to the arts for people with learning difficulties. Stage Beyond just grew out of that.

"We started off with 11 members in 2002 and initially it was just ourselves doing the workshops, but I wanted to develop the idea and bring in professional people, to offer their expertise.

"I thought, 'Why shouldn't participants have the opportunity to work with the very best in the business?' so we started reaching out and asking others to join us."

Conall Morrison, associate director at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, was one of those keen to loan his talents. The celebrated Shakespearian director was involved with the group's recent production of Hamlet, Prince of Derry (after being adapted by Colin Murphy and aired by RTE during the pandemic, it went on to win Best Digital Drama at the 2021 New York Festivals Radio Awards). He will be working again with the group for a new, as yet unnamed, 2024 show set to tour across the north and into the Republic.

Based at the Millennium Forum and supported by National Lottery funding through the Arts Council, Stage Beyond has also showcased its first film. Mind the Time, first shown at Foyle Film Festival, won Best Artists Film at the Together! 2022 Disability Film Festival in London. There have also been significant successes for individual members, including actor and Equity member Bryan Sutherland who recently gained a highly respected silver RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) Shakespeare Award.

But, as Conaghan sagely points out, it isn't all about audience applause; often the most meaningful moments sneak up quietly in day-to-day interaction and conversations.

"We work with a number of disabilities – people on the autistic spectrum, those with Down's syndrome," she says. "This year it was great that we were able to work with Doreen Curran, a [Derry-born] mezzo-soprano who came in and did some voice work with our members.

"It was incredible – there was one person who was quite quiet and wouldn't have pushed themselves forward for things and after a couple of months working with Doreen, she gave this most incredible interview on the radio.

"Another person can now travel independently and someone else we worked with in an outreach project said afterwards that the most important thing he had learned was to just to say, 'Hello'. Obviously it is about artistic development, artistic skills, but the flip side of what we do is developing the self."

Bernie Shiels, chairperson and another founder member who has been with Stage Beyond since the outset and herself has "a mild learning disability", says the group has helped her develop in all aspects of life.

"I was so shy and had a bad experience at school," she recalls, "but I learned to become confident on stage, as well as off it. Last year I was given an award for Inspirational Chairperson at the Arts and Business Awards – I never thought something like that would happen to me.

"Our recent performance in St Columb's Hall was a variety show – Unstoppable – and showed everyone's different talents. It was amazing.

"I was involved with different acts, but at the start I also had to make a speech. I had to talk in front of all these people which was nerve-racking, but I did it. I would never had seen myself do that 20 years ago."

Such has been the reach and success of Stage Beyond that a new sub-group has been set up in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, because Conaghan says "so many people were coming over the border to join us in Derry" and she felt it important that the group did not become over-stretched or unmanageably "massive".

"Stage Beyond is about confidence, about voice, about working with others, about team-building, about friendships – as well, of course, as being about putting on very, very good shows," she adds, with a laugh.

"Sometimes, I think people with learning difficulties suffer from other people's low expectations. We say everybody has a talent and it is really up to us to work out what it is – what it is that fires your passions and how we can connect in. That's really what we do. It is very satisfying to see; it is an absolute joy. It kind of feeds your soul."

:: Stage Beyond will be performing A Midsummer Night's Dream (Pyramus and Thisbe) as part of Derry Strabane Culture Night on Friday, September 22, at the Guildhall, Derry. They will also be back at the Guildhall on October 7 as part of the Bounce Arts Festival and will also be undertaking a 'Hi-Vis' schools tour (The Great Dictator) in the North West and Belfast. stagebeyond.com