A new play about a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, currently touring Scotland, explores the subject of love and disability. Susan Mansfield meets the creative team and cast, including lead Abi Brydon, whose experiences growing up with Down’s helped shape the story
Abi Brydon has always known what she wanted to do. She wanted to be an actress, and she wasn’t going to let the fact that she has Down’s Syndrome stand in her way.
Can we accept a couple, one of whom has Down’s and one who does not, or would that make us feel uncomfortable?
Enter Suzanne Lofthus, the artistic director of Edinburgh-based theatre company Cutting Edge. She was impressed by Abi’s dream when she met her at Inspire, an acting workshop for young adults with additional support needs in Dunfermline. “I can be a bit of a raging bull sometimes,” she says. “When I hear someone say, ‘I want to do X’, I will do everything in my power. Abi said: ‘I want to be an actress’, I thought: why not? I think we can do that.”
Fast forward two years to a rehearsal room in Edinburgh. Abi, 24, is in rehearsals for her first professional production, Downs With Love, which is about to embark on a Scotland-wide tour. The cast of three is preparing for a run-through without scripts and everyone is worried about remembering their lines.
Abi is easily the most relaxed: “I love performing, and I’m really looking forward to going on tour and doing the play to new audiences in different venues. I’m just going to do my best.”
Fellow actors Stephen Arthur and Katie Milne say they find her inspiring. Arthur – seen on stage at the Fringe as the young Alan Longmuir, in Liam Rudden’s Bay City Rollers musical And I Ran With The Gang – says: “I’ve never met anyone who can learn lines as quickly as Abi. She knows the show inside-out. I’m worrying more about my own lines!”
Lofthus, who wrote the play, worked with Abi to devise the central character of Beth, drawing on her own experiences of growing up with Down’s. She was bullied at school because of her disability, and faced discrimination when she tried to join a local drama group.
“I had got in touch with the group and they said I could come along, but when I walked in, everyone fell silent. All the chatting stopped. One of the women quickly walked me outside and said they had no parts left. When my mum got in touch with them, they said: ‘You should have told us she had Down’s’.” But even this didn’t deter her from following her dream. She went on to study Acting and Performance at Fife College, and has appeared in a number of amateur productions.
Katie Milne, fellow actor in Downs With Love and lead tutor on Inspire in Fife, says: “You can’t hear a story like that and not want to challenge it. Abi’s family is really supportive, and she’s strong, but it could have been a very different story, she could have given up on her dream. I don’t want that to happen to someone else, someone who isn’t as outgoing and confident.”
Abi’s character, Beth, is a confident young woman who enjoys life and lives independently, sticking to her routines: scrambled eggs for breakfast, helping out in a local charity shop, and, on Friday nights, going to listen to Mark (Arthur), who sings in the local pub. Beth has her eye on Mark, but the problem is that her new support worker Tracy (Milne), starts to fall for him too.
It’s a heart-warming play, but at its heart are some serious questions. What do we think of as attractive? Why shouldn’t a person with Down’s Syndrome fall in love? Doesn’t everyone just want to be loved for who they are, without labels and preconceptions?
Lofthus says: “Downs With Love challenges us all to think about what we consider acceptable. Can we accept a couple, one of whom has Down’s and one who does not, or would that make us feel uncomfortable?
“I love watching audiences think about things, come away with questions. If we’re getting people thinking slightly differently, we’ve done our jobs.”
Having an actor with Down’s in the leading role is integral to the play, which won funding from the National Lottery People’s Project after being selected by public vote. “It feels unthinkable not to use an actor with Down’s,” Lofthus says. “Abi is in a very strong position throughout the play. She doesn’t leave the stage. We’re not aiding her in any way – we’re all equals on stage. She’s an actress in her own right doing what she does, and that makes the story even more powerful.”
Katie Milne says she’s glad the play is opening up the issue. “You don’t see this type of story being told, but I think it’s something that should be talked about. I work with adults and children with additional support needs and they do think about it, it’s a really hot topic. We’re discussing it in class, they’re talking about marriage and children and love and people they fancy – why not?
“What I love about the play is it doesn’t offer any solutions. It’s not a handbook on how to deal with the situation, it just puts it out there.”
Since Cutting Edge began its first Inspire class in 2012, the project has gone from strength to strength: there are now three classes in Fife and six in Edinburgh. Lofthus and Milne are full of stories of how participants have benefited, from increased confidence and self-esteem to improved speech and social skills.
It’s all the more remarkable because the project came about completely by accident. Lofthus says: “I was teaching drama at Fife College and they asked me to teach their community class. I thought I could do community theatre with my eyes shut, but the night before I discovered it was a class for young people with disabilities. I walked into the room and there were 14 young people with different needs, people in wheelchairs, people with Down’s, a guy with his fingers in his ears and his eyes shut. I had to throw out everything I’d prepared.
“At the end of the session, I went to the boss and said, ‘I’m not the right person for this, you’ll need to find someone else’, but I said I would teach the next week’s class. There was a boy there with Down’s: the first week he had sat in the corner for the whole session. The second week he did the warm-up and then sat down. At the end of the class, just to make conversation I said to him: ‘Did you have a good class?’ “He looked at me and smiled the biggest smile and gave me a thumbs up. I completely fell in love. I thought, if drama can do this, I need to do this.”
Now, her aim is to work towards raising funds for a purpose-built performing arts academy for young people with disabilities, modelled on the one run by Bradford-based company, Mind The Gap. She says that, at first, she worried because she wasn’t trained to work with people with additional needs. Now, that feels like a strength.
“One of the secrets of Inspire is we’re not experts in the field. If someone says: ‘He/she can’t do that’, ‘Somebody with Down’s can’t do this’, we tend to ignore it. I think that’s where we see our biggest breakthroughs.”
• Downs With Love is at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, today, 6 June; Theatre Royal Dumfries, 7 June; Platform, Glasgow, 10 June and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 12 June. For details see www.cuttingedgetheatre.co.uk