On 4 November, the Baked Bean Theatre Company played to a packed house at an arts festival in Wandsworth, south London. The 150-strong audience, which included the borough’s mayor, and its social services director and deputy director, gave the actors a standing ovation.
The production, The Usual Misfits, was devised and performed by 16 actors with learning difficulties. Like the company’s other productions, it was the result of a process that started with role-play and improvisation invested with individuals’ experiences and feelings about what life was like with learning difficulties.
Act Too runs this company and three others for people with learning difficulties. Director Jade Hardrade-Grosz says: “We get the challenging cases – the window-smashers, the angry young men who have often been excluded from day centres.”
The Baked Bean Theatre Company grew out of a summer project six years ago at a social education centre in Wandsworth. “It was meant to last six weeks but it was so popular that it just kept going,” Hardrade-Grosz says. Later, Wandsworth social services invited ideas for options for day care for people with learning difficulties. She and her partner, Nikko, put in a successful proposal to set up Act Too.
She says: “The bid was that we would provide drama services to 16 people a day from the four day centres in Wandsworth, five days a week, and the funding – £65,000 in the first year – would cover salaries, transport, care, resources for the classes, everything.”
In 2000, after the initial two years’ backing, the couple made Act Too a limited company. “Now social services departments buy spaces from us for their clients. Our main contract is still with Wandsworth for 16 people a day, and anyone over and above that is referred directly through the social worker and is paid for,” says Hardrade-Grosz.
Act Too has 15 staff and a theatre in Merton, where the workshops are held. It also has a shop where people with learning difficulties can sell their artwork.
Jamie Ebberson, 26, is an Act Too success story. He says: “I used to do things like break windows, shout and scream if I couldn’t get my own way. I used to get angry. Once I jumped off a roof. Now I can control my temper and I don’t do that kind of thing. I feel like a different person. I’ve done loads of shows.”
Jamie’s behaviour has improved so much that he can now work part-time as a classroom assistant for Act Too. “I put out the chairs and tables and the teas and coffees, I take the rubbish out and clean the floor. It’s brilliant,” he says.
The workshops aim to help troubled clients such as Jamie to focus their energy and express their feelings of anger appropriately. At the same time, Hardrade-Grosz points out, the content of the drama workshops is mainstream – in fact they have been accredited by a national training organisation, providing the students with a recognised qualification in performing arts.
Some of Act Too’s members are using their new-found acting skills in interactive role-playing and patient simulation exercises with nursing students at King’s College Hospital, London, psychologists at Exeter University and trainee doctors at St George’s Hospital, London. The idea is to teach these future professionals to communicate effectively with people who have learning difficulties.
The actors love it – and they are paid. Hardrade-Grosz says: “Every play, lecture and workshop they do for other people is paid – which is only right, but it’s also empowering for them. They are paid £15 a performance – just ‘therapeutic earnings’, as we don’t want it to affect their benefits.”
Her advice for anyone thinking of setting up something similar is simple. “Keep going. It is so worth it to be able to run a project that’s needed and that you can see the good results from. Initially people might be unsure and not ready for change – but persevere and it will all come.”
– Act Too, No 3, The Show House, Merton Abbey Mills, Merton, London SW19 2RD, tel: 020 8542 9944, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Scheme: Act Too Theatre Company.
Location: South west London.
Staffing: Has increased from two to 15 in five years.
Inspiration: To provide drama workshops as an alternative to day care for people with learning difficulties and to put on theatrical productions based on their experiences.
Cost: First-year funding from social services was £65,000; now a company with an annual turnover of nearly £300,000.