Acting the part

“I’m pretty damn gorgeous,” declares Jane staring into a mirror delivering the opening line of the video Assert Yourself. Jane is played by Katharine Marshall, a member of a theatre group for people with learning difficulties.

The video, which follows a day in the life of Jane, is a bold attempt to train people with learning difficulties to stick up for themselves, and was commissioned by the Derby-based national charity Voice UK. The charity works with adults and children with learning difficulties who have been victims of crime or abuse, and provides support for their carers.

Kathryn Stone, Voice UK director, says: “We wanted to do something special. To deliver a video with dramatic quality and production values that would stand up in their own right. So we hired a writer, a commercial video production company and decided to use professional actors who have learning difficulties.”

The quality of the acting has impressed service users. “We thought the acting was very good and the story easy to follow,” say members of Derby Independent Voice of Self Advocacy and of Wetherby Day Centre service users’ committee, who prefer not to be named individually. “We all enjoyed talking about the video and how to make things better for yourself. We also think that it helps to show the abilities of people with learning difficulties – the acting is very good! It can be used to show parents, carers and other people with learning difficulties how talented some of us are.”

The other talented actors used in the video are Kelvin Syme and surely star-in-the-making Jon Tipton, who plays the on-screen narrator. Both young men, along with Marshall, are members of the Shysters Theatre Company – based at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre. A shyster is basically a con artist – someone who fools people. And the Shysters see their job as fooling audiences into believing their stories.

In October 2001, the Shysters took part in a production of Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Artistic director Richard Hayhow recalls: “About two years before the production, I was sitting in a cinema watching the film version and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant one day to do a version with the Shysters playing the mechanicals (the ‘labouring men’ – the name given to Bottom and his fellows) because they’d be perfect’. And wonderfully enough, the Belgrade Theatre took that on. It was a very adventurous and fully professional production: it was the main stage and part of the main house season.”

“It was scary being on the main stage,” says Syme. “Once you’re behind the shut curtain and you hear the audience coming in, it’s scary hearing their voices. And then silence. And then it comes to your scene. But you’ve just got to do it. If people ask me what I do – I say I work. I do acting.”

“When I was 14, I saw my brother in a performance of Robinson Crusoe at his school,” says Tipton. “I was sitting with my mum and I said to myself: ‘I just wish I could swap places, I wish he could sit down. I wish I could play that part’. From that day I’ve always wanted to become a professional actor.”

Voice UK contracted production company Creative Forum, whose clients include Guinness and Heinz, to co-produce the video. With camera, lighting and sound crew the three-day shooting schedule was an intense but enjoyable experience.

“Working with a group of people who were so committed was an extremely rewarding experience and very refreshing,” says Creative Forum’s Tony Judge, who directed the video. “The project had its challenges though – some of the subject matter was quite difficult to visualise let alone film, and this put quite a lot of demands on the actors who had bags of stage presence but little TV experience, so they had to learn a whole new approach.” But he adds: “I never thought I’d ever say, ‘I’m working with a bunch of Shysters’ and enjoy it so much!”

– Assert Yourself – A Training Video and Booklet for People with Learning Difficulties is available from Voice UK, £25. E-mail or call 08700 133 965. 

– For the Shyster Theatre Company tel: 024 7625 6431, ext 214 or For creative forum tel: 01773 591289 or or go to for video clips.


Scheme: Assert Yourself, a training video for people with learning difficulties.

Location: Derby.

Inspiration: To produce a professional video with dramatic quality and high production values.

Cost: £42,000 – funded by Department of Health, section 64 scheme of grants.

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