Chris Madden investigates Act Too, an entertainment company who help people with learning disabilities to get more from their lives.
By Chris Madden
The audience came to their feet applauding. The cast took their bows, soaking in the moment. Electric Mango’s There’s Something About Freddy, at New Wimbledon Studio Theatre, was a deserved success.
Electric Mango is a part of the Act Too organisation, a group who, in their own words, help people with learning disabilities to get more from their lives.
They do this by developing and performing shows and other projects designed to give their clients both independence and a voice.
“Drama is the tool, the focus is the people,” explained Act Too employee Lisa Biddle.
Based in the Wimbledon Community Centre, St George’s Road, Act Too has five theatre companies, a dance company, and both a DJ and outreach project.
All the groups have the same philosophy.
“Everything we do is a service provided” said Nikko Hardrade-Grosz, who founded the company with his wife Jade in 2000.
“The people who come to us are not the job, they’re our clients.”
Invited along to see the group in action one Friday I can see this ethos at work.
Sat in the hall during the lunch break it becomes very difficult to distinguish Act Too employees from their clients.
This group feel, Mr Hardrade-Grosz says, is one of the things Act Too strives for.
The company grew out of a 6 week project which Mr and Mrs Hardrade-Grosz hosted for the day care centre they were volunteering at.
Following the course’s run they seized an opportunity from social services to expand beyond the council’s day care setup.
So, Act Too was founded to sell the product direct to the clients.
“We went to the actors and asked them, ‘What do you want?’ The company was designed for them,” explained Mr Hardrade-Grosz
Charging their clients on a ‘pay for what you get’ scheme, the company believe less invoicing makes the service more personal by providing a direct link with the clients.
Looking back on their first new client arriving with their cheque in their hand, Mr Hardrade-Grosz’s said: “It was really eye opening. We knew we had a real responsibility to these people.”
Act Too works with Merton Council, who provide paid work, and often use the actors as a focus group.
The company develop shows in association with the council to raise awareness about the issues faced by people with learning disabilities.
These workshops, devised by the actors, are often taken on the road.
One group recently put on a show about booking on a personal budget.
While a recent workshop in association with St George’s Hospital looked at people with learning disabilities dealing with cancer-stricken loved ones.
The basis of the scheme is a two-way learning process.
The professionals learn to deal with people with learning disabilities, and the actors learn to interact with the professional world.
Act Too aim to encourage independence and confidence in their students, making them more outspoken with their own opinions.
“We try to empower all of our students who attend Beans using drama, dance, music and outreach groups,” Miss Biddle said.
“All the staff try to encourage independence and to enable not disable.”
All Act Too staff have a dramatic background, Mr Hardrade-Grosz explains that they are dramatists who become carers.
“Drama is a good way for disabled people to express themselves,” said Sarah Osman, a student a Reading University who volunteered with Act Too for her course and has stayed on.
“Act Too is a great support network for people.”
Indeed their projects extend well beyond the theatre.
Their London Calling outreach programme aims to compile a website of cheap, accessible places in London for people with learning disabilities while their housing scheme helps to set up members in their own houses.
The scheme offers direct care tailored to each participant.
“It gives them freedom,” said Mr Hardrade-Grosz, “they get to screw up like everyone else.”
Back at the Centre I am invited to watch the Chilli Beans, Act Too’s musical theatre group, in rehearsals.
The actors love the opportunity to sing and dance which Act Too and the Chilli Beans provide to them.
Clearly confident and comfortable in their surroundings some of them, it turns out, have just been filming for Simon Pegg’s new film.
“We’re the Chilli Beans, and we’re hot stuff” they shout with great enthusiasm.
Chilli Beans tutor Joanna Morrison explains that they are now working on a war musical.
As with all Act Too productions, the actors are creating and improvising the show. Deciding on their own characters and learning the dance routines the directors give them.
Mrs Morrison explains that the actors decide what they want to do, and she and her colleague help them bring the ideas to life.
They normally do one show a year, but they are taking 18 months to put this one together Mrs Morrison says.
The cast, meanwhile, have burst into their next routine, a couples dance to an old wartime anthem.
Act Too run groups Monday to Friday, with each group running two days. For more information visit www.acttoo.com or call 020 8944 0024