Thirty years ago, actor and director Gaynor Lougher co-founded Cardiff's Hijinx Theatre with Richard Berry. What began as two actors touring out of the back of an old estate car has grown into a company of international repute, described by The Guardian as "small scale perfection".
Lougher's vision was years ahead of the game: she encouraged Welsh theatre to recognise that working with an inclusive cast of actors was an opportunity too good to be missed. Thanks in large part to Lougher's rigorous inclusive productions, Hijinx has spread that message nationally, attracting such high-profile companies as Complicité, Frantic Assembly and Hoipolloi, to run residencies at the Hijinx Academy.
Gaynor Lougher's work has had another consequence, less told but every bit as vital. It has impacted enormously on the lives of individual learning-disabled actors and audience members, giving them something of incalculable worth.
Back in 2008, I covered Lougher’s Full Circle for the British Theatre Guide. It was a joyful, life-affirming production and remains a defining moment in my family’s story.
Sat at my side that night was my son, Tom. He was 12 years old and, in addition to all the usual pre-teen torments, Tom was starting to struggle with the fact of his Down syndrome. He didn’t want Down syndrome, he said. He wanted ‘up syndrome’ like all his friends at the mainstream school he attended.
Tom sat quite literally on the edge of his seat, transfixed, as Gaynor’s production threw a spotlight on emerging talent Gareth Clark, who also has Down syndrome and who was making his professional debut. Full Circle gave Tom something he might otherwise never have experienced: a role model.
At the stage door after the show, Tom told Clark, "I want to be you"; a huge about-turn from the young lad who had so desperately wanted 'up syndrome'. After Clark autographed Tom's programme, he looked him right in the eye, grinned and told him, "Go for it!".
Seven years on, Tom is training for life as a professional actor at the Hijinx Academy and is in rehearsal for his first public performance as part of this year's Unity Festival. He now counts Gareth Clark as a friend, although he is still just a little bit star-struck.
Role models matter; Gaynor's work changed everything for Tom.
These are trying times for disabled adults in the UK. Theatre and, for that matter, professional training for actors should hold itself up as a beacon of inclusion to the rest of society. With imaginative casting and creative choices, theatre can showcase inclusive working practice as a rich seam of opportunity, not an unworkable burden. Manchester Royal Exchange did precisely that last October, casting actress Sarah Gordy, who has Down syndrome, in a non-disabled role in Crocodiles.
As others take up the baton, Gaynor feels the time is right for her to move on. “Hijinx has been a huge part of my life”, she said. “I have worked with fantastic, talented and inspiring people and now I look forward to stepping into the unknown, exciting world as a freelancer, hungry for new challenges.”
Tom and I offer her our deepest thanks.