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Kaleidoscope Theatre's story a trailblazing drama

Telford | News | Published:

Shropshire's Kaleidoscope Theatre group was the first of its kind in the world and opened up so many closed doors for youngsters with Down's Syndrome. Ben Bentley finds out more.

In breaking a leg, they have broken down barriers. When Kaleidoscope Theatre established 30 years ago as a platform for the performing talents of young people "who happen to have Down's Syndrome", the company faced all manner of closed doors, writes Ben Bentley.

"On the day of our first rehearsal we thought it would be rather nice for it to be mentioned in the local press that this pioneering theatre company was about to appear on the scene," says founder member Carolyne Revell, who founded the Shifnal-based company with her husband John.

"When however we contacted the paper we were informed that they weren't allowed to take photos of young people with special needs. We could not understand why they were under this illusion.

"It shows how much things have changed in the last 30 years. Kaleidoscope has always been about challenging perceptions and blazing a trail."

The first company of its kind, Kaleidoscope began life one foggy October morning in 1980 when Carolyne and John, teachers at a special school in the West Midlands, had the idea of forming a theatre group outside the classroom.

"There was no other company in the world like it," says Carolyne. "We were the first, working with young people with special needs and Down's Syndrome. It was unique.

"We realised fairly early on that young people we were teaching had a great deal to offer, especially in terms of creative activity such as music, art, drama and dance."

They began writing new productions during school time "behind those huge registers they used to have".

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That Christmas Kaleidoscope performed its first show in front of 50 people. "Not only were young people getting involved but they were coming on in leaps and bounds in discipline, self esteem, language, movement and having a sense of working together as a team," says Carolyne.

"The whole person was being developed, not just with the young people but with the volunteers who came to help from all walks of life."

The following summer with members aged between five and 19, Kaleidoscope set off in a small van for a drama tour in Hull. It was the start of a cultural adventure. Many had never left their home town or seen the sea, yet here they were, living in a community hall on camp beds and being brought bags of potatoes from an allotment.

In 1982 they expanded the tour to take in Norfolk, where they performed in churches and village halls and by 1985 they were performing annually at the Edinburgh Festival with 25 youngsters with a music, dance and language production called Moonshadow.

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Performing in a church there were 25 people at the first performance and by the second the venue was full.

"By the third or fourth we were turning people away and from that moment on we went to the Edinburgh Festival every year until 1995. The festival was a turning point for us," says John.

As a result they were asked to perform at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, booked to help "change the Stratford attitude".

Jeremy Sceats, 34, says: "It was absolutely amazing at the RSC. All those famous actors who have performed there . . . and there we were too."

The group, who live in together in a sprawling house near Shifnal, went on to represent Britain at an international theatre festival in Liverpool, and as a result it was invited to represent Britain in Budapest. In 1992 they flew half way around the world to the land of the rising sun to play Yokohama's finest theatre in front of 1,000 people.

Which itself turned into something of a drama.

"Customs wanted to know what we had got in our costume basket," John recalls. "We were doing an Arthurian play and went through this machine whereupon one of our swords stuck to the magnet.

"The customs officer was saying 'No swords! No swords!' Three swords were confiscated."

The group went on to win a theatre award from the International Amateur Theatre Association. During a presentation performance the acting legend Alec Guinness watched their performance.

"He was fast asleep," says Carolyne. "We thought he was going to miss it but he woke up just in time and watched every bit of it.

"Afterwards he stood up, came over and shook all our hands. He said it was one of the best pieces of theatre he had ever seen."

Kaleidoscope would get used to the star treatment. Over the years they have performed with David Bradley, Jerome Flynn, Susan Hill, Glenys Kinnock, Antony Sher, Richard Stilgoe and Alan Titchmarsh (twice). Judi Dench is a patron and Wendy Craig is often in the audience.

Kaleidoscope's young thespians have made countless appearances on radio, television and in the press over the years, appearing in A Touch of Frost on the small screen and in the movies Shooting Fish and Titanic Town with Julie Walters.

They have, however, turned down as many screen performances as they have appeared in.

"Very often we don't like the scripts," says Carolyne. "We turned down £5,000 for Peak Practice.

"They got another girl with Down's Syndrome and made her look her look far less able than she actually was in reality. And we turned down Casualty because they wanted five young people with Down's Syndrome for an episode, but the script was wrong.

"We were told 'Nobody's ever turned down Casualty'. We are trying to change people's attitudes - they don't realise the damage they can do, and millions of people watch these shows."

Kaleidoscope actress Saleta Izquierdo, 34, was cast as the daughter of one of Julie Walters' neighbours in Titanic Town, the 1998 film about the Belfast struggles in the 1970s.

"It was absolutely amazing, Julie Walters was so nice and talked to everyone, carrying trays of drinks and running round on set," she says.

And the theatre company saved the final scene on the 1997 film Shooting Fish starring Kate Beckinsale.

"They needed more youngsters and I rang round and nearly everyone I asked agreed to come down to the set," says Carolyne.

Kaleidoscope actress Eve Washington, 31, says: "We went to the opening night in Leicester Square, which was incredible. They cleared the red carpet for us."

But despite such high profile performances the group remain passionate about their roots in Shropshire, and can often be seen performing at National Trust venues.

"We have done all these amazing theatres, represented Britain, played the RSC and been in film and TV, but do you know - we get so much pleasure performing locally in Shropshire.

"And there are more people seeing the local shows than seeing three or four nights in a huge theatre."

Jeremy adds that performing at non-theatre venues helps to attract a new audience that might not have previously considered going to a theatre.

Carolyne continues: "The whole point of Kaleidoscope is to break down barriers so that we become an integrated company."

Living together has helped too.

"We discovered that when we were with youngsters 24 hours a day you can make fantastic strides forward in all aspects of living," says Carolyne.

As they prepare to perform a summer festival John refers to a poster which has made Kaleidoscope the main attraction and says: "How often do you see a festival with a youngster with Down's Syndrome on the front of the flyer?

"That's a million miles from the idea that a newspaper says it won't take a photograph!"

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