WHAT makes a good family? Love and support for each other are high on the list. As are encouraging the best from one another.
Those qualities are exactly what I find inside a Victorian building, bursting with life, in the centre of Gateshead.
The Lawnmowers are a theatre group for people with learning disabilities. But the feeling inside the group, one of laughter, enjoyment and support, is that of a family.
Gemma Bartley, 21, of Leam Lane, states: “We are one big family. I love coming to Lawnmowers, I’ve been coming since I was 17.”
Pady O’Connor has led the group for four years after being involved as a drama student.
He says: “We all take pride in our work. There is no need to patronise anybody, we’re working together to make great theatre. The company has really expanded and now in the building we’re starting to work as a very creative hub.”
Lawnmowers does political theatre as Theatre for Change, musical projects with Beat This and there are singing and dancing workshops.
Performing at NewcastleGateshead’s Juice Festival for young people are Lawnmowers Fools’ Ensemble. They perform without speech.
One of their star performers is Chris Moules.
Chris 24, from Northumberland, has been coming to the group for three years. He says: “I love everything about it.
“I love being on stage where I play Sanny the servant.”
Chris stops and selects a mask. He then performs a frankly brilliant mime for me, pecking at my dictaphone.
His acting is so good his father didn’t recognise him in his first performance, until he removed the mask.
There are members who have been with the group since it opened, and those who have been with the group months.
Andrew Robson, 22, of Hexham, Northumberland, has been with the group for over a year.
He says: “I love it here. I enjoy performing. Before coming here, I felt like there was loads of barriers right in front of me.
“Pady explained it to me. The more I work, the more I feel these barriers are broken down because I face these challenges, by myself or being part of the full ensemble.”
Keith Cox, 45, also from Hexham, said: “I like the masks and the sticks.”
Also in the group are Audra Wilkinson, also a part of Beat This, a drummer, George Copeland, 51, of Felling, Gateshead, and Andy Stafford, 51, who lives in Bensham, Gateshead.
Andy is one of the group’s longest-serving members.
He says: “I’ve been a Lawnmower since 1987.
“We were based in Newcastle and we had a student who came and did a placement, that was Pady, 13 years ago.
“I’ve also done Theatre for Change when we do a performance and get the audience to talk about what they’ve seen, and ask how they’d change something for the better.”
It is the Fools’ Ensemble that the group are focusing on at the moment.
Pady comments: “The ensemble started to explore the image of the red nose, and how we can explore humour in a positive way and also how there’s a difference to being laughed with to being laughed at.
“So it originally started as a two-week project to explore the red nose. It was like water off a duck’s back and now it’s four years on.
“We’ve performed the show all over Europe. We work very physically.
“I get great feedback.”
One of the most erudite, and respected members of the group is Andrew McLeod.
He says: “I think it’s highly important we share our work with others. We showcase what people with learning difficulties do. Working with us always opens people’s eyes.
“Some people have prejudices thinking ‘they can’t do this’ or ‘they can’t do that’. But when they actually come and see a show they go, ‘wow, you can really act’.
“My parents have always been there for me but I know some parents and carers out there have no idea. They come to a show and see what their children are doing and they think ‘oh my son [or daughter] is talented’ and they learn people with disabilities can be talented.
“People are gobsmacked. It’s like they can’t believe you’ve done it.
“They say how do you do that? Where do you get your energy from? How do you get that rhythm.
“At Lawnmowers I think we all feel happy and proud of ourselves. ”
Changing people’s ideas about those with learning disabilities is, Andrew says, a hugely important part of the theatre group.
Andrew continues: “A lot of places we go people have ideas about us and what we’re going to be like, or we go places where people haven’t had anything to do with people with learning disabilities, but after they’ve seen the show or had a chat with us, they say straight away: ‘I’ve had really bad concepts about what people with disabilities were like, but now I’ve met you it’s changed my concept of what people with disabilities are like and what they can do.”
I’m invited back to Andrew’s home in Ushaw Moor, Durham.
His parents Alex and Alice McLeod, both 63, live with his brother David, 36, who has severe learning difficulties.
As a family they are close, but Alex adds you cannot underestimate the impact that groups like Lawnmowers have on their own family life.
Alex says: “When you have these children you become very, very humble.
“You find that your life becomes devoted to them. You have to stop living the life you have been and live it for them. Because if you don’t, there is not a lot for them.”
One of the best things Alex says he’s done for Andrew is get him involved with Lawnmowers and he’s noticed a remarkable change in him since he’s been going.
He states: “Andrew is not only helped by the group but he’s a mentor for others now.
“It’s amazing, I’m so proud of him, he’s gone from being incredibly shy and insecure to being more self-confident.”
Andrew was referred to the group after he went to the Krocodile Klub disco run in connection with Lawnmowers.
Alex takes up the story: “He was on a course and the funding was withdrawn.
“So I went to Lawnmowers and asked if they’d consider Andrew. They said yes. From the start I was impressed with how they worked with Andrew as a person and how it helped him.”
Alex explains that Andrew suffers from anxiety but Lawnmowers has helped him.
He comments: “He became more involved in it. He stopped going to day centres because he was putting the time in the Lawnmowers and was really developing. Andrew is really a different man.
“If Lawnmowers went away, he would definitely take a step backwards. Not only because it’d deprive him of that family but it’d deprive him of the ability to help others with greater problems than himself.”
He adds: “Pady has been quite a transformation. He’s a perfectionist which is a great thing. He gets the best out of them. Seeing the shows they achieve, it’s no wonder they’re more confident.
Alex says: “Thanks to Andrew’s new confidence he’s looking at independent living.”
Lawnmowers Fools’ Ensemble are running workshops as part of the Juice Festival on Tuesday, October 25.
Join members of the Fools’ Ensemble for these high energy workshops in clowning and masks. Each group will give a short demonstration of their work, before everyone joins in. No experience needed.
For more information call 0191 478 9200, or visit www.thelawnmowers.co.uk.
For ages eight plus, youngsters with learning disabilities are especially welcome.