Oh yes they can - the panto with a special cast

Five of the children taking part in Cork’s Everyman Theatre pantomine have special needs. They love singing and dancing says Áilín Quinlan and it does wonders for their sel esteem.

Oh yes they can - the panto with a special cast

Why on earth, says the expression on the face of seven-year-old Siún Marron, is she sitting here talking to the lady from the newspaper?

There are clearly more pressing matters to attend to – such as rehearsals for the Everyman Cinderella Christmas Pantomime now in full swing down the hall.

But Siún is a polite little girl, and does her best to be patient.

Yes, she says, casting a flurry of anxious glances at the door; she really, really loves doing Panto.

Her favourite bit is dancing with all her friends; Megan, Eimear, Leah and Clodagh.

She wriggles on her chair, sending a pleading glance to her mum Eimear.

“Can I please go to my rehearsal now?” she begs.

Permission granted, Siún vanishes.

This is her second pantomime, Eimear explains – last year, Siún, a student at the Cork Academy of Dramatic Art (CADA) since the age of four, also appeared in the Everyman Theatre’s Jack and the Beanstalk.

Drama and the culture of panto has had a hugely positive influence on her daughter, Eimear says.

”She just thrived; she became more independent. She loves it! Her coordination has also improved from the dancing.”

Siún, who has Down Syndrome, is one of five child cast-members with special needs appearing in the Cinderella Pantomime which begins at the Everyman on Saturday December 6th.

Another is teenager Sadhbh O’Callaghan from Montenotte.

She’s equally enthusiastic about acting in the pantomime – though this is Sadhbh’s first time participating.

“I love acting,” says Sadhbh (15), a huge fan of The X-Factor and The Voice, who started with CADA at the age of five.

“I’d love to be on the TV and be in front of people,” she declares, adding that during rehearsals for her role as one of the villagers in this year’s panto, she really enjoys “meeting with my friends and getting up onstage!”

“I’d be nervous at first in front of a big crowd, but I find it exciting – my favourite bit is being on-stage with everyone watching and listening to me!”

Drama has had a hugely positive influence on Sadhbh’s confidence and self-esteem, believes her mum Ellen:

“She has benefited socially and made a whole new network of friends.

“Her memory, elocution, sense of balance and coordination and movement have all improved from the dancing and the other activities that she does.”

It’s been eight years since Catherine Mahon Buckley, Director and Producer of this year’s Cinderella Pantomime at the Everyman Theatre, began to run classes for children with special needs at her Cork Academy of Dramatic Art, and five since she began to include the children in the Christmas pantomimes.

“It’s been a huge success,” she says, adding that the children love to sing and dance.

“We look for their strengths,” she says.

“You use their strengths and stretch them to reach their potential.”

In all children between the ages of four and 18, make up just under half of this year’s 64-strong Cinderella cast, which includes Voice of Ireland winner 2013, Keith Hanley (Prince Charming) , Clodagh Downey (Cinderella), Frank Twomey (Cattie Buttons), Fionula Linehan and Ciaran Bermingham (The Ugly Sisters) and Kelly-Ann Murphy (The Fairy Godmother).

“What we strive for is sparkle,” says Mahon Buckley, “ that quiet confidence in themselves without being in your face. I tell them that if you’re good the audience tells you – you don’t tell the audience.”

Months of preparation have gone into Cinderella, which is running form December 6th to January 11th – some 40 performances including weekend matinees.

The process started as far back as last February, with the selection of the creative team – music director , choreographer, set designer, consumes and lighting designers and writer; the children have been rehearsing since October 17th :

“I love working with children because they bring an innocence and a rawness to a show that adults are incapable of giving,” says Mahon Buckley.

“Children have so much energy, vitality and creativity. I love the kids to take ownership of the pieces.

“I think that you’re exploring their strengths and bringing out what they’re capable of.”

The work is demanding, admits Eamon Nash, Musical Director, so all child actors work in pairs, using a ‘shadowing process.”

“It’s a peer learning system,” he says, although a lot of work is done at home.

“All children have to learn three main songs and some children learn other songs on top of that. Some children could be learning four or five songs.

“We have a rehearsal every Sunday and they all practise at home using recordings.

“A huge amount of work goes into it.”

Appearances by child actors are staggered over the long, five-week run - child actors generally do about one show in three or four.

One of the benefits for special needs children in particular is the sense of inclusion in society, she believes.

“They love to dance, they love music and it makes them feel part of society; they’re respected.”

Panto, says Mahon Buckley, is not just for children. It’s for everyone – and for the child within all of us:

“We have adults coming on their own because there’s a child in all of us.”

“Don’t ever allow the child within you to die because life would be very boring!”

*“Cinderella” is at The Everyman from Saturday, 6th December and runs until Sunday, 11th January, with 2pm matinees and 7.30pm evening performances – see www.everymancork.com for the full performance schedule. Booking: Online at www.everymancork.com or Box Office: 021 4501673.

On Magic Monday, December 15th and Fun Friday, January 9th all tickets are just €15.The evening performance on Friday, 2nd January, will also feature full sign language interpretation.

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