Ayrshire Magazine Talks To Suzanne Lofthus, Creative Director At Cutting Edge Theatre, About Its Ground-Breaking Production, Downs With Love, Along With Star Of The Show, Abigail Brydon
By Gill Sherry
I’d heard a lot about Downs with Love. Described as a powerful and emotive story of love and diversity, the story was written by Suzanne Lofthus for Cutting Edge Theatre and, at the time of our conversation, is about to begin a 14-date tour, including performances in Glasgow and Kilmarnock.
I begin by asking Suzanne about her own childhood and what inspired her to write the play.
“I lived most of my life in Aberdeen. I guess I was a little bit of a drama child. Growing up I was always putting on my own little shows.”
She tells me she was quite a shy teenager, until her friend took her along to a youth theatre.
“I remember walking in and just saying: Gosh, this is where I fit! That’s why I’ve remained committed to the type of work that I do, which is all about theatre making a difference.”
She remembers wanting to be an actor and, after accepting she wasn’t good enough, deciding to set up her own theatre company.
“I think I set up my first theatre company… and started directing… when I was 17. Then, if you leap forward a bit, I was working in the oil industry – as most people did in Aberdeen – and just felt… it wasn’t about the money, it was about quality of life and following your dreams.”
So, in 1995, Suzanne quit her job and moved to Edinburgh to set up Cutting Edge Theatre, a theatre that makes a difference.
The idea for Downs with Love had actually manifested itself some years earlier. While still living and working in Aberdeen, she developed an interest in working with disabled children.
“I always remember thinking: I’d love to do something but I don’t know what to do… it’s not my skill area. But it gave me an idea for a play… about a girl with Downs Syndrome. And then, if you fast forward about 30 years…”
I almost feel as though I’m on this journey with Suzanne, travelling back and forth between past and present as she tells me her story.
“I was teaching community theatre at Fife College,” she continues, “and they asked me to teach their disabled group which was completely out of my comfort zone. But I did… and into that group, very early on, walked Abigail Brydon.”
Remembering the idea she’d had three decades earlier, Suzanne wrote Downs with Love around Abigail’s own experiences, with Abi herself cast in the lead role of Beth.
“I’m happy to share my experiences in Downs with Love,” says Abigail. “I was excited to work on developing the script with Katie Milne and Suzanne. It helped me to build my confidence.”
Katie is a drama tutor for Inspire, a project run by Cutting Edge Theatre that uses drama techniques to empower people who have disabilities. Katie has been nominated for the ScottishPower Foundation Awards in the Charity Champion category for her work with Cutting Edge.
“We had to handle it very sensitively,” Suzanne says of their discussions with Abigail. “We did a lot of talking, scripting and improvising, but Abi was very upfront.”
The play incorporates three of Abigail’s own personal stories, one of which is about a drama group that rejected her, a story Suzanne describes as ‘heart-breaking’.
“When I turned up,” Abigail explains, “they told me there was no part for me. They told my mum they should have been made aware I have Downs. I don’t see why that is something I’d have to disclose before joining a drama group.”
Cutting Edge did a short test tour with Downs with Love in 2018 which was received really well. As a result, Creative Scotland has funded the new tour.
“The play has been re-written since then,” Suzanne divulges.
“It’s longer and we’ve incorporated more… we’ve dug a bit deeper into society’s views of disability, which has been interesting.”
The company has also introduced Access to Work, a publicly funded employment support programme that aims to help disabled people start or stay in work.
“It’s about equal access… and how to make our tour accessible for a learning disabled artist. We’ve got a lot of access in this production. It’s all BSL (British Sign Language) interpreted, there’s audio description. That’s what we believe in… working out how to make our tour accessible. And there’s a support worker for Abi.”
“I’ve also been learning some BSL from our BSL interpreter,” Abigail confirms, “some of which is used in the play.”
Despite the inclusive nature of Cutting Edge, Suzanne is still frustrated by, as well as driven by, the lack of positive representation on screens and stages in Scotland. Along with actor and writer, Stephen Arthur, who played the lead male role in Downs with Love in 2018, she has written a screenplay of the same name.
“It’s in development just now,” she confirms. “We have turned it into three episodes for television, which would be good.”
A big fan of TV soaps as well as dramas and mysteries, Abigail herself admits she would jump at the chance to appear on television.
“My ambitions are to be in films and soaps,” she tells me. “I’d love to be in Coronation Street.”
“Currently in Scotland,” Suzanne adds, “if somebody like Abi wanted to train as a performer with her peers in a supported environment… there isn’t anywhere for her to do that, which is shocking. So, along with other individuals and companies… we’re actively looking at how we can establish formalised drama training pathways for learning disabled people in Scotland.”
She admits it’s a massive vision that will take years to achieve but it’s something both she and Cutting Edge Theatre are determined to do.
In the meantime, she and Abi are excited about the upcoming tour.
“I like having an audience and knowing they’ve enjoyed the performance,” Abigail says. “I do get some butterflies but… I’ve learnt how to cope with it.”
I ask if she has any advice for other budding performers who may be nervous about giving it a try.
“They shouldn’t worry… stay calm and remember to breathe. Make sure you know your lines and put in the work. Most of all, go for it. Don’t let anything drag you down.”
Wise words from someone who is obviously comfortable on stage. But, as Abigail admits, it hasn’t always been easy.
“I got bullied at school… from an early age I learnt how to deal with discrimination. I do think I get discriminated against. Looking for jobs is particularly difficult. I think it’s harder to be taken seriously in the professional world and I don’t feel I’ve been given the same opportunities as other actors.”
With this in mind, Suzanne is busy creating a ladder structure designed to encourage equal access to the Performing Arts. This will ensure that those of all ages – primary school, secondary school, school leavers, adults and professionals – will all be able to enjoy what theatre has to offer.
From Abigail’s point of view, things are already looking up.
“I don’t feel any different to any other person working on the production,” she admits. “We’re all equal.”
And with that reassuring knowledge, I wish them both the very best of luck with the tour.