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A Stage for All

Steph Siegle takes a look at how the Baked Bean Company, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is working to showcase the talents of local people with learning disabilities.

In 1997, a six-week summer drama programme for people with learning difficulties launched in Wandsworth. Fast forward 20 years and that same programme has evolved to offer up to five classes a day in four different locations throughout Wandsworth and the surrounding boroughs of Merton and Sutton, bring singing, dance, drama, musical theatre, life skills and DJing to the area’s residents.

Founded by Jade and Nikko Hardrade- Grosz, the evolution of the company has been created by sheer demand and grown embryonically, says Director James Wheildon. The Baked Bean Company is now the over- arching company with ten different businesses working within it to deliver this wide spectrum of activities. “Our mission is to provide projects and groups that allow people with learning disabilities to know what they’re capable of doing and to make sure every day is a brilliant day for them,” explains James. “We still need to challenge preconceptions within society of learning disabilities and our ambition is for an equal society for everybody.”

The companies offer group activities for a range of ages, from aged 12 (the youth drama and dance group is for up to the age of 19) while the oldest participant is 78. The charity arm, the Baked Bean Company Charity, launched its first education project last year, Beans in Education, a drama group of actors with learning disabilities who perform short plays designed to educate the audience about what living with a learning disability is like. “We regularly work with various NHS trusts and local councils,” James adds, “for example, we were commissioned to write a play for the NHS, called April Fool, which tells the story of overcoming bullying. We perform plays at venues such as the Putney Arts Theatre and give our people the chance to show what they can do, through their acting, club nights, dancing and sport. We’ve also been commissioned to work with the police, social workers and nurses, including training on how to work with people with learning difficulties.”

What is key, adds James, is that the people participating create the ideas for the plays. “We encourage them to come up with their own way of saying something, it’s important that they use their talents, whether that’s reciting a monologue or promoting themselves on another part of the stage.”

Drama is also used to address certain issues, through the company’s dramatherapy scheme. “We’re lucky to have two full-time drama therapists, usually working on short pieces of work, and we’ve also developed a group called Personal Relationships, which teaches how to have appropriate relationships, how to behave in public and private.”

And what about the time world-famous actor Hugh Grant took to the stage with the company? “He was brilliant, a real boost for us and it was a brilliant opportunity for our guys to see how everyone can be a star of the show,” James laughs. “Hugh works closely with Baroness Hollins [Professor of the Psychiatry of Learning Disability at St George’s, University of London] and she’d written a book, which she asked us to turn into a play and that’s how we were lucky enough to have Hugh Grant appear with us.”

Holidays also form a major part of the Baked Bean Company’s focus. As well as overseas holidays, one of the most popular is to the Isle of Wight, says James. These are hugely significant because, on some occasions, this is the first time young people have been away without their parents. “Parents may struggle with their children moving on and coping, but they come away on these holidays and come back with a growing independence,” he says. While the company has around 25-30 staff, volunteers are a key part of the organisation and new volunteers are always welcome, particularly as there are groups running six days a week.

Are there plans for a big party to celebrate their 20th anniversary? “We’re hoping to celebrate later this year but we’ll also look at doing something big around our 21st,” adds James. “It will be a big thank you to all our students and actors and everyone that works with us.”

Hugh Grant joins local talent from the Baked Bean Company on stageThe Baked Bean Company