Down Syndrome actor steps up to the mark in groundbreaking new play

AS a versatile young actor Mark Blevins is used to playing different roles, but this week he takes on his most challenging yet as the lead in a groundbreaking new play about Down’s Syndrome.

The 19 year-old from outside Lawrencetown has been working hard over the past number of weeks perfecting his lines - and coping with ridicule and bullying while living the hard luck life of his alter-ego, Luke Sharkey.

And while some of his fellow cast members in ‘Down’s But Not Out’ have been struggling with the hard-hitting lines in the script, Mark has been the first to reassure them “it’s only acting”.

This empathy with his peers is all the more significant because as well as playing a young person with Down’s Syndrome, Mark has the genetic condition himself.

Written by Lurgan man Raymond Murray, the play exposes the benighted attitude to Down’s Syndrome prevalent in the Sixties compared to today, when young people with a disability have the benefit of increased educational, employment and recreational opportunties which parents 50 years ago could only dream about.

As a father of a Down’s Syndrome child himself, the writer has drawn on personal experience in part, but for the early years relied on research and anecdotal evidence for the play which opens in Lurgan Town Hall on Thursday (December 1st).

“During the scenes set in 1960, there are some very harsh moments for Mark to endure,” says Raymond, a father-of-three and Housing Executive employee who writes plays in his spare time. “His condition is ridiculed, but I’ve tried to recreate how it might have been and he has shown great maturity in accepting this.

“I certainly haven’t hidden behind any hedges with the script, but it’s not all tough for Mark, as the scenes in 2010 allow him to show how full a part people with Down’s Syndrome play in modern society. Indeed, this contrast between 1960 and 2010 is the principal theme of the play.”

A frequent performer with Stagestruck in Banbridge and Craigavon-based MADS (Moyraverty Arts and Drama Society), Mark has been involved in amateur drama since the age of four, garnering copious medals along the way and going on to gain a GCSE in the subject - impressivley obtaining an A-grade in the practical part of the exam.

He most recently appeared in Bugsy Malone, a youth theatre project which ran at Belfast’s Grand Opera House during the summer.

However, despite its poignancy, the play is also laced with humour, as Raymond seeks to lighten the emotional roller coaster journey awaiting his audience: “It was a challenge to strike the right balance between between entertainment and education,” he says, “but I have hope I have managed it.

“Laughter is important of course, but I also wanted to show the disrespectful way people with Down’s Syndrome used to be treated and how they were subjected to awful names like ‘mongol’ or ‘simple’ which are taboo today.

“Maintaining the dignity of the condition was a priority and to have cast someone else in the lead role would have run a real risk of mocking the very thing I am seeking to bring to public attention.

“I am 52 now, but even I remember a dismissive attitude to the condition when I was growing up. Education in mainstream school was just not an option and neither was employment. I wouldn’t go so far as to say prejudice has totally gone away - you only have to go back to 2006 to find out that 92 per cent of women chose to abort Down Syndrome babies - but things are definitely moving in the right direction.

“Mark is a real living example of how things have moved on in 2011 - he holds down two part-time jobs, is still in education and arrives at our weekly rehearsals well prepared and never missing a line.”

For the star of the show, it has been a labour of love while sending home an important personal message: “I am bullied in the play, but it doens’t upset me as it’s only acting. There are also really funny bits as well, so I would say to everyone, ‘come for a night’s craic and learn more about Down’s Syndrome’.”

For Mark’s mother Ann, some of the scenes are deeply uncomfortable, but she, like the play’s author, believes the whole unpalatable truth needs to be told.

“There are really emotional scenes and at the start I worried about them,” she says, “but the message is very positive. As a family we are very proud of Mark and what he has achieved. You have to remember that years ago, people with Down’s Syndrome wouldn’t even have had the chance to act in a play like this.”

‘Down’s But Not Out’ starts at 7.30pm at Lurgan Town Hall on Thursday, 1st December, and runs for three nights. Tickets cost £6 and are available from McConville’s Shoe Shop in North Street, Lurgan; Mallon’s Butchers in Edward Street, Lurgan; the Downs and Proud Facebook page, or by calling 07894321975.

The play is also running at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, next May and is being entered in the 2012 Lislea Drama Festival in February.