Stage Beyond Artistic Director Dee Conaghan has been championed for her dedication to arts provision for young people with learning disabilities which has now seen her profiled in the UK-wide National Lottery People’s Portraits Series.

Dee Conaghan, Artistic Director of Stage Beyond Theatre Company, has received national recognition for her work.

The co-founder of the award-winning Derry-based Stage Beyond Theatre Company, is among several inspirational individuals being celebrated for making the arts more accessible to all, including having striking portraits created by artist Yoniest Chun.

Chun, known for his cartoon-inspired work, has created a digital piece of art that immortalises Dee Conaghan’s role in providing valuable opportunities for those with speech, language and learning difficulties to participate in theatre and arts training.

Stage Beyond, supported by National Lottery funding through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, has provided a voice for the learning and disabled community through multiple productions and workshops. Artistic Director Dee continues to break down barriers both on and off-stage. Commenting on her inclusion in the People’s Portraits Series by National Lottery Good Causes this week, she said: “I’m just very honoured for the opportunity to showcase our work like this. It’s very exciting.”

Dee fondly recalled her own much-loved childhood speech and drama mentor, the late Eithne McCloskey who helped her find her voice while immersed in drama, gaining the confidence to perform in the annual Derry Feis and cornerstone for a rewarding future career culminating with the establishment of Stage Beyond.

“I was always interested in what drama can do for people and how transformative it can be, whether that’s in a big way or a tiny way. I remember when we did a project once and I asked a participant what he thought of it afterwards and he said, ‘Well I can say hello now’ which was fantastic. And that’s what I love about drama. How it’s a safe way to develop yourself, your voice and confidence.”

Stage Beyond has worked with high profile industry professionals in theatre productions and workshops. During the pandemic, respected Shakespearean director Conall Morrison directed ‘Hamlet, Prince of Derry’ adapted by RTE which won the 2021 New York Festivals Radio Awards trophy for ‘Best Digital Drama’. Stage Beyond also produced their first film, ‘Mind The Time’, which notably premiered at the Foyle Film Festival last year.

Dee said: “It’s all about creating high quality performances with people with learning difficulties and why shouldn’t people with learning difficulties be exposed to the best in the business? Sometimes people with learning difficulties suffer from other people’s low expectations and we’re very much about showing that we all have a talent. Given the right tools and support, we all have the opportunity to shine, and our stars shine brightly in Stage Beyond.”

With the theatre company now recognised through The National Lottery’s People’s Portraits campaign, Dee hopes that the future of the company shines just as bright as its members. She said: “I would like to see Stage Beyond as a recognised theatre company on a par with other theatre companies in the country. We want to show what we can do and the transformative power of the arts, not just in awards but in the small things like being able to say hello or get on the bus and travel independently.”

Three additional digital portraits have been created by artist Yoniest Chun, depicting the stories of other individuals and projects who have achieved incredible things for their communities and peers in making the arts more accessible for all as part of The National Lottery’s People’s Portraits series. Those also honoured with a portrait are Kevin Walker (SignKid), a deaf rapper and producer from London; Charlie Little, a deafblind film enthusiast from the Matchbox Cine organisation in Scotland; and Welsh performer Jonny Cotsen.

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