Orpheus Centre, Surrey

1st October 2004 at 01:00
"There's something wonderfully balletic about a guy in a spotlight using a Soundbeam and playing the air," says composer and musician Richard Stilgoe, who will bring a group of around 30 young disabled performers to the Schools Prom in the Royal Albert Hall next month.

The Orpheus Centre apprentices will be the only performers with special needs at this year's Prom. They plan to sing and play music they have composed as well as some of Stilgoe's music. (He co-wrote Cats, Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera).

Since Stilgoe founded the Orpheus Centre in his family home in Surrey in 1998, the reputation of the "apprentices" - disabled 18 to 25-year-olds on three-year residential performing arts and life skills courses aimed at enabling them to live independently - has drawn recent performance invitations from increasingly prestigious venues such as the Royal Opera House and the Glastonbury Festival.

Although the apprentices also go out to schools and community centres, aiming high is crucial, says Stilgoe: "For the audience it's confusing because they expect people in wheelchairs to sit on the touchlines or in the front row watching. Put disabled people on stage and the audience tends to put on its sympathy smile. You can hear them thinking, 'I hope this will be all right. I hope I won't be too embarrassed'. The level of our performance isn't 'wonderful considering'. It is wonderful.

"Our Soundbeam guys, for example, are really good at controlling them precisely. And we move about; we have some choreography. So the relief for the audience, when they find that yes, it's going to be alright, and they can take off the sympathy smile and put on a real smile, is palpable."

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