Face Front Theatre: giving disability a voice

How funds raised through The Health Lottery give a drama group for adults with disabilities a boost and helped one member sing in front of the late Queen Elizabeth.

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Lissa Hermans was born blind and has an autism diagnosis, but that hasn’t stopped her stellar singing career.

The talented soprano sang the National Anthem at Wembley and was invited to Buckingham Palace to perform for the late Queen. 

Joining Edmonton’s Face Front Theatre Company has helped Lissa to grow in confidence and one very special project she’s involved in is Broken Silence, an adults’ drama group funded using money raised through The Health Lottery. 

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The north London project started out to give a louder voice to people with disabilities who wanted to raise awareness of issues such as institutional abuse and problems with the benefits system. 

But now the group’s decided to move away from hard-hitting subjects. 

“I think there was a need to do more fun things,” says Executive Director and Co-CEO Jon French. 

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“So, for the last ten years we’ve been making musicals. The group enjoy singing so much and the whole thing is led by them, so it’s up to them what they want to do. 

"Sometimes an off-the-cuff comment will lead to an idea.” 

The 20 regular participants bring varied talents. Many have sensory or learning disabilities and their ages range from 20s to 60s. 

“Everyone is welcome to bring whatever they can and some choose to take on lead roles, while others prefer to be in the ensemble. Some of our members are involved in other theatre projects, but for others it wouldn’t be so easy,” says Jon. 

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There’s no doubt that Jon has seen people flourish and he and the group are happy to put in the time to build confidence. 

“One of our members was referred to us by his speech therapist because of his stammer. He got so nervous about speaking that he walked in and immediately walked out again,” recalls Jon. 

“He came back and for his first performance he didn’t want a speaking part, so he focused on movement and then gradually he asked for a few lines – and for the last few shows he’s been one of the lead characters, singing solo.”

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Of course singing solo is something star soprano Lissa, 41, has become accustomed to. 

“When I was younger, I used to get very nervous so my voice would wobble, but I talked to someone about it, got the right technique and got stronger,” she says. 

“I’ve been blind since birth, but I don’t let it get in the way or stop me from doing anything. When I sang for the Queen at Charles Dickens’ Bicentenary at the Guildhall in London, I found it really exciting. 

"I also performed the National Anthem at the Paralympics Closing Ceremony in 2012 -  once I was out on stage in front of that huge crowd who were applauding, I wasn’t that nervous because I’d had lots of rehearsals, so off I went.” 

But no matter where her career takes her, Lissa is an integral member of Face Front. 

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“If we’re doing a production together, we’ll learn each other’s entrances and exits so we can help each other off stage. 

“Without Broken Silence, I might feel isolated. I like going there and I plan to keep on for as long as I can. 

"I love the acting, but also chatting to other people about how we’re feeling and what we’ve been doing. I enjoy working with the group and rehearsing for the big productions. Everybody’s so friendly and we help each other.” 

Jon looks on proudly as Broken Silence put on hit show after hit show, including the forthcoming production All At Sea, which is a murder mystery musical on board a cruise ship. 

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“Money raised through The Health Lottery allows us to put on productions at a much higher level, with proper lighting and costumes. All the songs are original and it takes us two years to make a show. 

"With the funding, the whole thing is elevated, which makes the group feel confident and gives them a feeling of what it’s like being in the theatre world. They work so hard so it’s nice to be rewarded with the proper costumes, lighting and design,” says Jon. 

“It’s very rewarding to see the quality of the shows and how great the songs are. Then there’s the other side of it – seeing people grow in confidence and forming friendships.” 

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And Jon and Lissa have an important message for Health Lottery players: 

“When you buy a Health Lottery ticket, hopefully you can win something, but you’re helping us enormously as well. We couldn’t do what we do without it.”

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The current society benefitting from funds raised is YNW Health CIC T/A HL Yorkshire and Humber

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