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Down Syndrome actors battle to beat Russian prejudice
July 16, 2003

A stage play performed by Russian actors with Down Syndrome is helping to overcome widespread prejudice against people with disabilities and enabling the participants to break out of their long-standing isolation.

The seven actors of Moscow's Theatre for Simple Souls have filled a local playhouse twice monthly since launching "Come Back Tomorrow", an adaptation of Gogol's "Story of Captain Kopeikin" whose theme of official indifference to physical handicap mirrors their own predicament.

Founded four years ago by actor-director Igor Neupokoyev, the group's crowning moment came last month when a film featuring their star actor Sergei Makarov took top prize at the Sochi film festival in southern Russia, a showcase for national movie production.

The theatre's success in playing regularly to fee-paying audiences has raised hopes of boosting awareness of the problems facing Down Syndrome people in a country where attitudes lag far behind those encountered in the rest of Europe.

Neupokoyev's involvement came through a chance encounter and an off-the-cuff offer to help that became a long-term commitment.

Forming the group in 1999 (the name was appropriated from a newspaper headline), the director painstakingly trained up the actors and by December 2001 had prepared them sufficiently to take part in a filmed performance that was later broadcast on the Kultura television channel and screened at the Cannes film festival.

Regular live performances began the following May.

"Since they had no experience of acting in the usual sense, it was important to choose a subject that reflected their experience," Neupokoyev said.

Gogol's Captain's Kopeikin, played by Makarov, is an invalid who has lost limbs in the Napoleonic wars and wages a campaign to gain recognition and a pension from the authorities.

The official response is the same today as it was nearly two centuries ago, Neupokoyev noted.

The play is however not just a spectacle but "an action with its own meaning and justification."

The performances "have helped the actors to express themselves in society, helped them to create a social life, and accustomed them to the idea of being seen in public, rather than being hidden at home," he said.

Makarov, 37, "has changed in every way" since taking up acting, his mother Saima Makarova noted.

"It has made him much more communicative. He has become more self-disciplined, more focussed, and he is better at organising himself. He also has a much greater sense of physical well-being," she said.

Makarov is determined to develop his acting skills, and his prospects improved immensely last year when a friend of Neupokoyev, director Gennady Sidorov, opted to use a handicapped actor in his film "Starukhi" (Old Women).

Makarov fitted perfectly into his role as a cow-herder, the last man left in a semi-abandoned village inhabited only by foul-mouthed old women.

"I had a great time, and the other actors were terrific," he said of the two-month shoot in the countryside 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Volga city of Kostroma.

As winner of the Sochi festival's Golden Rose, "Starukhi" is guaranteed screenings in international film festivals as well as a higher exposure in local cinemas.

Makarov believed that a provincial tour by the Theatre of Simple Souls would achieve greater progress towards overcoming popular prejudice against those with Down Syndrome, but "it's a matter of money, and we get no public support."

Attitudes to mental handicap in Russia "are like they were in European cities 50 years ago," said Sergei Koloskov, head of Moscow's Down Syndrome Association which groups around 300 families and maintains informal contacts with groups elsewhere in Russia.

"The theatre group's work, and especially the Sochi prize, will be very important in developing social attitudes," he said.

It could even help Down Syndrome people to get jobs. "This shows that if they can act in plays and films they can also hold down jobs and lead a full life."

Another member of the Simple Souls group, Elena Chumakova, has begun to do just that with a regular role in a radio serial.

Neupokoyev, who receives no fee for his work, is meanwhile preparing a new show for his group, adapting a story set in a world devastated by nuclear war.

"The Kopeikin play was for fun and for gaining experience," he said. "The next one will be for real. We will be aiming for professional standards."

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