Every actor surely dreams of making history with a role. Sarah Gordyhas done so twice – in little more than a year.
Last year the stage and screen professional, who has Down’s syndrome, became Mencap’s first celebrity ambassador with a learning disability; now she is breaking new ground by playing a character without a disability.
Gordy is best known for high-profile BBC roles such as Sally Harper, a pregnant woman in Call the Midwife, and Lady Pamela Holland in Upstairs Downstairs. These performances have depicted historical attitudes to disability.
However, Gordy has just finished a stint at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in Crocodiles. She portrayed a sensitive, passionate woman in a harsh, dystopian vision of the north-east of England.
As Gordy tells the Guardian: “I’m just a normal person who lives a normal life.” On her website, the 36-year-old puts her professional identity before her disability. “I am an actor, a dancer and a woman first. I have green eyes and Down’s syndrome. I am different, that is good.”
Gordy’s mother, Jane, who is also her personal assistant and acting coach (a role assumed when her young daughter showed an interest in acting), adds: “Sarah isn’t professionally Down’s syndrome.”
The chief executive of Mencap, Jan Tregelles, stresses the significance of Gordy’s latest project: “Too often society chooses to discuss barriers, rather than opportunities for people with a learning disability … for too long actors with a disability have struggled to gain roles that don’t just relate to their disability. However, Sarah’s achievement should be a clear signal to others of what is possible if we afford everyone the same opportunities in life.”
As Matilda in Crocodiles, Gordy played opposite actors Melanie Hill, James Atherton and Kevin Wathen. Gordy praises both cast and crew and says she was not given any special treatment. Director Ng Choon Ping, says Jane Gordy, “treated Sarah as what she is – a professional actor – he was tough on her, he was demanding”.
The actor says the play’s challenges included stage fighting, fast-paced speech and complicated cues from the other actors. She prepares for roles by reading the script many times with her mother, talking about the characters and exploring why they behave as they do.
“Every character I have played has a smell,” adds Gordy. For Matilda in Crocodiles, it is mint and jasmine because the character is sensitive, innocent and fastidious but lives in a rough area with crude people. “Jasmine and mint could grow on a bomb site,” she explains.
Her mother adds that Gordy “lives the role”, believing everything about her character rather than acting it, a technique some might call method acting. Portraying emotional extremes is difficult, but to move smoothly between vastly different feelings, Gordy closes her eyes during set changes and pretends she is sheltered in a “safe capsule”. When she opens her eyes, she is able to feel and behave very differently.
Gordy, who lives at the family home in Lewes, is also involved in local charity the Oyster Project, a volunteering group run by creative people with disabilities. She recalls how she developed a love for performing with her younger sister, Catherine: “Mum read stories and I would entertain the family by dancing and singing.” At primary school the young Gordy loved being on stage, often charged with reassuring less confident children.
As well as television and stage roles – her first break was a role in the ITV series Peak Practice – Gordy performs with dance group Culture Device Dance Project. She also features in a striking portrait, After Vermeer, from 2010’s Shifting Perspectives exhibition, an annual project from the Down’s Syndrome Association.
Challenging and changing perceptions also drives Jane Gordy: “Audiences aren’t used to this actor – they look worried that [she] can’t do it but when she comes out and she’s fine… they’ve seen the play and its changed them.”
Future ambitions include playing Audrey, the goatherd in As You Like It, and portraying a woman growing older on film. Both seem attainable goals given Gordy’s achievements so far.
Jane Gordy acknowledges that the arts are more inclusive than other industries. She adds that while her daughter is aware of the negative attitudes towards learning disability through her work as a Mencap ambassador, she has not experienced this herself: “The arts [are] more open. We’re looking for different, interesting unique experiences to give to the public.” Employers in other sectors, she says, must not overlook traits such as reliability, honesty and accuracy, prevalent in some people who have a learning disability.
As well as the awareness raised by Gordy’s work, there are individual examples of positive impact. There was the new father of twins, one of whom had just been diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, who saw the actor on television. Jane Gordy recalls: “He said that seeing Sarah so healthy, happy and successful came at just the right time. Sarah gave them hope and ambition. We strive to make people see the individual, not the label.”
As Sarah Gordy adds: “Respect people who are different.”
The adult social care hub is funded by Liverpool city council and Liverpool clinical commissioning group. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.