Stage Beyond founder Dee Conaghan has dedicated her life to addressing the lack of arts provision for young people with learning disabilities in Northern Ireland and now she has been honoured for her efforts.

Twenty years ago, she established the theatre company, providing valuable opportunities to participate in theatre, make friends, learn new skills, and increase self-esteem for those suffering from speech, language and learning difficulties. Conaghan has been recognised for her unwavering dedication as part of a campaign championing people who are  making the arts more accessible for all, with the help of National Lottery  players, who raise £30 million for good causes every week.

To celebrate her incredible achievements, artist Yoniest Chun, known for his cartoon-inspired work, has created a digital piece of art that immortalises Dee Conaghan’s story. Stage Beyond, which is based in Derry, has provided a voice for the learning and disabled community through multiple productions and workshops. Conaghan continues to break down barriers both on and off stage – and she owes it all to the passion that saved her during her darkest times.

"I'm just very honoured for the opportunity to showcase our work like this. It's very exciting,” she said.

Ealing Times:

"My father was killed during the troubles in Northern Ireland; he was shot dead in front of me when I was nine and during that time, I completely switched off from everything in life.

"But the only part of me that was kept alive was through drama and when we moved to Derry, I went to see a woman who would do drama all day with me, poems, character sketches and it was such a lifeline for me. It kind of saved me.

"And so, 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 after and he said, 'well I can say hello now' and I thought that 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 have now worked with high profile stage professionals in several stage productions and workshops.

Most recently, the Royal Shakespeare Company's Conall Morrison directed a production titled 'Hamlet, Prince of Derry' for Stage Beyond before winning the 2021 New York Festivals Radio Awards trophy for Best Digital Drama for the show.

Conaghan 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.

"It's not just a wee drama. I think 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.

"We all recognise that given the right tools and support, we all have the opportunity to shine, and our stars shine brightly in Stage Beyond."

And with the theatre company now recognised through The National Lottery's 'People's Portrait' campaign, Conaghan hopes that the future of the company shines just as bright as its stars.

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 Peoples’ Portraits series. Those 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.