A Glengormley woman has created a stage where every child can shine.

By Mandi Millar

A Glengormley woman has travelled the globe to create a world of imagination for children right here in Northern Ireland.

Caitlin O’Neill is the creative force behind Acting Up which offers drama classes with a difference for children who, for whatever reason, haven’t had the chance to access them before.

“I’ve always been passionate about drama and was fortunate enough to get one of just 50 places on my drama course at Liverpool’s John Moore University, despite the fact 500 applied,” says the 28-year-old who has theatre running in her veins.

“My granny Kathleen Muldoon was a playwright and storyteller and I remember hanging out at her rehearsals and loving it all.”

But having graduated and returned to Northern Ireland, Caitlin wasn’t sure where to take her passion.

However, after running some drama classes for children from underprivileged areas she realised the dearth of provision for those with additional needs.

“I was getting parents inquiring but the usual drama classes based on rehearsals for a big show don’t suit children, especially those with autism,”  she says.

Suddenly Caitlin realised this was where her passion really lay and, determined to do something about it, embarked on her own voyage of discovery taking her round the globe.

She became a classroom assistant specialising in children with autism and she also travelled extensively taking in Spain, Italy and the US to glean experience.

“I even spent time working on a cruise ship and was able to bring a lot to their productions which until then hadn’t really catered for these children. So there’s been a huge exchange of ideas, expertise and learned experience from across the world which has gone into what I’m doing today,” continues Caitlin who brought it all together when she launched Acting Up fulltime three years ago.

Then Covid descended.

Acting Up Local Women Magazine

“It was the worst possible time but I was determined not to lose all that momentum so I went online and did Zoom sessions,” says Caitlin.

“I was able to reach even more families and some of my videos had 2,000 views which was amazing, again proving the need there was for something really tailored to children with ASD and other challenges,” says Caitlin who now offers classes in North Belfast, Glengormley and Ballyclare via schools and community groups.

But what makes her classes so unique for the families who get involved?

“I’m shocked when I see young ones today. They just seem to live life through their phones. The idea of getting lost in their imagination seems to have vanished,” she says.

“I remember once asking a group of kids to tell me about their favourite fairytale and not one was able to come up with a fairytale or nursery rhyme.

“I go right back to basics and give these children the safe space to dive into their imaginations and explore. I want them to look forward to our time together as somewhere they can be whatever they want to be.

“For a start some of my classes only have four participants, as many children on the ASD spectrum don’t like a crowded noisy environment while others have limited mobility.

“So, they can feel at home I create somewhere really accessible for them by having sensory lights, ear defenders, visual timers, games adapted so suit mobility needs, a timetable of what we are covering in the class and a pop up dark den sensory area available.

“And it’s not all about boring rehearsals! If we’re putting something together, I’ll work with the children on their lines. For instance, I’ll say their line and then just have to repeat it.

“Then my sister Tara films all that and edits out my voice, so the kids and their parents have a really special video to take away and it gives them all such a confidence boost,” continues Caitlin who’s also launched a class for older kids up to 15.

“To be honest I was a bit afraid of teenagers! But now I feel it’s a real privilege to work with these young people so many of whom are experiencing stress and anxiety far beyond the level I had at that age.

“The difference in them over the weeks is incredible. Initially they’ll come in pulling their jumpers around them like security blankets and within a couple of months I see young people with a new level of confidence.”

But Caitlin works at the other end of the age spectrum too with her Boogie Baby classes for newborns up to three years.

“It’s amazing to see how the babies react to the sensory lights and bubble machines I bring along,” says Caitlin who even helps parents create affordable sensory toys at home for their children.

These very tangible results she sees in her young students, together with the repeat business she gets, proves to Caitlin that what she’s doing works.

“I just feel so blessed that this is how I keep a roof over my head, and I hope to carry on for I believe that the energy you put out into the world is the energy you get back,” she says.

“The dream would be to grow the classes and have my own venue some day. But until then I simply want our stage to be a stage where everyone can shine.”

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