For the last couple of years Drama St Mary's has been using the Langdon Down Theatre as an overspill rehearsal venue. It's just down the road from Strawberry Hill, near to Hampton Wick Station and for many of us is a quiet, undisturbed space, where work can be really developed away from the hustle and bustle of the main campus.
The Theatre itself has a remarkable history. It was founded by John Langdon Down, an inspirational Victorian doctor, whose pioneering work with his patients led to the publication of 'Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots' and the naming of Down's Syndrome as a particular medical condition.
For Langdon Down the term idiot was not in the least derogatory. He used it fully aware of it's original Greek meaning - 'the lonely one.'
Rather tan seeking to subjugate his patients the good doctor championed a programme of expressive arts as a way of enabling them to live active, joyful and fulfilled lives going as far as building the beautiful theatre, where we now work to mount plays and entertainments. He was, without doubt, a pioneer of Applied Theatre.
This evening we went to a talk at the theatre on the life of James Henry Pullen, one of Langdon Down's most remarkable and creative patients. Who despite never mastering the skills needed to read and write, and being a very poor verbal communicator, became a great inventor and craftsman. Much of his work is on display in the small theatre underneath the main space.
From his early childhood Pullen was excited by ships and after he'd been encouraged to take up woodwork as a hobby began to create wonderful models, firstly perfect copies of the great man-of-wars such as The Princess Alexandra and then an exact miniature replica of Brunel's Great Eastern, which was exhibited at The Great Exhibition of 1851.
From here he began to take a more imaginative approach creating a fantasy crafts, designed to be Queen Victoria's personal transport to paradise.
The care and attention to detail Pullen demonstrated in accomplishing his work meant that he often found even the slightest disturbance unbearable and so, with this in mind, he built a mechanical giant puppet, with a hollow body to allow a small person to stand inside and operate levers connected to the blinking eyelids, a tongue that can stick out, waggly ears, flaying arms and a menacing roar. He hoped it would discourage visitors, but in truth it just provoked further curiosity. Sometimes it's important to be the lonely one.
Mark is the Academic Director of the Drama Programmes at St Mary's University in Twickenham. He has worked internationally as a theatre director and educator for the past 15 years, focused mostly on youth, community, and conflict resolution work.
As a lecturer Mark taught at Goldsmiths College, Coventry University and was Head of Performing Arts at Canterbury College prior to joining St Mary’s in 2006.
His Professional directing credits include Henry V (One of US?) and Valhalla for RSC Education; The Wind in the Willows, Jack Cade, The Red, Red Robin for Sevenoaks Playhouse; Tender Souls, The Quality of Mercy and Playhouse Creatures for the Ambassadors Theatre group.
Mark is a director of subVERSE Theatre company for whom has directed fringe premieres of Chief, Dinnertime and OxfamC**t at Theatre 503.
Site specific work includes Purka and Shadow on Icelandic volcanoes and Novocento with students from the University of Genoa.