The play by Julia Hales is a hilarious ode to Australian soap operas while also raising issues regarding the portrayal of people with Down syndrome in popular culture.
Up until the age of 21, Julia Hales was unaware that she had Down’s syndrome. The 42-year-old actor recalls that “my mom and dad sat me down and informed me that I was extremely significant to other people.” “I responded, “Oh, OK. But initially, I was very irate. I didn’t want to appear to have Down syndrome. It took me a while, but I finally accepted it, and right now I’m celebrating it.
Her parents had “mainstreamed” their daughter throughout her whole life by enrolling her in the same school as her three siblings and fostering a fierce sense of independence in her. She had always assumed that she was just like the rest of the family, so it came as a surprise to learn that her outward look was linked to a problem that only she possessed. “I thought about it, but decided not to – and I just kind of moved on with the rest of my life,” she recalled her father saying after he calmly and tenderly informed her that, if she really wanted, there were plastic surgery treatments available to change the symptoms of Down’s syndrome in her features.
She has spent the past two decades fighting for the rights of individuals with disabilities. She has been nominated for Australian of the Year 2022 and is the creator of the critically acclaimed theatre production You Know We Belong Together, which will be presented at the Edinburgh Festival this month. The play was a sellout when it made its Perth debut in 2018.
Hales, who is seated in the rehearsal space of the Black Swan theatre company in Western Australia, describes it as “vast.” “I’ve been getting remarks from bystanders that they saw your show. Julia, you’re an inspiration.
Hales’ fondness for Home and Away, the Australian soap that is Neighbours’ more beachy (and naughty) cousin, is the starting point of Black Swan’s production of You Know We Belong Together. The set is designed to resemble the Bait Shop, the show’s famous diner managed by Alf Stewart, who is Ray Meagher’s portrayal of Hales’ favourite character and has been on the series since it debuted in 1988.
Hales enthuses, “I really love the drama and romance, the actors. I always watch every episode. Hales discusses her views about how Home and Away has never included an actor with Down syndrome as well as her desire to be the first in her programme. Clare, “a long-lost adopted granddaughter to Alf Stewart, who wished to find her birth family,” is the character she already had in mind for the part.
The dancers Lauren Marchbank and Joshua Bott, the actor Tina Fielding, the Indigenous painter and performer Patrick Carter, the married couple Melissa and Mark Junor, who met at a dancing class and recreate their wedding dance on stage, are joined on stage by six other Down’s syndrome performers who share their own dreams.
“If you could take your child’s Down syndrome away from him or her, would you?” is a question that all of the cast members’ parents claim they are frequently asked. And every single one of them rejects it,” explains Clare Watson, who co-wrote the piece with Finn O’Branagáin and Hales. They accept their child as they are and recognise that as an integral part of who they are.
The show’s focus at the time Hales and Watson first connected was on the difficulties of dating people with impairments. But as a side note, Watson relates, “Julia began talking about Home and Away, and I saw her light up—you could see this excitement.” They contacted the show’s producers when it was still in development, and they asked them to visit the Sydney set. In the end, Hales collaborated with the filmmakers to capture the play’s climactic sequence, in which Clare (played by Hales) runs into Alf (Meagher) and the two reflect on Summer Bay’s beauty before going fishing.
The programme also recounts the appalling history of Down syndrome sufferers being institutionalised in Australia. Australian parents were urged to give their Down’s syndrome-affected children to the state up to the 1980s. Hales was born after these customs had largely come to an end; as she points out, if she had been conceived a generation later, she might not have been born at all. Due to advancements in screening technology, 90% of Down’s syndrome-positive pregnancies in Australia end in miscarriage.
The late Hales’ mother was unaware that her child had Down’s syndrome until she first saw Julia. When my mother learned, she was really upset, says Hales. However, Mom and my father still cared for me. The programme is in honour of Hales’ mother, who worked tirelessly to ensure that she had access to the same opportunities as her children. She supported Hales’ decision to pursue college education and assisted her when she turned 21 and moved out on her own.
Hales is overjoyed to be in Edinburgh, but her true ambition has not yet been realised. I’m hoping that when they watch the show, someone from Home and Away will say, “Julia, we would love to have you on our show – if you have time, come audition,” says Hales.
Watson chuckles, “I adore that line, ‘If you have time. You’ll respond, “I’ll have to check my itinerary; right now, I’m really busy with international trips. The important thing to know about Jules is that she is touring the world with a show that has received standing ovations every night. That’s a peak that some people can’t ever fathom reaching. Jules, however, says, “Yeah, I’m excited, but I still have my aim.
What makes Hales the happiest? “Having all my pals there, especially because we don’t frequently get to be on screens. I want Edinburgh residents to be aware of how we have been handled in the past and to agree that this cannot happen again. And it’s my hope that individuals with disabilities will think, “Wow, we can be just like Julia and be on screens and TV.” mainly because I’ve always wanted to improve the world.
We three laugh together in amazement at the impact of Hales’ words. You understand what I mean? Watson grins as he speaks.