Michelle is 54 and lives in Dundonald, where she was born and bred. She is single and has two sisters, one in Wimbledon and one in Glengormley. Her dad, Bobby Porter, is a renowned traditional Irish singer, who performs in pubs, clubs and with singing groups all over Ireland. Michelle thinks she got the performing bug from him!
Michelle always liked performing. She did her BTEC Diploma in Performing Arts at BIFHE, where she learned stage craft, how to light shows, how to direct and how to perform. The dance module was hell for her, but she loved the acting! She went on to Ulster University at Coleraine to do a degree in Theatre Studies and was hoping to teach. At university she discovered she had the reading level of someone in P7 and was dyslexic.
After attaining her degree, Michelle went to work with young people at Glenmona Resource Centre residential children’s home in West Belfast. She had the job for 15 years when in summer 2014, she realised she was having problems with reading and went to the optician.
There, she found that she was blind in her left eye, but the other eye was compensating for it. The optician sent her to the Royal Hospital, where they diagnosed macular degeneration in her right eye and diabetic retinopathy in her left eye. As her eyesight had deteriorated so much, she had to take six months off work and was eventually medically retired from her job.
Before her eyesight started to fail, Michelle worked with two of Northern Ireland’s most prominent theatre companies – Prime Cut Productions and Kabosh Theatre Company.
For Kabosh, Michelle was the lighting designer for “Murder Most Probably” (see here) at the Lyric Theatre. She jokes that she was a terrible lighting designer as she put the cast in darkness for the production!
With Prime Cut Productions, Michelle was a cast member in ‘The Baths’, which explored the history of Templemore Baths (see here) and also performed outside Marks & Spencer on Royal Avenue in ‘Kaleidoscope’ (see here), an immersive, multi-sensory, multi-genre performance experience which took place on the streets of inner-city Belfast.
Less than two years after performing with Prime Cut, Michelle’s eyes started to deteriorate, and she found herself getting laser treatment on her eyes from a handsome Egyptian doctor on her 50th birthday!
Michelle currently has no vision in her left eye, and about 25% vision in her right eye. She says that it took her a long time to come to terms with her condition and its associated new realities. She found herself getting depressed at times and was often reluctant or too scared to go out.
Although her family have always been very supportive, Michelle says that a lot of her friends fell away whenever she got ill, so she became quite isolated. Always an independent spirit, Michelle wanted to keep doing things for herself, however she began to think that no-one wanted to know her any more.
Joining the Acorn Art Group, which is run on the Lower Falls Road by arts and disability charity Open Arts, was a revelation for Michelle. When she settled in to the fun atmosphere of the visual arts group, she was asked if she wanted to join the Open Arts drama group and to put her existing theatre skills – which she hadn’t had a chance to practice in several years – to good use.
Michelle says that what she particularly enjoys about the Open Arts groups is the togetherness and the feeling that while every group member has some sort of disability, it doesn’t matter – everyone looks after everyone and everyone is encouraged to do whatever they can do.
When she was invited to play Titania in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Michelle found that she had to start right back at the beginning in terms of her acting skills as her confidence had been knocked by her illness. However, with the support of her fellow participants and tutors, the experience has really brought her out of herself.
“When I first got ill, I thought my life was over, and that I would just be sitting about in the house, doing nothing. Performing on stage with Open Arts at The MAC means that all the theatre skills and experience I had in the past haven’t gone to waste. It’s given me a real buzz and a new sense of purpose.
When I asked a lady at the Blind Centre what registered blind people do, she said ‘Everything that everyone else does – they just do it a bit differently!’ I think that audiences will really see that when they come and see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. They’ll see that people with disabilities are as talented and clever as anyone else – they each have something to contribute and have skills and experience which should be utilised.
The other participants and tutors at Open Arts have been brilliant at adapting the play to accommodate everyone’s needs and any concerns that they may have. It’ll be my first time back on stage since performing with Prime Cut. It used to be scary when I could see lots of people in the audience, but that’s not such a problem anymore and I’ve got plenty of supporters alongside me!”
Michelle will perform at The MAC on 26th-27th April. Tickets for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ are priced £10/£8 and are on sale now from The MAC box office at https://themaclive.com/ or tel. 028 90235053.
For further information on Open Arts, one of Northern Ireland’s most dynamic arts and disability organisations please visit, www.openartsni.org or search ‘Open Arts’ on Facebook.