Working in theatre education

 1 May 2013

Susan Whiddington is the Director of Mousetrap Theatre Projects, which helps young people to access and engage with live theatre. She talks about the programmes she runs, as well as how she got into a career in theatre education.

Young people with special needs are offered a route in to the theatre experience. (Image: Alex Rumford)
Young people with special needs are offered a route in to the theatre experience. (Image: Alex Rumford)

Susan is the Director of Mousetrap Theatre Projects, which has been running for 16 years.

Their work involves helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with special needs, to gain access to different aspects of theatre. This includes helping them to see plays and musicals across London.

Encouraging education and access

"Some of the work we do is focused around developing education and skills, with school curriculums in mind. We run 18 programmes, many of which offer students diverse skills such as musical theatre composition, theatre criticism, sound and lighting design and the ‘business of theatre’.

However, much of Mousetrap's work is about opening access to theatre in general, reaching young people through state schools and youth clubs. They also work with social serivices and other organisations to help families who have never been to the theatre see productions.

"When you provide access to theatre for young people, it can make a big difference to their lives."

One of their key projects involves working with mainstream secondary schools on a TheatreOpeners scheme, offering 6,000 students a year theatre tickets for £7 each. For special schools the price drops to £5. Post-production enrichment sessions are provided, encouraging the theatre experience to have a greater impact on them both as school members and as audience members.

They also run Audience Development Programmes for 15-23 year olds, with discounted tickets. Young people are encouraged to see productions which expand their knowledge of genres, venues and styles, plus a ‘behind the scenes’ event with the creative team.

Getting into theatre education

Susan has been working in theatre education in different ways for nearly 25 years. After graduating in the US, she worked for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. "I was delighted to get a post setting up community education and outreach programmes, which combined my love of the arts with a passion for community work," says Susan.  

Her next job was for the Drama League in New York, a not-for-profit organisation that supports theatregoers, as well as helping young directors and playwrights.

In 1987, she moved to London and eventually started work in the Society of London Theatre as a Development Officer. "This gave me fantastic experience in all sorts of areas, such as marketing, information services, public affairs and setting up travel trade events, including reaching out to teachers. All of this would come in useful later."

In 1997 she was asked by Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen to take the helm of a new theatre charity which he set up, The Mousetrap Foundation. "I took the opportunity to pursue my passion for opening up theatre access to young people.

"My first venture was three all-student matinees of the play ‘Art’, followed by an after-show discussion with the cast members and teachers' resource packs. This became the blueprint for our largest theatre access programme, TheatreOpeners."

Being a theatre education director

"My job is so varied, which makes it hugely interesting and challenging.

"At this point, I deal more with the strategic issues of how we grow and go forward, more so than actually directing specific programmes.

"A large part of what I do involves answering questions from staff and partners and helping find solutions to problems. I take the long view, taking into consideration how we can grow and change organically. As I’ve been in the London theatre industry for so long, my experience helps me to find shortcuts and draw on contacts more easily – and this can assist my staff in their work.

"I see myself as very fortunate to have such a hardworking, creative and dedicated team of staff. It really is a joy, as they genuinely care about what we do.

"It’s wonderful to nurture individuals through theatre and see them develop."

"I like to think that I can help make my colleagues’ working environment as pleasant as possible so that they can then do their jobs well. If this means spending money, then I make that call. Of course, as a charity, money must be spent wisely!

"Another key area of my work is taking an active role in the larger theatre education arena. I work with other UK theatre educators to lobby for arts funding, bring wider recognition to the role arts play for young people, share best practice and plan major theatre education events.

"Over the years, Mousetrap has run a huge range of successful theatre programmes. We are keen to share that knowledge and encourage more organisations to engage young people and their families in the arts." 

Why get into theatre education?

"If you’re passionate about theatre and education, then this industry allows you to open doors for people.When you provide access to theatre for young people who wouldn’t have had it otherwise, it can make a big difference to their lives.

"Some are inspired to pursue theatre just as an audience member. For others it may become the starting point for a career, from deciding to enrol in technical courses to becoming actors and playwrights. It’s wonderful to nurture these individuals and see them develop their own skills and interests."

How to get into theatre education

1. Explain why you're passionate

"I often get personalised, speculative letters from people who want to work for Mousetrap.

"You can tell whether the applicant is on a quest to get into a career which they believe in, or if they’re just going through the motions to get a job. If that letter shows a true interest and passion, I will often follow up with the individual, even if I don’t have an opening at the time."

2. Prepare to start small

"If you want to work in theatre, theatre education or the arts, don’t be afraid to start at the bottom, like being a runner.

"And importantly, keep your eyes open for people who can mentor you through your journey."

3. Take hold of opportunities

"There are many theatres and arts charities which need and value volunteers, for example. You never know who you will meet and where the opportunity will lead to."

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