Have you heard of Mousetrap Theatre Projects? They are a wonderful London-based theatre education charity dedicated to bringing the magic and thrill of the theatre into the lives of young people – and have done for almost 20 years. To find out more about the work that they do I spoke to company Director Susan Whiddington.
How did Mousetrap Theatre Projects get started?
Stephen Waley-Cohen bought the production rights for the Mousetrap around 1996. It was his idea at the time that the Mousetrap, this long-running play, should give something back and it was his idea to set up a charity which would take young people to the theatre. I worked at the Society of London Theatre at the time, I was the Development Officer there, and I knew Stephen, he was one of our members because he’s both a producer and theatre owner, and he asked me if I wanted to run the charity. It was fantastic for me because prior to living in London, I’m from St Louis, Missouri, I worked for the Opera Theatre of St Louis and I had set up all their education, outreach and community projects, so it was something really close to my heart. I spent that first year talking to young people, teachers, theatre producers, trying to gather some ideas about what this charity should be doing. So the remit of the charity as of May 1997, that we’ve remained really true to, is to provide an opportunity for disadvantaged young people and young people with special needs to see theatre by reducing the cost of ticket prices and also enhancing that experience with a range of extras like behind the scenes talks, education programmes and workshops.
Why is it so important to get young people into theatre?
I guess it’s the idea that you want to develop new audiences for theatre and when I look at young people so many of them get all of their media through screens; television, film, computers. The opportunity to introduce young people to live theatre is really a special one and I’m very passionate about theatre and the chance to get young people to see outstanding productions across London. One of the great benefits of Mousetrap Theatre Projects is that we’re not connected to a venue or a producer or a production house, so we can take young people to theatres large and small, commercial or subsidised. We really try to find the right theatre productions for the right group of young people, and we’ve got the whole London theatre scene to choose from, which is fantastic.
We’ve got loads coming up. We’ve done a lot more work in a community setting. We’ve got programmes working with youth clubs in very disadvantaged areas and we do the Stage Exchange youth programme, for example, where we take young people, many of whom have never been to the West End or even been into central London, to see something then we go back into the community and offer a series of workshops. We also have an opportunity where we work with youth clubs and provide employability skills. It’s called Next Stage and we use drama sessions to help young people learn how to come into an interview setting, shake someone’s hand, look them in the face…a lot of role playing and talking about the ins and outs of having a job, as some of the young people we’re working with will be second or third generation non-working families.
We do a lot of work with young people with special needs and we have been working for a number of years with London state special schools where we take them to see a performance and then there’s a workshop in the school and a resource pack for teachers. We’ve extended our workshop programme with them, something called Explore, where it’s the teacher that will say ‘this is what I want my young people to achieve’, and it may be learning to stand up and work together to deliver a presentation, or it might be just team work, and we will then create a series of workshops and identify a practitioner who can deliver that kind of work and try to find a production they can go and see that deals with some of that. Something like Wicked is a particularly good show for young people because it’s about people who are different, and that being the norm.
We also run a program for deaf and hard of hearing young people and blind and partially sighted. For the blind and partially sighted programme, let’s say they see Warhorse, we’ll run a workshop with practitioners who are trained to work with young people who are blind and partially sighted and the workshop will be about the production they are about to see and there will be an onstage touch tour and then a chance to attend a performance that’s audio described. We have a similar programme for deaf and hard of hearing young people where the production will offer one of the performances with captions and one of the performances will be signed. With the deaf and hard of hearing we’ve just done a big project last year where we went into the classroom and did some play writing with them using deaf and hard of hearing playwrights, and at the end of the project these young people, who initially didn’t even know what a play was, were writing little plays and short scenes and we had them performed by deaf and hard of hearing actors so they got to see their work on stage.
How do theatres support you?
They support us by subsidising the cost of the tickets. They are wonderful. We can’t always get the hottest show the first year, but ultimately we get most shows and we develop relationships over time with producers and they really respect our work. For most of our work it’s for young people between the ages of 11 and 18, so we’re always looking for the right show that works for that group. Our two audience development schemes, TheatreLive4£5 and WestEnd 4 £10, have got about 3,000 young people in each of them. TheatreLive4£5 is for 15-18 year olds and WestEnd 4 £10 is for 19-23 year olds, but anyone who’s in drama school can join WestEnd 4 £10, even if they’re beyond 23. One of the reasons we set up WestEnd 4 £10 is that we know young people at university, and especially those studying drama or theatre studies at drama school, need to see shows but the ticket prices are just too high. So all of our shows for that age group only cost £10 and it’s a great scheme as we try to take young people to see not just big musicals but we take them to see challenging plays, we take them to some of the smaller theatres, we take them to opera, we take them to ballet and we take them to contemporary dance. We really try to extend their knowledge and experience of theatre.
Last year we took over 16,500 young people, it was our biggest year ever for taking young people to the theatre and we know that many of those people would never have been able to go without our support, and that’s a really great feeling as you just never know who the next big actress, or designer, or stage manager, or costume person is. You don’t know what doors you’re going to be opening and that’s what we’re about.
To find out more about Mousetrap Theatre Projects, or to join, visit www.mousetrap.org.uk.
This year Mousetrap are once again supporting TheatreCraft on Friday 20th November 2015 at the Royal Opera House, a collaborative project between Mousetrap, Masterclass, the Royal Opera House, Society of London Theatre and Creative and Cultural Skills. Open to 16-25 year olds, the event offers job and career opportunities behind the scenes in theatre. There will be over 60 workshops as well as leading directors, producers, stage managers, journalists, marketing teams and box office staff talking about their jobs and giving young people a sense of the industry. Visit www.theatrecraft.org to book a place free of charge.