Capital gains  

For over 20 years Mousetrap Theatre Projects has helped nearly 200,000 young people experience theatre in London through trips to West End shows as well as practical drama workshops. Mark Glover finds out how the charity continues to make venues in the capital more welcoming and the challenges that teachers face when trying to book a school trip.

An increase in housing and improved transport links has seen London’s perimeter move further and further out. Where once Camden and Clapham were considered the outer reaches of the capital, now parts of Kent, Middlesex and Surrey warrant a London postmark as the suburbs expand. However, for some young people living in those outer areas, the city can seem an unfamiliar place.

“What’s interesting with those outer London boroughs is that a lot of the young people we work with really don’t consider themselves to be Londoners,” says Jenny Bull, Youth Engagement Manager at the Mousetrap Theatre Projects charity. “I was in a school in Southall (West London) and when I’d told them I’d come from the West End, they were saying: ‘Well, we’re the West End, this is the West End of London.’”

It takes approximately 45 minutes to get to Shaftesbury Avenue from Southall. While not a huge journey, the notion of making a trip to go and sit in a seat at the Adelphi is an alien concept to many of the young people that live there. Mousetrap was set-up to challenge young people’s perception of London and to get them into those seats.

In 1996, Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen (now Mousetrap’s Chairman) purchased the production rights to the West End’s longest running show Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Waley-Cohen felt that the play – which is currently in its 66th year – should, in some way, support dis-advantaged people who do not get to experience London theatre.

Then, in 1997, under the stewardship of Director Susan Whiddington the Mousetrap Foundation for the Arts was established. In 2007, on its tenth anniversary, the charity was renamed Mousetrap Theatre Projects and so far, has taken over 200,000 young people to the theatre and Waley-Cohen’s vision was finally realised.

Of course, there is no doubting the quality of London theatre, it remains revered around the world. The West End rivals Broadway for atmosphere, bright lights and buzz with people flocking in their droves to see a show. According to figures from a 2016 survey by the Society of London Theatre, over 14 million people, took up a seat. Tourists make up an important part of this number, and the industry relies heavily on those who are making a visit to the capital but the same study also found the average cost of a ticket to be £45, something that does little to dispel the notion that theatre is only for a select few.

It is a viewpoint shared by Keara Fulton, who is Mousetrap’s Communication Manager. She tells me the perception of West End audiences consisting of tourists and the privileged is probably an accurate one. “When we look outside our offices on Shaftesbury Avenue, it does look very ‘touristy’,” she says. We want to make sure that our theatres aren’t just filled with wealthy children. It has to be the same for people in and around London, so they feel they are able to access this and experience it and also to engage with it.”

Her colleague Jenny agrees: “Of course, London is so vast and that means that the [theatre] offer is incredible. There are incredible opportunities and it really doesn’t have to be expensive, but it can be really overwhelming for people,” she says. Jenny describes Mousetrap as being “the friendliest box office in London” and serves to instil confidence in young people so they feel comfortable coming into Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square. She tells me about a young student who came with Mousetrap to see a show in the West End.  “She walked into the theatre and said ‘It’s too posh for me in here’, and she hadn’t even sat down yet. She saw the red velvet seats, the red velvet curtains and the chandeliers. She had never been to a building like that in her life.”

I have written before on how a first-time visit to the theatre can be intimidating for young people. Like it or not, a certain etiquette is required when attending. As a 14 or 15-year-old who has never been before it can be overwhelming and acclimatising to the theatre experience is something that Mousetrap build into their programmes for young people and schools. Jenny explains: “We don’t necessarily educate our schools and young people about this but we let them know what the expectation is. If you’ve never been before you might not realise that the actors will be there right in front of you, or you wouldn’t know you can’t take in pizza, or that your phones must be off. So, we provide the structure; getting tickets, finding the seat.” she says.

I ask, therefore, how much of their engagement work with young people goes beyond what takes place on-stage. “It’s about building up their confidence and their communication skills in readiness for everything that will happen in their lives, but specifically with the idea of engaging with the arts”, she says. “You have to be confident to ask where the toilets are and get yourself where you need to go. So, in a series of workshops we might look at building confidence, and then the theatre trip is something that we’re working towards.”

Having been a teacher, Jenny is well-placed to comment on the challenges that her former colleagues in the arts face. Budget restrictions, exam pressure and increasing workloads mean that a trip to see a show has fallen further down the priority list. But she is passionate about the importance of such an outing where the key is to make it academically worthwhile, rather than tokenistic. “We want teachers to be able to have at their fingertips, a really wide range of shows that they can pull on,” she says. “If they want to do something purely for pleasure, then we’ve got shows for that. If they want something related to music GCSE or drama GCSE then we’ve got shows for that. If they really want to challenge young people, if they’ve been to see a couple of shows and they’re ready to step into some Shakespeare or be challenged in some way, then we can also do that.”

Can the sheer number of theatre offers in and around London be overwhelming for teachers? “There are so many mainstream theatres in London all vying for your class’ engagement,” she says. “But it’s about making sure that offer is really clear and affordable for the school and useful for the young people themselves, so making sure things are curriculum relevant is really key for us.”

Ensuring GCSE drama students absorb as much information as possible from a play is the goal of x-ray, a project currently under development by Mousetrap that hones in on every element of the play that is relevant to the curriculum.

As well as catering to a students’ academic requirements, Jenny and her team are aware of those at the other end of the scale; pupils who have been excluded from or are struggling at school whose focus becomes the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) and not subjects like drama. Jenny understands the reasoning but fears that it could further ostracise those students from the arts. “It means the arts play second fiddle to the EBacc. We are aware of the constraints and it’s something, ideally, that we need to work within,” she says.

More generally, as schools focus more on non-arts subjects, and as teacher’s time becomes more squeezed, subjects like drama are being pushed to one side. In an effort to offset this, and following feedback from teachers, Mousetrap created a programme called skillup, a series of workshops aimed at key-stage 3 pupils who might not have considered drama as part of their key-stage 4 learning options. The project, led by experienced practitioners focuses on theatre skills such as stage combat, lighting design, directing and physical theatre; elements of drama that school teachers – given time constraints – may not be able to run in-depth workshops on. It is hoped these specialist workshops will peak the student’s interest into picking drama as an option in later study.

The objective of skillup, to essentially give young people a platform to experience drama, is the essence of Mousetrap. Pupils may not like what they see, but they should at least get the best opportunity to experience it and make their own choice.

And what about the girl who felt the theatre was too “posh” for her? Did her attitude change by the time the curtain fell? “When I spoke to her at the end of the show, she’d got so much out of watching it,” Jenny recalls. “It’s just wonderful to see young people gasp when the curtain opens or when they start humming along in a musical, as well as that moment when a young person realises how well they themselves are doing as potentially a maker instead of a viewer.”

From a theatre viewer to a theatre maker, Mousetrap are giving young people from all parts of London the chance to experience both and everything that is in between.