Peter Wynne Willson is the Course Director of our BA (Hons) Applied Theatre course. Peter explains what Applied Theatre means to him, how his career has taken him all over the world, and how rewarding it feels to see students realise the joy of making a difference…
Peter Wynne Willson
BA (Hons) Applied Theatre Course Director
If you had asked me a couple of years ago what Applied Theatre was, I might have been a little vague, but the answer should have been “it is what I have been doing for the last thirty years”. The thing is, no one who works in theatre-in-education, or community theatre, or runs a youth theatre, or goes into prisons to do workshops, says that they work in Applied Theatre. But they all do. It is just the umbrella term that academics use for that range of work; theatre in non-theatre spaces, theatre for social change. Along with my two permanent colleagues, Terina and Bobby, it is what we have always done, and for the last three years we have been concentrating on preparing the next generation of drama workers to take it on, by running this course.
So, what I enjoy most about working at the Conservatoire is that I am involving students in the area of work that I have loved since I graduated myself, and came back to my home town of Birmingham in 1981, and started working with Big Brum, one of the Theatre in Education companies that is still a key partner today. In the time between, I have worked as a writer and director and sometimes performer for theatre companies in the Midlands and across the globe, but always in this field of work that I now share with students, creating drama that is trying to make a difference, changing the world.
Our students are not acting students; they are working towards becoming theatre-makers – certainly performing, but also devising, writing, running workshops, producing. To exercise all of these creative muscles, they are not often in classrooms – more often they are out and about, researching new stories with community groups, or running sessions in special schools or old people’s homes. Learning in the best way of all, by doing. They are a fantastically lively and creative bunch, and every day as their Course Director is different from the last.
For the last couple of weeks, for example, I have been in the Old Printworks in Balsall Heath with our third years, who had converted the old building into a festival venue, and were putting on five short plays they had created from scratch. My jobs there ranged from driving students around in a van picking up bits and pieces from charity shops and skips, to watching and commenting on early run-throughs. Later I was urgently trying my hand at repairing a broken shoe with a staple gun, and rushing around local shops asking if anyone had a long red carpet for the opening.
Then, I was sitting back, as the students took the lead, welcoming full houses of exciting local audiences. It has much of the thrill of doing the work myself, with the extra kick of seeing moments where the students feel the joy of making a difference – when special school pupils are laughing uproariously, or someone comes up to them afterwards with a tear in her eye, and tells them that the story they just showed was exactly like they remembered. If they graduate with the understanding that drama really can change things for the better, and with the skills to do it really well, then it feels every bit as rewarding as it did when I started out myself.