Finding a creative voice   8 Mar 2005

Tom Wilson talks to ERICA FOSBENDER about building the framework that supports educational development on the South Bank.

It’s a small, unassuming space in Southwark on London’s south bank and shares the area with such theatrical bastions as Shakespeare’s Globe.

The Southwark Playhouse is nestled among some of London’s most famous buildings and some of the city’s most squalid. It’s a paradox that excites educational director and founder Tom Wilson – the area is a hub of cultural activity but also of lower socio-economic living.

Wilson has spent most of his professional life as an English teacher, first in New Zealand then in London, where he arrived in 1971.

"I intended to stay only 18 months but things conspire to change your mind. I loved London from day one."

The main conspirator was meeting his wife Juliet, who is British but was educated in New Zealand and was an actress, which is what eventually lead him to his present position.

But before the Southwark Playhouse there was London.

"You can try things out coming from the outside. It was a thrill being on my own coming into a highly established, highly literate society where the verbal currency is layered and intense.

"You can make your own luck. You’re not burdened by social expectations."

Wilson continued his teaching career in London and had a brief stint in Saudi Arabia to boost his personal coffers. He worked in Brixton, another lower socio-economic area that offered huge professional opportunities. Wilson was head teacher for the school whose closure he described as a "tragedy" – when the doors closed for the last time "I was the man who threw the key in the bushes".

He then became an advisory teacher for the Lambeth area but was eventually laid off and paid a small pension, which was a "blow to the self esteem".

At 50 Wilson was at a crossroads of sorts. His wife, a West End actress, had devised a one-woman show on the music of German composer Kurt Weill but couldn’t find a theatre to put it on.

"I knew about the Southwark space and knew there was a real demand for a high-quality theatre space in south London."

So he took his redundancy and reinvested in building the theatre.

It started out with an audience capacity of 60, with no heating or ventilation and church pews for seating, but on November 26 1993, Juliet’s show had a space and Wilson’s "life took a different turn".

Since then there have been extensive refurbishments with the help of grants from the Southwark Council and Lottery Commission, which has pushed the seating capacity to 90.

"We’re running on 3.8 people [the .8 is Juliet who only works part time], we all have to do everything. It’s a huge advantage, the ownership of the space is not diluted by extra people."

Wilson’s love of teaching kicked in again and he devised educational projects to "take the theatre to the community or bring the community to the theatre".

"One reinforces the other."

He missed the annual rhythm of the schools so slotted in the new and faster rhythm of the theatre into their English curriculum. Wilson would go into the schools and work on material with the students, a recent example was their production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where they had more day performances than night so school groups could attend.

"The theatre is creatively alive. It’s a short-term, powerful excitement with the long-term rhythms of the schools."

Tucked into the intimate space of the Playhouse, students followed the actors’ interpretation of The Tempest with a written copy of the play. About a week later the set had been dismantled and the next production taking form – part of the quick rhythm of the theatre.

Wilson is particularly excited about the theatre’s involvement in the filming of The Time Capsule (now complete) – a project that evolved out of interaction with Spa school – a school for children with disabilities, particularly autism. It was a challenge and often frustrating "but the kids just loved it", he said.

Helping to find that creative voice is what it’s all about for Wilson and the Southwark Playhouse, which will continue to fill that unique place in education and the community.

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