Let's hear it for the teachers fostering a love of theatre
Everyone in the arts had that one teacher who pushed them to explore the arts
Earlier today my brother messaged me to tell me that one of my secondary school teachers, Mr Southworth, had passed away. The man was an institution – he'd taught at our Birmingham-based school for over half a century and every year he oversaw the school play – alternating each time between a play and a musical.
It was Mr Southworth who introduced me to Sweeney Todd, Sally Bowles, Lady Windermere. Looking back on the shows still makes me laugh – one time while taking my hat off as a rather youthful-looking Alfieri in View from the Bridge, a cloud of talcum powder came with it in what was a rather hasty attempt at grey hair dye.
For the theatrically inclined, the annual show (performed in our school hall) was the event of the calendar year – whispered chats about which musical to expect, who'd been cast, who wasn't really nailing their solos (some things never change in theatre-land). There were rivalries, tears, and angsty 15 year-olds standing nervously outside auditions in the music teacher's classroom. I even remember looking down and spotting Mr Southworth's notes once after an ill-fated audition for the role of Toby in Sweeney – "Good, but not as good as Tom", he'd written. Those seven words have stuck with me for over a decade.
At the centre of it all was this inscrutable 70 year-old history teacher, working into the night. Out of the anarchy of 20 to 30 school kids, he managed to craft something at worst watchable and at best rather touching – seeing the aforementioned Tom nailing Eddie Carbone's psychological collapse was brilliantly haunting. It was in moments like this that Mr Southworth taught us all something rather exciting – inside these musty books that we lugged around in our school bags from classroom to classroom were hours upon hours of dynamic, shocking and hilarious material.
I know for a fact that there are actors, singers, stage managers, writers, musicians, musical directors, artistic directors, comedians and more on our stages right now that were involved in shows that Mr Southworth cast, directed, designed and produced for decades.
You hear it time and time again – that there was always that one teacher who believed, who gave you the right note, the right part, the right show. Just looking through recent interviews on WhatsOnstage: it was a drama teacher who saved Jeffery Kissoon, who gave Sierra Boggess her first taste of a musical. Matt Smith tells the story about being repeatedly told to audition by a pushy school teacher, while Jez Butterworth has a great anecdote about being chased across uni quads by Tom Morris.
We live in a time where the arts are consistently sidelined in education: so here's to the Mr Southworths out there, still helping dreams come to life. That special kind of teacher who sows the seeds for a love of the arts that can keep growing throughout a lifetime.