Interview - Sir Richard Stilgoe (The Orpheus Centre)

‘There's nothing more uniting than stage fright.’ 

Songwriter and musician Sir Richard Stilgoe, perhaps best known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Starlight Express, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, is talking to me about The Orpheus Centre, an independent specialist college for young disabled adults with a passion for the performing arts. The Orpheus Centre was founded by Stilgoe in 1997. Having started with just 5 full time students all those 20 years ago, the school is now attended by up to 28 full time students, as well as around 20 day students, each of whom attend the school for 3 year and learn life skills such as cooking and budget management, in addition to developing their pre-existing enthusiasm for the arts. 

Sir Richard Stilgoe and students at The Orpheus Centre
This year, to celebrate the centre's 20th anniversary, students from The Orpheus Centre will be joined by Arts Ed students on stage at London's The Other Palace, in a new production of Sir Richard Stilgoe’s Orpheus - The Mythical, a musical comedy about a Greek tragedy. 

'It's about a musician who, whenever he sings, the world stops and listens. And, I guess whenever our guys get up and sing the world stops and listens, so it's kind of relevant. Also, nobody knows those Greek stories anymore. And, they're really good. There's a three headed dog in it for heaven's sake. And a dragon. So, it makes for a good tale.’ Additionally, alongside The Orpheus Centre and Arts Ed students, every night the Greek Chorus within the musical will be played by one of many famous faces. When I ask how he managed to get performers such as Rob Brydon, Bertie Carvel and Imelda Staunton (to name just a few) to guest star in the show, Sir Richard's answer is extremely heart-warming... he just rang them up. 'It shows that our guys are good enough to perform with those guys.’ He proudly explains.
I wonder what sort of an impact The Orpheus Centre has had on its young students and Sir Richard is happy to enthuse about past students and their success stories. ‘Every year, one-third of our students leave, and they go off and they live independently in their own flats. They don't go into care homes. They don't go back home to live with mom and dad. They run their own lives because they've done so much performing that they are really, really confident.’ No doubt the skills they pick up and hone make a huge difference to confidence levels, a testament to both the power and importance of the arts and the talent of the individuals. Sir Richard goes on to assert that every school in Britain should be running similar activities for students, ‘because then you produce a really confident generation of young people. Sometimes if you write a song about what you're feeling you can express yourself more easily than if you just try to say what you're feeling. It's like an actor wearing a mask.’

Another thing which Sir Richard is proud of is The Orpheus Centre's OFSTED report, which ranked the centre as "Good" in every category. ‘Oh excellent!’ I exclaim, impressed. ‘We're not "Excellent", we're "Good"' he jokes. I stand corrected!

It seems that recently conversations about the visibility of disabled performers and creatives within theatre has become an urgent talking point. I wonder if Sir Richard thinks that enough is being done to provide opportunities for talented performers with disabilities to find work in the entertainment industry. 'You wouldn't put on a production of Othello, without a black actor playing Othello.' And similarly, 'I think now, you would try very hard not to have a disabled character who wasn't played by a disabled actor.’ He points out that whilst progress is relatively slow, compared to the way it was 10 years ago the number of actors with disabilities being cast in lead roles is rising, and with opportunities such as those being presented by The Orpheus Centre, which enable young performers to perform alongside seasoned professionals on a large London stage, no doubt the future will be even brighter.