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EDUCATION RESOURCE PACK created by Helen Cadbury commissioned by Mousetrap Theatre Projects


The Importance of Being Earnest

Education Resource Pack !

Contents Introduction

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Oscar Wilde - a chronology Wilde and The Play

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Historical and Social Context The News The Victorian Gentleman The Victorian Lady Victorian Life - The Railway Victorian Life - Afternoon Tea Victorian Servants

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The Production The Director The Designer Penelope Keith Attracting an Audience Writing a Review

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Further Resources Bibliography and Weblinks Mousetrap Theatre Projects

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The Importance of Being Earnest

Education Resource Pack !

Introduction This pack has been developed to help you to get the best out of your visit to see The Importance of Being Earnest. It is full of essential material to enable students to understand the historical and social context of the play. There are suggestions for follow up activities and an exclusive interview with Penelope Keith. With thanks to: Elaine Grant Clare Knights Nicky Palmer Rodney Timpson

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The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde a chronology

Education Resource Pack ! • They had two sons, Cyril, born in 1885 and Vyvyan, born in 1886. 1887 • Oscar Wilde became the editor of a new magazine, ‘Woman’s World’ where he worked for the next couple of years. • His first book, ‘The Canterville Ghost’, was published and this was the start of a period of successful and productive writing. 1888 • Wilde’s stories for children called ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ was published and warmly received. 1891 • Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas – nicknamed Bosie – and their relationship began. • However Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, was determined to end his son’s friendship with the writer.

16 October 1854 • Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. • His father was a successful surgeon, his mother a writer and translator. • He had an older brother, William and a younger sister, Emily who died from fever at the age of 10. • Wilde did very well at school and was awarded a scholarship to take his studies further. 1871 • He studied at Trinity College, Dublin. • Again he was very successful and was awarded a scholarship to go to Oxford University. 1874 • Wilde went to Magdalen College, Oxford. • On graduating, Oscar moved to London and soon launched himself into fashionable society, becoming a friend of the rich and famous. 1881 • Oscar Wilde’s first volume of poetry was published. • He visited the United States, touring across the country, giving a successful series of lectures on art and the Aesthetic Movement. 1884 • Wilde married Constance Lloyd.

• Wilde continued to write short stories and critical essays. • His novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was published, seen by many at the time as being shockingly decadent. • His play ‘Salomé’ was banned from the London stage. 1892 • Wilde’s success on the London West End stage began with his play ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. 1893 • ‘A Woman of No Importance’ was performed for the first time. 1895 • ‘An Ideal Husband’ opened in London and was a great success, watched by the famous including the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister. • On Valentine’s Day, 14 February, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was performed for the first time at St. James’ Theatre in London. • It was another theatrical triumph for Oscar Wilde, in spite of the Marquis of Queensberry, who tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the opening night. • The Marquis continued to hound Wilde. He publicly accused him of being homosexual, hiring private investigators to uncover details about Oscar’s private life. At the time sexual relationships between men were a criminal offence.

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• In April Wilde sued the Marquis for libel but was unsuccessful. • Instead, Wilde himself was arrested and eventually convicted of ‘gross indecency’. • He was sent to prison and given 2 year’s hard labour. • To avoid the scandal, Constance took their two children to Switzerland. • She was forced to change their name from Wilde to Holland after being refused accommodation at a hotel. • Whilst in prison he wrote ‘De Profundis’, which was in the form of a long letter to his friend and lover, Bosie. • When released, the bankrupt Oscar Wilde quickly left England never to return. 1898 • The poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ was published. It was his last work. 30 November 1900 • Oscar Wilde died at the age of 46 in Paris.

“He cast a rainbow of forbidden colours over that drab age of industrial power and empire builders.” Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s grandson


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Oscar Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest “One of the greatest English comedies of all time, arguably the greatest, and a profound enigma” !

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Sir Richard Eyre

In 1894, Wilde spent a holiday in Worthing writing a new play. He used many local place names for characters in the final script. He persuaded the popular actor/manager, George Alexander to play the part of Jack Worthing, and The Importance of Being Earnest was born Alexander initially felt it was unsuitable for his ‘romantic’ acting. Concerned that his friend considered it to be a frivolous comedy, Wilde instead stressed the love story. “I want the sheer passion of love to dominate everything,” he wrote to Alexander, “a sheer flame of love between a man and a woman.” In return Alexander managed to persuade the playwright to make the play shorter than its original four acts. Wilde protested in a typical style: “the scene that you feel is superfluous cost me terrible exhausting labour and heart-rending nerve-wracking strain. You may not believe me, but I assure you on my honour that it must have taken fully five minutes to write.” At the dress rehearsal, Oscar Wilde told a critic confidently: “The play is a success. The only question is whether the first night’s audience will be one.” The audience loved the play, cheering at the end, whilst Wilde watched nervously from the wings, aware of the Marquis of Queensberry outside the theatre. However of Alexander’s performance, Wilde somewhat sarcastically told him that it was: “charming, quite charming. And do you know, from time to time I was reminded of a play I once wrote myself called ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’”. The Importance of Being Earnest ran until 8 May whilst Oscar awaited trial. Because of the scandal, Alexander removed Wilde’s name from the playbills. The play has continued to be produced over the next century and into our own. The character of Lady Bracknell has become more central, largely because she is remembered in Edith Evans famous performance, both on stage and in film. It is a testament to Wilde’s writing that we still find his lines funny after over a hundred years.

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Historical and Social Context The News The Importance of Being Earnest may seem on the surface to be a comedy of manners among the English Upper Classes. But the text is, in fact, littered with contemporary references to the politics and cultural attitudes of Wilde's day, Although modern audiences may not understand every reference to the events of the 1890s, many still have relevance. When Lady Bracknell expresses concern that Bunbury has been exploded, she may be referring to an anarchist called Martial Bourdin who blew himself up with his own bomb in Greenwich Park in 1894. Sadly, there has not been a time since when explosions and bombs have not been in the news. Gwendolen: Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression is it not? The line from Act Two refers to the depression in farming caused by cheaper imports coming from America and India. A similar problem is happening today where supermarkets are able to import staple products such as milk, more cheaply than farmers can produce them.

Follow Up Activities

History Can you find out what ‘duties”, which still cause controversy, are being referred to by Lady Bracknell in this speech? What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to become either a profit or a pleasure.

RE/PSHE Points for Discussion • Marriage in late Victorian England was a financial contract. Love was not always the first consideration. After you have seen the play, discuss what similarities and differences there are with arrangements for marriage today. Explore the differences between arranged and forced marriages. What concerns do modern parents have about their children’s relationships? Is marriage still important? • How have attitudes to homo-sexuality changed since the 1890s? Wilde was imprisoned for being gay. He does not write openly about his sexuality in this play, as it was illegal. But the play is littered with secret references. The word ‘Earnest’ was thought to be underground slang for gay. What other famous literary figures were gay? Were they persecuted? When did the law in England change to ensure that homo-sexual people could have legal relationships? w w w. m o u s e t r a p . o r g . u k


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Historical and Social Context The Victorian Gentleman Lady Bracknell: Who was your father?... Was he born in what the Radical papers call the purple of commerce, or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy? “Money is important to Lady Bracknell. She's willing to accept Jack as a son-in-law because he has a reasonable income. It's the fact that he's a foundling that is deeply shocking.” Penelope Keith Members of the British aristocracy were born gentlemen. In addition, members of the Church of England clergy, army officers and members of Parliament were considered to be gentlemen. In the Victorian age of industry and trade, the wealthy industrialist also attempted to be seen as a gentleman, but unless properly educated at one of the elite public schools such as Eton or Harrow, he was unlikely to be fully accepted as one. A gentleman would normally be soberly dressed in black or grey unlike the more flamboyant dandy, Oscar Wilde. But birth or education or dress could not guarantee that a man was a gentleman. A gentleman also had to have strong moral values.

Above: Harry Hadden-Paton and William Ellis practice being gentlemen in rehearsal

Follow Up Activity

Costume Design A gentleman’s clothes were the outer evidence of his status. • Research the many different styles of suits and overcoats worn by men in the 1890s. Some of them had extraordinary names. • Choose your favourite (by name or style) and create a design presentation, showing the colour, cut and fabrics used.

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Historical and Social Context The Victorian Lady Lady Bracknell: A hundred and thirty thousand pounds!... Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. The Victorian lady was not expected to work or have a career. She was expected to spend her adult life as wife, mother or housekeeper. Her financial security would be assured by her father and eventually by a husband. Therefore a good marriage was the ultimate ambition for a lady. The London Season was an important time as it would launch a young woman into society. The Season ran from January to July, coinciding with the parliamentary session. It was a time of entertainment, social events and networking. It was also when parents would anxiously hope that a suitable husband could be found for their daughters. However some women did want to further their education and become financially selfsufficient. By the late 19th century there were public campaigns for better lives for women and there was much debate about the ‘new woman’ who was principled, educated and independent. The young Victorian lady, on the look out for a husband, was lavishly dressed in the latest fashion. Underneath every dress was a corset, design to nip the waist in and accentuate the hips. Some corsets were laced so tightly that ladies often fainted from lack of oxygen. For a modern actress, used to far more practical clothes, a corset takes some getting used to. It dictates posture, breathing and the whole attitude of a character.

Daisy Haggard and Rebecca Night rehearse with their corsets on to make sure they move and sit in the way Victorian clothes allow.

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Historical and Social Context Victorian Life

The City v the Countryside

The Railway Lady Bracknell: A cloakroom at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion… but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognised position in good society. In the growing towns and cities, horse-drawn omnibuses, carts, carriages and trams filled the busy and noisy streets. The steam railways transformed working life in Victorian England, connecting the new urban and industrial centres, carrying goods, foods and people faster than the canals or horse-drawn vehicles. In London, in the early to mid 19th century, major stations such as Euston, Waterloo and Victoria were built. The increasing railway networks meant that those who could not afford to live in the safer areas of central London could commute from the suburbs. They also made the possibilities for travelling for leisure easier for all, including day trips to seaside resorts, such as Brighton and Worthing.

Follow Up Activity Discussion Point T h e spread of the railways in the nineteenth century had an enormous effect on British society. (Including the standardisation of time.) Can you think of a recent invention that has had such a dramatic effect on people’s lives?

Lady Bracknell: You have a town house, I hope? A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to reside in the country. When Queen Victoria began her rule in 1837 most British people lived in country villages and their lives were linked with farming. By the time of her death, most people lived in towns or cities where the new factories, mills and shops were based. London expanded hugely in the 19th century. It was not just the biggest city in Britain, but also in the world. There was a great amount of building, the railway networks were developed, trade and industry was thriving, the population increased dramatically, and the contrast between the rich and poor became more extreme. West and central London were developed by aristocratic families who had their town houses in the smart squares of Mayfair, Belgravia and St. James, which they used during the London Season. However they also continued to maintain their large country estates outside of the bustling cities. But soon the large houses that we can now visit as museums or stately homes, became too expensive to maintain. A new tax law was passed which meant that the landowners had to pay tax to the government on the land they owned when it was passed on to the next generation. Lady Bracknell:..land has ceased to become either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position and prevents one from keeping it up. That’s all that can be said about land.

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Historical and Social Context Victorian Life Afternoon Tea Algernon: I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o’clock.

Follow Up Activity

In the early 1800s, Anna,

the 7th Duchess of Bedford complained of suffering from ‘that sinking feeling’ in the long, hungry afternoon, whilst waiting for dinner, which was normally served at about 8 o’clock.

She came up with a simple solution, enjoying a pot of tea and a snack in her private boudoir late afternoon. Her friends soon caught on to the idea and the practice quickly spread amongst other society hostesses. Afternoon or ‘low’ tea soon became a fashionable light meal consisting of bread and butter, dainty sandwiches, cake, toasted crumpets or muffins. It was served late afternoon, often followed by a ‘promenade’ in the park. A more substantial ‘high’ tea might be enjoyed by middle or working class people, instead of a late dinner. It was called ‘high’ because this meal would be served at the higher dinner table. “Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming to tea?” Jack Worthing

Make your own cucumber sandwiches You will need: Three cucumbers, thinly sliced Salt Two loaves of thinly sliced sandwich bread (white or light brown) Butter Layer the cucumbers in a large bowl, sprinkling each layer lightly with salt.! Cover, leave in a cool place (but not in the fridge) for two hours. Take the butter out of the fridge so that it is easy to spread. Rinse cucumber slices quickly and pat dry with paper kitchen towels. Lightly butter a slice of bread, layer with cucumber slices, top with another slice of buttered bread.! Cut off crusts and cut sandwich into quarters.! Repeat until you use up all the cucumber and bread. Makes a LOT of sandwiches, but that’s just as well, you never know who might come for tea. NOTE: Day old bread makes the best sandwiches.! Bread that is very fresh gets soggy easily and is hard to work with.

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Historical and Social Context Victorian Life Algernon: Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?

Victorian Servants In Victorian England, all households except the very poorest had servants. Life was hard for them, as the work was strenuous and monotonous and time off was very limited, perhaps only Sunday afternoon and a week’s holiday a year. Often the servants slept in the kitchen or at best were given a cold, damp, dark attic as a bedroom, and visitors were usually strictly forbidden. But fun ‘below stairs’ could still be had, perhaps through sampling the contents of

the wine cellar or pantry, particularly when the master or mistress was away from home. The Butler was often a distinguished figure amongst the servants. He would make sure that all ran smoothly and that all necessary work was done. His duties included announcing dinner and waiting on table, and ensuring that the house and valuable items were locked up and secure. Governesses were generally educated, middle-class, single women who were forced to earn a living as their father could not support them. There were few other options available to them for paid work that was seen as ‘respectable’. Although boys might be sent away to school, girls would often remain at home and be taught by a governess.

Janet Henfrey as the unfortunate Miss Prism, governess to Cecily,with Tim Wylton as Canon Chasuble, in rehearsal.

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The Production The Director Peter Gill (1939 - ) Is one of Britain’s foremost theatre directors. He is also a playwright, script writer and television director. Peter Gill was born and raised in Cardiff. He started work as an actor, both on stage and on film. He went on to direct at the Royal Court, founded Riverside Studios and the National Theatre Studio. Known for his plays and adaptations, he is considered to be one of the most important directors of the last thirty years, beginning with ground-breaking productions of plays by D.H.Lawrence, Heathcote-Williams and Joe Orton at the Royal Court Theatre, where he was Assistant Director and an Associate Director. During the seventies and eighties he directed major productions

of classical work. He was the founding director of the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, West London from 1976 and went on to set up the National Theatre Studio while he was Associate Director at the National Theatre (1980-1990.) His award winning play, The York Realist (2002) explores the relationship between a working class Yorkshireman and a young man who is directing the York Mystery Plays in the 1960s. “That there is no legislating for genius should go without saying, of course. Singular talents will always bust their way through.” Peter Gill on new playwrights.

“I have nothing to declare but my genius.” Oscar Wilde

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The Production career has continued for forty years, with over fifty productions. One of the highlights of his career was working at the Harland and Woolf shipyard in Glasgow, just after it closed down, making The Ship with Bill Bryden. For this, he built a 67 ft wide model of the inside of a ship that housed no fewer than 1200 people.

Designer William Dudley William Dudley is one of the most influential and innovative theatre designers in the world, having won no fewer that six Oliviers, not to mention numerous other awards. He spent many years at the Royal Court and the National Theatre. Dudley was born just after the end of the Second World War, in Islington. From the age of four, he could draw as well as an adult. After attending a grammar-school education he studied at St Martin's Art School but he did not get on with the styles of abstract art which which were popular there. However, he was fortunate to meet the artist Leon Kossoff, who introduced him to the work of Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, who became important influences on his own work. As a teenager, Dudley had seen Lionel Bart’s Oliver, designed by Sean Kenny. Later he was impressed by Joan Littlewood’s production of Blitz at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. He wanted to find a way of combining his artistic skill with his love of theatre. In 1964 to 1965, he worked with the Unity Theatre and at Stratford East.

As Dudley recalls "I was the token Englishman. At the close of each performance, the audience was led down the shipway. This was real people's theatre you had to weep". He worries that young people no longer believe in live theatre. In some of his recent work he has embraced new technologies. He hopes that some of these computer-generated innovations will appeal to the games console generation. His desire is clear as he says: "what I'm proposing is just one possible way of getting young audiences back into theatre".

Discussion Point

How would you encourage more young people to watch and enjoy live theatre?

"I ran away from art school to join the theatre.” He went on to work at the Royal Court, where he first worked with Peter Gill. His w w w. m o u s e t r a p . o r g . u k


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The Production The Actress Penelope Keith Most well known for her television performances in the seventies classic comedy series, The Good Life and for creating the character of Audrey in To the Manor Born, Penelope Keith was born on 2 April 1940 in Sutton, Surrey. She was rejected by one drama school for being too tall but went on to train at the Webber Douglas Academy. She subsequently worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the Aldwych Theatre, laying the foundations for a successful career on stage and television. We were lucky to be able to catch up with Miss Keith during the whirlwind of preview week at The Vaudeville Theatre.

What influences in your childhood made you want to be an actress? I clearly remember being taken to the theatre by my mother. The show was Cinderella. My first role on stage was at school, where I played a mauve fairy. It was a long time ago!

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How did you and the Director, Peter Gill, work together to bring a wellknown character to life in such a fresh way? Peter and I work in the same way, getting all the clues from the text. One of the reasons I like acting is that you discover the different ways in which authors use our beautiful language. The handbag line does sit like a monkey on your shoulder, but I've tried to shake that off by looking at the play as a whole.

Your costume in The Importance of Being Earnest is really striking. Did you wear the costume in rehearsals? In rehearsal we have long practice skirts and the right high heels, called character shoes, and parasols. The corset definitely helps create the character!

Why do you think it’s important for young people to see classic plays? So that they can hear how a master, like Wilde, uses our beautiful language. What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become an actor? Read, and see, as many performances as possible - money permitting!

Penelope Keith in rehearsal with (left) Rebecca Knight and (above) Henry Hadden-Paton

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The Production Attracting an Audience "The artist is the creator of beautiful things." Oscar Wilde

Worksheet 1. What is your first impression of the title design (right) and poster image (left) above? ........................................................................................................ ........................................................................................................ ........................................................................................................ ...................................................................................................... 2. Whose name is biggest? Why do you think this will help sell the play? ........................................................................................................ ........................................................................................................ ........................................................................................................ How do you find out about what plays are on at the theatre? ........................................................................................................ ........................................................................................................ .................................................................. 3. The graphics (style of the writing) are from a particular period in history, can you find out when? Can you collect similar examples from art books or the internet? 4. When you come to the theatre, look at the outside of the building. What else can you see that is helping to give people information about the show? w w w. m o u s e t r a p . o r g . u k


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The Production Writing a Review Watch carefully during the play, and write notes at the interval, or after the play. These questions will help you: THE SET • what shapes, levels and colours so you see? • what sort of furniture and wallpaper can you see? What does it suggest about the owner of the house? • how are the exterior (outdoor) scenes created? COSTUME • what colours, styles and historical details are being used? • what does costume tell us about the status of the characters? • what is the relationship between the set and the costumes (colour, pattern, style) ? LIGHTING • how does the lighting change to show what time of day is it? • how does the lighting change if the scene is outside? • what is the light source in this scene: sun/ candle-light/ lamplight/ electric light? • what colours and shades of colour are being used? • what levels of brightness are being used and why? • think about angles of light, who is well lit and who is in shadow? • how do the lights help create the atmosphere and emphasize the emotions being played out on the stage? THE PERFORMERS • how has each actor used voice, movement and gesture to create character? • how do the actors use the set? • how do the actors relate to the audience? AND LASTLY BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY • what does the play make you think, feel, want to talk about?

"One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art." Oscar Wilde

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Further Resources The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (Penguin Popular Classics) (Paperback)

A slim, good value edition.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (Methuen Student Editions)

Plenty of explanatory notes, useful for students for whom this is a set text.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Collins Classics) (Paperback) by Oscar Wilde

Everything he ever wrote in one volume, including plays, poems, novels and children’s stories

Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellman, (Penguin, 1988)

The 1952 film of The Importance of Being Earnest on DVD. (The Criterion Collection)

Starring Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans, widely thought to be a classic interpretation.

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) Film starring Rupert Everett.

A useful comparison to the original text, but some liberties taken with Wilde’s writing.

Weblinks http://www.theatreroyal.org.uk – Theatre Royal Bath, creators of the production http://www.nimaxtheatres.com – Owners of the Vaudeville Theatre http://www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk – site of the Society of London Theatres (previously the Society of West End Theatres.)

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Mousetrap Theatre Projects offers young people with limited resources and access, the opportunity to engage with the best of London’s live theatre. We are an independent charity, working with theatres in the West End and across London. Since 1997, we have taken nearly 50,000 young people to the theatre. We create innovative and exciting theatre access, education and audience development programmes. Young people take part with their school or youth group, their family or their friends.

Mission Statement We believe that all young people should have the opportunity to attend outstanding theatre, irrespective of their cultural, social or economic background. Our mission is to increase young people’s access to the best of live theatre in London (particularly those young people with limited resources, opportunities or support) and to enable them to engage creatively with that experience. As an independent charity, Mousetrap Theatre Projects is in a unique position to select the appropriate or relevant theatre productions in and beyond the West End that stimulate and inspire young people. We devise programmes that use theatre as a catalyst to explore ideas, learn new skills, develop creativity and offer new perspectives. At the heart of our education and outreach work is the desire to open doors to young people who might otherwise consider London’s rich cultural heritage closed to them.

Areas of Endeavour Access:

To provide young people with limited resources, support or a disability, the opportunity to attend London theatre, often as a first-time experience: The London Theatre Challenge, Family First Nights and Envision

Education:

To enable young people to engage actively with their theatre experience and to use theatre as an educational resource in and out of the classroom to stimulate creative work and to develop theatre-related skills: TheatreWorks, Play the Critic, Insights, WriteThinking, TechTaster and PowerPlay

Audience Development:

To encourage a legacy of theatregoing among young audiences by reducing barriers and enhancing their knowledge and understanding of theatre: C145 and the Teachers Preview Club

Creating Links:

To develop collaborations with young people, schools, teachers, artists, arts organisations, youth groups, community organisations and social service agencies with the theatre industry: Meet the Artists Events, Special Seminars/Round Table Discussions, Teachers’ Advisory Group, and the Teachers Preview Club Mousetrap Theatre Projects Bedford Chambers The Piazza Covent Garden London WC2E 8HA

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The Importance of Being Earnest education pack