Giving Everyone the Spotlight: A Chat with Sir Richard Stilgoe

Harriet Wilson

So the snow's melted, and it seems that those of us in and around London have a week of rain to look forward to. Perhaps we could all use a little inspiration to pick us up, and where better to find that inspiration than at the Orpheus Centre, an educational charity helping to improve the lives of young, disabled people with a passion for the arts. I've been talking to Sir Richard Stilgoe, founder and trustee, about the Centre's 20th anniversary year.

Looking back, Stilgoe recalls some of the Centre's most significant milestones, including “the moment when the Arts Council Lottery gave us just over two million pounds to build the centre, the moment when it opened,” as well as “the day we performed at Glastonbury,” and “the evening when two of our Alumni performed at Windsor castle for the Queen’s eightieth birthday party”.

In 2007, the Orpheus Centre was established as a college. Stilgoe comments that this in particular was “a big step.” He goes onto say that: “It has taken us a while to get things right from Ofsted’s point of view, but our most recent inspection (in January) confirmed that we are, indeed, “Good”!” Whilst “good” might seem to be an understatement considering the work that this centre does, obtaining this result is a big achievement for any school or college.

 Sir Richard Stilgoe at the Orpheus Centre

Sir Richard Stilgoe at the Orpheus Centre

But the journey doesn't end there. “We plan to continue improving what we do,” says Stilgoe, “becoming “Outstanding” by our regulators’ standards. Our focus is on becoming a centre of excellence for communication and social interaction. We want to hone our unique approach of using the arts to enable independence and share this approach with others – take our work into more prisons, more pupil referral units, more places where the example of the Orpheus students can inspire other people struggling to cope.”

A truly passionate believer in the work that the Orpheus Centre does, Stilgoe goes onto say that: “like all charities, we hope to become unnecessary because all young disabled people are accepted into excellent mainstream schools.”

Currently, the Orpheus Centre is making a huge difference to the lives of almost 30 full time students living in independent flats, and around 20 day students. Stilgoe recalls the touching story of one particular former student. “He knew his life was going to be short and had planned every detail of how he was going to be buried. When the coffin came in it was a perfect replica of the Tardis. The entire congregation roared with laughter, which was exactly what he hoped would happen.

“The young man in question – a wheelchair user – had a communicator because he found speech very difficult. A friend once asked him, while I was there, “Don’t you find it frustrating not being able to walk and talk?” He painstakingly typed out on his communicator, “I don’t want to walk and talk. I want to sing and dance.” I will never forget that.”

This is the Orpheus Centre's 20th anniversary year, and plans are underway to make it the Centre's best year yet. “We have a lot of activities planned,” Stilgoe comments. “Orpheus – the Mythical, a musical I have written for the students to amaze in, is at the Other Palace Theatre from 23rd to 31st March.

“We are appearing at the summer banquets of several city livery companies. We have a voyage with the Jubilee Sailing Trust in July. Our royal patron, the Earl of Wessex, who opened the centre twenty years ago, will be coming to one of the two galas at my home, Trevereux Manor, which is being organised by my son, the jazz musician Joe Stilgoe. Everyone brings a picnic and we serve champagne – it’s a very popular event. The Earl of Wessex will also be hosting a reception for us at Bagshot Park later in the year.”

Stilgoe observes that it's going to be “a busy year”, and there is certainly lots to look forward to. “By the end of it, more people will have seen and heard the Orpheus students and say, as I have heard so many people say, “I didn’t know they could do that!”

As well as being the Orpheus Centre's founder a remaining trustee, Sir Richard Stilgoe's career has spanned from writing (including writing lyrics for Cats, Starlight Express and The Phantom of the Opera), to acting on screen and stage, and beyond. He was awarded the OBE in 1998, and was knighted for charitable services in 2012.

More information about the Orpheus Centre can be found at: https://www.orpheus.org.uk/