Serious illness inspired former Doncaster secondary school teacher to set up her own theatre school

Cast members from the the Theatre Schools latest musical, 'Who's Your Mummy?'. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-13-10-18-EliteTheatre-1
Cast members from the the Theatre Schools latest musical, 'Who's Your Mummy?'. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-13-10-18-EliteTheatre-1

She was a teacher at a Doncaster secondary school for nearly 20 years.

But a bout of illness transformed Joanne Watkinson’s life. And now she has traded in life in schools  to set up her own stage school, staging drama classes and productions all across Doncaster.

Joanne had always wanted to run her own theatre school, and after training as a teacher, she went on to work at Armthorpe Academy, becoming head of performing arts there.

But her world was shaken when she was struck down by viral pneumonia.

She was bedbound for a year, and at one stage was concerned whether she would survive.

“It was a life’s too short moment,” she said. “That’s when I decided it was time to do what I’d always wanted to do.”

“I’d loved  putting on shows when I was a teacher – it was other things around teaching that was putting me off a bit.”

So Elite Theatre Arts was created, initially holding its sessions at Edenthorpe Scout Hut, initially just doing acting classes.

As it grew, it moved into a unit on Lakeside Enterprise Park, at Kirk Sandall, which become its studio.

That was three years ago. There were initially 10 students. That has now grown to 100 attending eight classes.

It is busy, and the group usually has several plays on the go at once, as the youngsters work towards a performance, often at Doncaster Little Theatre.

At the moment, one group is working on a children’s version of Legally Blonde. That is due to go on stage at the end of January.

Another is working on a musical show with an Egyptian theme, Who’s Your Mummy?

At the same time there are youngsters working on a performance of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The group has just been given a licence to do Elf the Musical next November, 2019, and is going to start rehearsals on what would effectively be its 2019 pantomime in February.

In the meantime, work is due to start on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in November this year, with auditions imminent ahead of a performance next autumn.

“We never turn anyone away,” said Joanne. “If you come along you are in in some capacity.

“We put  on shows at Doncaster Little Theatre, and we’ve also used Hatfield Woodhouse village hall  – we did Aladdin there – and we’ve used Dearne Valley Playhouse.

“But the first show we ever put on was Fame, at the Wilby Carr Community Centre in Cantley.”

The school is currently setting up an section for grown ups. They had their first proper session in October. Joanne sees it as an opportunity for people who enjoyed acting when they were younger and are looking for a new social activity. She is hoping that they will do their first show in February

Some of the schools’ pupils now have agents, and have made some money out of their hobbies.

Kelton Hoyland, aged 18, from Scawthorpe, has been in the CBBC drama The Dumping Ground, and is set to return to that show in the future, but has now left to go to university.

Another of the pupils, Thomas Vigrass, has appeared in two short films, most recently as a young Bruce Wayne in a Batman short. He has also appeared in adverts for pizza brands and nuts.

Abbi Watkinson, aged 13, has appeared in three short films, including one, called Elle,  which won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and included in its cast Isobel Allen, who appeared with Hugh Jackman in the film of Les Miserables.

Another, Becca Exley, is in the regional final of Open Mike, a national singing competition which will be held at Sheffield City Hall.

It is not just about those who want to be professional actors, although 10 of the youngsters who come to the group now have agents so that they can get castings.

“It’s about having fun and building confidence,” said Joanne. “There are a lot of children who come to us because they’re shy and want to build their self confidence.

“It’s all inclusive from those who have little confidence to those who want to be the next big film star.”

Previous Success

Joanne has previously seen one of her pupils at Armthorpe Academy make as a professional on the stage.

Lindsey Tierney was among those she taught in the drama department as a schoolteacher.

She is currently appearing in the production of Hamilton in the West End.