Living the dream

Living the dream

South Wales Evening Post, 28 March 2015

Fifteen years ago, Jill Williams decided to follow her dreams and quit her job as a teacher to start her own theatre school. As she prepares to celebrate her anniversary, she tells MARK REES all about it.

It's probably safe to say that a lot of people dream of escaping the daily drudgery of their nine to five jobs, wishing to go it alone by setting up their own business, with their own ideas, and of course, being their own boss.

But how many people would be brave enough to see it through?

Fifteen years ago, Jill Williams was Head of Drama and Dance at Morriston's Bishop Vaughan Catholic School. But after the birth of her daughter she decided to take a huge leap of faith and follow her dreams, leaving behind a career she'd spent a decade developing in order to start her very own stage school from scratch.

The result was Swansea's Class Act Theatre School, and as we chat over a coffee on the eve of Jill's anniversary celebrations, she can now reflect on what was a brave, ambitious, and highly rewarding career change, and one she is continuously reaping the rewards for.

Although when I ask her about it she's quick to play down the risk, pointing out that she's still doing the same job that she's always loved doing, but she's traded security for artistic freedom.

"I often smile to myself when I get asked this question because, ironically, I feel I gave up teaching… to teach!" laughs Jill, who cuts a relaxed figure during our lunch get together, despite having a million and one other things on her mind right now. Like her theatre school's anniversary productions in Pontardawe and Swansea, and the small matter of finishing off her master's degree.

"Having my own theatre school was always a dream of mine, and my daughter Amber being born in 1998 gave me the incentive to follow that dream," she continues.

"It meant I could be with her in the daytime, and teach the classes in the evenings. Amber's birth was the start of it all, really."

And so it was that the arrival of her daughter allowed her to dedicate her working life to preparing other youngsters for the stage, something she became hooked on herself very early in life while growing up in Swansea.

"Singing and dancing was all I ever wanted to do," she tells me.

"My older sister, Julie, attended the Hazel Johnson School of Dance, and I would go with my mum to drop her off.

"She soon realised that I was desperate to join as well, and at the age of five I was singing my first solo, In the Good Old Summer Time, at the Patti Pavilion during their summer season.

"I stayed with Hazel for 17 years and that was such an amazing time. There was such a family atmosphere, and Hazel was such an inspirational teacher – she was like a second mother to us all.

"We took part in dance festivals and shows so regularly that I lived and breathed performing. We made lifelong friends there, Catherine Zeta-Jones being one of those friends, and we did many shows together.

"I remember we danced the duet of 42nd Street, and decided to go to London to see the show for inspiration. The next time I saw 42nd Street, Catherine was playing the lead role!"

And does she still keep in touch with Swansea's very own Oscar-winning actress?

"Yes, Catherine has continued in her support of CATS by sending messages of good luck to the cast for their shows," she says.

After starting out locally, it was soon time for Jill to head off and learn the ropes from the professionals at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, where she graduated in 1989 with first class honours.

And the rest, as they say, is history, with Jill now putting the finishing touches to the first of her ambitious anniversary productions.

"We're staging two impressive shows, and both take a look back at some of our favourite past shows," she tells me of the greatest hits productions.

"There's one this week at Pontardawe Arts Centre called Once Upon a Musical, and another one in July at the Taliesin Arts Centre called One Night Out Up the West End. The first one is a more quirky, as we join a new pupil, Ruby, as she starts her CATS journey.

"The other one will be more cutting edge, incorporating the best bits from our past shows but with interactive links including the use of verbatim theatre. It will also form part of the final assessment for my master's degree."

So now that everything has fallen into place, does she have any regrets about turning her back on a burgeoning career in education?

"I loved my ten years at Bishop Vaughan, and becoming a head of department was a huge privilege for me, but the job became so bureaucratic, and it meant that form filling often took my attention away from the job I loved to do," she explains.

"Now all I do is teach the curriculum that I choose. I can be more experimental and flexible, introducing new ideas and challenges to the students along the way.

"I had a great time devising my own schemes of work and planning productions, and I had a ready-made client base as many of the students I was teaching at Bishop Vaughan joined my school. Classes grew via word of mouth, and were soon full.

"I told myself at the time to take bite size steps and grow gradually, which is exactly what happened, and I would definitely follow this advice again."

And if there's one thing above all else keeping Jill on track, it's the beaming grins on the faces of her pupils.

"They are always making me smile with the things they come out with," she says.

"I know my children so well and I really do love being with them. I feel so lucky and blessed to have developed a career that stems from what was once purely a hobby for me, a hobby that I am so passionate about, and I feel so blessed to have been able to share this passion with others.

"I have made many wonderful friends along this journey and they are a huge part of the success story. Some people say that I'm a workaholic, and to those who don't know me, I can understand why it might look that way.

"But the truth is that when something gives you this much pleasure, you just want to keep it growing and enjoy the fruits of the hard work and, for me, that's the smile on the children's faces that makes my job the best in the world.

"I just can't imagine myself doing anything else!"

Mark Rees | Follow Mark on Twitter: @reviewwales | Email Mark:

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