Can you describe your background?
I come from a working class family and grew up in Birmingham. I went to a large state school which offered a brilliant classroom education. But there were no extra curricula opportunities. There was school, then the park.
Did your passion for drama begin when you were a child?
Yes. I wrote plays as a kid. I remember a series of plays I wrote when I was eight years old about a witch called Pat who had a cat. There’s the rhyme! My primary school teachers allowed me to put them on. I think that’s where the seeds of my megalomaniac directorial ambitions were sown.
How did you pursue that passion?
I got involved with the local Operatic Society. But when I went off to study English at Oxford I found it really hard to break into the drama set. There was quite a public school clique. Roles had been cast before students even arrived. People would pack their suitcases already knowing they would be playing the lead in a forthcoming production. But I persevered and got onto the stage in the end. I have great memories of playing the dual-role of Edith Piaf’s side-kick, Antoine, and Marlene Dietrich, in a production of Piaf.
Can you describe your university acting career?
I discovered I wasn’t very good at it! That’s when I got into directing. I was much better at that.
When you applied for a teaching job at Bradfield College, did you know you would be the first female member of staff?
No! I had no idea. I only realised what a big deal that would be at the job interview. Once I started I found myself under the pressure to represent my whole gender. That was quite hard. I grew up acclimatised to sexism and looking back I didn’t challenge it enough. If I could go back in time I would be more political. But I just shrugged my shoulders and put up with it.
This was back in the 1980s — but it feels like another world. It’s only now, looking back at my history, that I realise I was destined to find myself in the job I have now. We all become the product of our histories, don’t we?
You threw yourself in at the deep end with Bradfield’s drama department, didn’t you?
Yes. They put on a triannual Greek play which is a really big deal. With the ignorance of youth I offered to take charge. I chose to do The Bacchae with massive sung choruses. I had to get a choreographer and a composer and ensure the classics department was onside. But I learned to be organised, persistent and persuasive.
You judged a drama competition at Eton shortly before joining the College staff and singled out a particular boy.
I’m very proud of that, yes. I insisted on creating an extra prize for a brilliant F Blocker who had no lines. He was playing Queen Charlotte in The Madness of George III and he was just full of pathos as he stood to one side, watching the King raving. He told a complete story in total silence. His name was Eddie Redmayne.
People have a sense of Etonians as emotionally repressed. Is that your experience?
Absolutely not. I’ve found that, through our work in the drama department, the boys are constantly talking about their feelings and analysing the emotional subtext. They’re refreshingly open and reflective, and that is encouraged.
You recently sent a boy up for outstanding academic work for some stage lighting?
Yes. Because I couldn’t believe how creatively and sensitively this teenaged boy had transformed the shape and mood of the stage. He tickled every little angle. He had worked it all out on his own, and created visual poetry.
Did Eton celebrate diversity when you first arrived?
No. I don’t think it did. Obviously there have always been gay people at Eton, as everywhere. The school wasn’t any more homophobic than anywhere else. Lots of people felt the need to hide their sexual orientation. Like many other Independent schools, Eton had a worrying gender pay gap. But, even though my male colleagues would not like to think of themselves as sexist, there wasn’t exactly a rush of outrage on behalf of female colleagues when this was published. However, I’m proud of how quickly and openly the school addressed that. That’s why we’ve learned that we have to speak out to create change. It’s not enough to carry on quietly assuming things are changing.
What challenges do you face promoting diversity at Eton?
When you raise issues around racism, sexism and homophobia people get very defensive. What we try to get across is that these prejudices come from the institutions around us. Prejudice doesn’t come from inside of us: we’re not wicked people. We absorb these ideas from books, television, street names and even statues. When I look at the statues being pulled down now, I think: if we were judging most of these men only on their attitudes to women there would hardly be any left standing! To answer your question, the challenge is to enable people to talk about uncomfortable things.
What are your greatest achievements at Eton?
I’m proud of seeing the Pride flag flown on the official flag pole above the College gateway this year. I’m proud of the speed of change. It only appeared flying over some of the Houses last year. I was proud of the montage that appeared on YouTube featuring testimony from mothers, fathers, House Masters and heads of department. I’m proud that our gay staff feel so welcome here. I’m proud of the work we’ve done on gender equality.
What are your goals?
We need to do more on race now. Black History month will be less about people coming in to lecture us and more about the boys discussing their own experiences.