Jo Fisher, CEO of FOOTLIGHTS theatre school, has been nominated by journalist Abigail Etim-Reid. A trained actress and teacher, Jo grew up in Higher Openshaw, a deprived area, left school aged 14 with no qualifications and became the first milkwoman in Manchester in 1988 at the age of 18!
Although, as a child, Jo loved literature, she was not encouraged to pursue her ambitions but instead expected to drift into an unskilled job. Jo fought against this and, in 1992, decided to fulfil her dream and train as an actor.
She ‘fell’ into teaching and discovered she had as much passion for this as she did for books and acting.. Jo is an excellent role model with whom young people can identify, inspiring them to make the most of their talent and develop new skills.
Who has she helped?
Abby says “Jo’s classes are aimed at children from the ages of 3-18 as well as adults. She creates dramatic work using drama as a vehicle for social change to deliberately support and help young people recognises risky behaviour and hopefully prevent them from making bad choices.
She has tackled hard hitting issues such as child sexual exploitation, Internet grooming and cyber bullying, hate crime, and the atrocities of WW1. Jo isn’t afraid to expose her characters in her plays if it will help prevent the social issues mentioned. She’s willing to be answerable for the content.
“Jo says: “One of the reasons I started Footlights is because I wanted to engage with young people, take them off the streets and onto the stage. I also thought I could provide a better service than our competition!”
She recognises the importance of working collaboratively to achieve the best outcomes and her enthusiasm and tenacity has led to partnerships with senior educationalists, police and community services. She firmly believes that working with the right people, both inside and outside the business, is fundamental to success.
There are now around 16 FOOTLIGHTS Theatre School Franchises in the North and Jo has brought the art of drama and musical children to hundreds of children. Her mission is to educate, entertain and communicate.
FOOTLIGHTS’ work has positively changed the lives of thousands of people in Greater Manchester, such as Zac Challinor, a young offender from Salford that we rehabilitated in 2013. Jo sought stories from the 2011 youth riots, for ‘The Queen is Dead’, a play FOOTLIGHTS produced about the disturbances. Whilst he was in prison, Jo interviewed Zac about his involvement in the riots, where he set fire to a BBC broadcast vehicle.
Her interview with Zac formed the basis of the sellout play, performed at the prestigious Lowry theatre. The audience included invited, local leaders such as Salford University’s Vice Chancellor. It was with their help and Footlights, that on his release, Zac secured a teaching assistant job. Since, he has attended the House of Commons and has won multiple awards including Adult Learner of The Year. He continues to thrive.
Abigail says “Everything! She, like the phoenix, has risen from the ashes. Literally! Everything has been against her from the moment she hit teenage years, she was abused in her first relationships, she left school without any qualifications, she retrained aged 21, and she was integral to bring up someone else’s child.
Whilst training, she woke up with Bell’s Palsy, a paralysis that affected one side of her face. She beat every statistic and faced it literally head on, throwing herself into the public arena, she continued training and obtained at BA Hons, then attained a PGCE.
Jo has worked tirelessly in the community, in schools and with every young persona and children she possibly can! She now boasts her own 120 seat theatre and continues on her journey as playwright and producer.”
What has she learned? Any challenges?
Abigail says “Jo is inspirational. She doesn’t do speeches. But spend time on her presence and you walk away with the belief that the world really is your oyster, if you want it to be.”
“Jo aims to tackle Black History Month next year though the delivery of a heart wrenching play (that she has written) in primary and high schools across the North West.
It will offer real opportunities for learning in schools as she realises that this is an area many primary schools fear tackling because of lack of knowledge and/or lack of resources. There also tends to be a ‘scare’ barrier that prevents education from tackling the issues Jo is not afraid to face. And there’s probably more!”
What advice, contacts or resources would help?
Abby says “You’d have to speak to Jo but so believe she deserves nationwide recognition as playhouses, schools and theatres throughout the country need to be showcasing her work…. It’s brilliant!”
Jo says “An excellent mentor to take us to the next level would really help and just having the network of support.”
Why we’re sharing these stories
An individual or organisation from each of our five categories will be recognised at our Igniting Inspiration recognition event in November, but we want to publish all relevant stories to spread awareness of all the positive work that goes on in the North!