Manchester’s Unsung Heroes: Wigan couple show Willpower to run youth theatre for two decades

Not many people can say that they give up hours-a-week of their lives to deal with other people’s kids while not earning a single penny.

But Caroline Joynt and Tim Hans Smith do just that to run Willpower Youth Theatre in Wigan – a non-profit drama school that holds classes on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.

Since its beginnings more than 20 years ago, thousands of children from across the town and beyond have passed through its doors.

Every February and July, Willpower presents a musical production, with the pair penning the scripts, along with original songs composed by Tim.

The duo poured huge chunks of their free time into Willpower, and yet, as they told MM this week, the youth theatre came about as a bit of an accident.

“We never wanted to set-up a youth theatre!” said Caroline, who is a full-time casting agent when she is not teaching acting.

“We were both working as actors at the time, touring Shakespeare round schools, and we always had a question and answer session after the performance.

“We were always being asked where the pupils could go if they were interested in drama. The only thing we could say was Manchester Youth Theatre – but that was only during the summer.”

With the children enthusiastic about amateur dramatics, they soon wanted the chance to put on a show for all seasons.

“After years of being asked we finally thought we would do a summer school and see how it went and, at the end of the summer schools, we were asked – again by the kids – where they could do drama for the rest of the year,” she said.

“Again, we resisted and I think after three or four years of the same kids asking and asking we eventually caved in and said we would do a class on the Saturday morning, just see how it went!

“We had just one class for all ages with about 12 regular students and it just grew from there.”

The couple agree that although setting up a youth theatre was not their intention, the rewards of running Willpower outweigh any downsides.

Tim, a professional musician and composer, said: “You might first meet a member as a new and rather timid junior student and you get to see that personality grow and develop through maybe eleven years – more on occasion.  

“You see far more of their journey than any schoolteacher can – it’s a very privileged position to be in.

“The process doesn’t end with them leaving because then, as likely as not, you carry on hearing from them and meeting them, and you have this bond forged through many years.

“We do talk about Willpower being a family and I believe it is – I know that it sounds rather a cliche but for us it happens to be true.”

The theme of ‘family’ seems to run through Willpower. At the end of every final night of a show, the entire cast sing a song called Always By Your Side, which started life as a number in a show and went on to become a sentimental Willpower tradition.

Caroline said: “I love that on the last night of performance and I look around at all these wonderful faces with a mixture of smiles and tears.

“I see so much a sense of belonging and ownership, and I know that whatever goes on at school or in their home life that they have somewhere to come where they feel safe and able to be themselves and express their individuality.”

This sense of family is echoed throughout the entire youth theatre, with many students commenting how grateful they are to Caroline and Tim.

Peter Collins, a 24 year-old former Willpower student, now helps out at Willpower behind the scenes.

He said: “The fact that Caroline and Tim give up so much of their free time is astounding.

“What a lot of people don’t see is their behind the scenes work.

“Most people probably assume they turn up on Saturday morning and Thursday evenings and just ‘do’ a workshop.

“They tailor their workshops each week and are permanently developing new ideas.

“With the shows, they write everything from script to song, spend countless hours setting up additional rehearsals, making costumes, building scenery and so on.

“They work harder and longer hours than most people do in one day let alone a week.”

Peter explained how Willpower’s existence is driven by a need for an affordable performing arts group for young people in Wigan.

“Willpower exists on the premise that it continues because the students want it,” he said.

“On that basis, that they do so much to please other people is incredible.

Over the years there have been many special Willpower memories – from pupils successfully auditioning for high-profile TV roles to sold-out productions.

“My most overwhelming memory would have to be the ‘W’Oscars’ last year to celebrate 20 years of Willpower,” said Caroline.

“Tim and I were waiting for our cue to walk on when the opening film finished – and when we did the whole hall full of members stood up and applauded and cheered.

“It was the most amazing unbelievable feeling of years of love and affection. I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life.”

So with all the past successes that Willpower has enjoyed, what are Willpower’s future plans?

Caroline said: “Willpower’s future plans are just to carry on, for as long as we possibly can, and I don’t see any reason why it can’t go on forever!”

For more information about Willpower classes, ring 01942 745082 or visit the website

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