Stuart Macbeth talks to artistic director at Mandala Theatre Company Yasmin Sidhwa

Yasmin Sidhwa has been a familiar face at the Pegasus Theatre for the past 17 years. But later this month Yasmin begins a new challenge in a new role, as artistic director of Mandala Theatre Company.

Yasmin set up Mandala as a community interest company, which will work in Oxford with actors aged 18 to 25 from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Having already established Mesh, the Oxford International Youth Arts Festival and set up the Pegasus Youth Theatre Company, it shouldn’t be too much of a big ask.

That she is brilliant at her job, most recently creative learning director at Pegasus, was recognised last year with an Oxfordshire High Sheriff’s Award, bestowed upon her for services to the arts and young people.

So where did this yearning to involve and introduce young people to the theatre come from?

“Growing up in Essex my own school didn’t even teach drama” she admits. Instead Yasmin’s own passion for theatre was nurtured by her parents.

“I think my dad would have liked to have been an actor, but his parents wouldn’t let him so he trained as osteopath. My mum loved going to the theatre though. We weren’t well off but going to the theatre was something we always did as a family.”

It meant that Yasmin was inspired to study drama at sixth-form college in Colchester.

“I was always looking for opportunities to do creative stuff. After leaving Colchester I was very lucky to train and gain my BA in theatre arts at Bretton Hall College in Yorkshire. A lot of great talent came out of there!”

Yasmin went on to work with Greenwich Youth Theatre and Tara Arts, the UK’s first Asian theatre company, before spending two years treading the boards with the National Theatre. Other acting credits include spells in rep, radio plays and television shows including Wycliffe and The Bill.

“Then I moved to Oxford simply because my partner moved here. Initially I didn’t want to leave London because I didn’t think I could ever get a job as an actor,” she laughs. Instead she landed freelance work at the Pegasus.

Yasmin’s partner, Euton Daley, was artistic director of the Pegasus Theatre for 23 years and then CEO. The couple still live in Cowley and have three children aged 21, 19 and 16.

“We worked together for 17 years at Pegasus. But because we met working together at Greenwich Youth Theatre we were already very used to it. You have to be very professional. The majority of the time people didn’t know we were married.”

“When I joined Pegasus it was a much smaller organisation. Now there is huge amounts of outreach work, and lots of work in schools.”

Then in 2011 Pegasus took some young people out to perform at international festivals.

“I came come back from one in Grenoble and thought, ‘why aren’t we doing this in Oxford?’” she remembers. “And as a result Pegasus went on to work with other companies from places including Iraq and Gaza. We travelled recently to Greece where young people from Oxford met with similar groups from based there and from Germany. Together we took a look at what it was like living under totalitarians. We all read Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich together. Everyone gets on amazingly well.”

And what did it teach them?

“There were impromptu discussions in which our young people would never have taken part without their involvement with what we do at Pegasus. It has really given young people the chance to meet and work with others.

“We’ve brought them together in an international context. It’s been about young people being able to empathise and step into other people’s shoes.”

Not that Yasmin’s work is for the privileged. “No,” she says in horror. “It’s important that we make sure the arts are not just seen as something for the elite. We work so hard to get a good mix of people. We look out for bursaries, and fundraise for our free or assisted places.

“What young people who come to Pegasus will tell you is that they come here from every walk of life. This is their meeting place. A place where they can all be equal, where everyone’s view is valued. They can grow up here in a culture of acceptance.”

Yasmin’s last day at the Pegasus was on July 31.

Although she is sad to be leaving, she is excited about the three-year artistic programme she has put together for Mandala.

“I’ve never felt like I was standing still with Pegasus. But I’ve spent a lot of time with the business side of things, with the fundraising. Now I am at the stage where I want to focus on the art.

“Mandala has been founded to use the power of theatre to change lives, to build a sense of community and to foster social justice. In our three-year programme we’ll focus on place, identity and belonging, all in relation to young people.

“In our first year we are working with researchers from the Department of Social Policy at Oxford University. We’re looking at what happens to people who come to this country from places like Afghanistan. They want to believe they belong here, but don’t believe they can.

“We’ll be bringing stories into the mainstream that people aren’t usually exposed to, taking these stories out to schools, running workshops, starting a dialogue. This work is going to be entertaining. We will be telling amazing stories.

“And we are going to work towards being a national and eventually, international, touring company.

“I have big dreams for this!”

Yasmin has put her first bid into Arts Council England and officially takes up her new post in the last week of August.

“I’m already excited about my first day” she says.

“I want young people to use the arts to make a difference in the world.

“There are so many people doing it for ego, fame and celebrity. For me it’s all about wanting to share the lives and stories of people who aren’t seen, who aren’t heard, and to achieve it all through creative art.”