Giles Woodforde talks to the woman behind a leading city performing arts school

Search for ‘Stagecoach Oxford’ on the web, and the bus company is the first entry that pops up. But listed below is another organisation with the same name.

Based at Cherwell School, the other Stagecoach runs performing arts classes in singing, dance and drama after school, three days a week, for children aged four to 18.

Stagecoach Theatre Arts Oxford – to give the organisation its full name – is celebrating its 25th birthday this year.

It was founded by Maya Sprigg, and she is still enthusiastically in charge today.

But Maya didn’t first arrive in Oxfordshire to run a performing arts school.

“Ask me about Formula 1 motor racing,” she says as I arrange to visit her north Oxfordshire home.

“I was in the bath, and the telephone rang,” Maya reveals when I duly ask the question. “It was an old friend of my brother’s, and he said he wanted to form a motor racing team. He asked me if I would run it, since I’d started up a couple of companies in the past. I said ‘yes, of course’, even though I hadn’t a clue what I was getting into.

“We set up a team, which ran in Formula Ford. From there one thing led to another, and I ended up at Silverstone working for a team called Madgwick Motorsport, which in later years was allied to Nigel Mansell, and became Mansell Madgwick.

“I had a wonderful time travelling all over the world, and ended up living here, fairly close to Silverstone.”

So Maya gained much insight into how a great deal of money can run through people’s fingers extremely fast – there’s nothing like motor racing for that. But surely running an arts school is rather different?

“I do consider that motor racing is very much part of the entertainment industry,” Maya laughs.

“But apart from racing, I was also very much involved with the local church, and ran a children’s group there. We met every week, and put on pantomimes, drama productions, and generally had a load of fun. It was very much an amateur group, but I loved it.”

Stagecoach is a national organisation, franchised out in different parts of the country. So, I ask, did Maya march up to the boss, and say: “I’m going to set up in Oxford.”?

“Actually the boss was my brother – David Sprigg, who started the Stagecoach network in this country, and internationally as well.

“He was running some schools down in Surrey, and I said to him ‘I’m looking for something really positive to do with my life’. He encouraged me to start a Stagecoach in Oxford, and I haven’t looked back for 25 years.”

Stagecoach works with youngsters who simply want to perform for fun, but also with some pupils who are thinking of a professional career in the theatre.

“Our aim is that nobody should be excluded,” Maya explains. “There are some wonderful things to be learnt through drama for everybody. But, yes, some people do go on to work in the professional theatre – the number of people going into the business from Stagecoach in Oxford is really quite incredible.

“They go on to top drama schools, they go into film, TV, and sometimes into radio. Whether it’s singing, dance, or drama, we really do try and find the right niche for each individual.”

But Stagecoach charges for its courses. Does that mean that some talent inevitably falls by the wayside because families can’t afford to pay?

“We try very hard to make sure that everybody keen, gifted, and who really wants what we offer has the chance to join. Let’s face it, not all areas in Oxford are affluent, but we have one lad who is in The Lion King in Switzerland at the moment, and he’s also been on tour with the show in England. He doesn’t come from one of Oxford’s affluent areas, but we’ve made sure he’s had the opportunities he needs. He’s having a whale of a time actually.”

Maya and I go on to discuss stage presence – how a youngster can sometimes step on to a stage and instantly command attention, even though they haven’t yet done anything. Emma Watson is an example that immediately springs to Maya’s mind.

“She wasn’t with us for terribly long, but she certainly was with Stagecoach while she was doing all the recalls for Harry Potter – I think she had 24 recalls in the end. She had it from the word go: the moment she stepped in through the door you could tell that. She had the whole package from start to finish, and she was born that way.”

Twenty-five years on, Maya is obviously doing a job that she still loves. Has Stagecoach entirely taken over her life?

“I wake up in the morning thinking about it, and I go to bed at night thinking about it. It’s a total and utter passion.

I admit I might like a holiday from time to time, but there is always so much going on.

“One of the most important aspects of Stagecoach is the charity work that we do. We have a dance troupe that goes out and entertains in care homes, and we stage a very large charity show at the New Theatre every couple of years – this year we raised about £20,000 for two fabulous charities, ROSY, the Oxfordshire-based children’s charity, and Maggie’s, a cancer charity based at the Churchill Hospital.

“We do that by putting all the children from Stagecoach Oxford on stage, so from a very early age we are encouraging them not to just think of themselves.”

Maya and her husband Monty (“he’s an American photographer, which is very handy,” she laughs) have a daughter, Emily, who is now 20.

“Of course, she was force-fed Stagecoach from the age of four,” Maya admits gleefully. “She auditioned for AMDA, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and managed to get a scholarship.

“Before she left for America, we were going through all her old stuff, including her books from nursery.

“We found the ‘I am learning to write’ section in her exercise book, and it said ‘when I grow up, I will dance’.

“She wrote that aged four, and that’s exactly what she is doing at the age of 20. It’s quite spooky.”