Tom Quinn ’91 stages a career with nation’s oldest theatre

Tom Quinn ’91 was always fascinated with the part of the civil-rights era that happened just before he was born. As a high-school teacher in the 1990s, he taught the subject with passion and ended up writing a play, Freedom Riders, about the original bus trip of Northern activists to Anniston, Ala.

It drew the attention of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world. Quinn had an acting apprenticeship there after Bucknell, where he majored in political science and theatre. He eventually got a job at Walnut Street, and for the last seven years has been the theatre’s director of education.

Quinn doesn’t act much any more at his job, but he does arrange and sometimes directs more than 250 plays that are staged at primary through secondary schools in Philadelphia and its suburbs each year. He also runs family events at the theatre itself, including performances of A Christmas Carol each winter, and summer camps and workshops for kids. In all, his programs touch more than 170,000 people each year.

“It is an amazing job, because you get to see kids be excited about theatre,” says Quinn.

One of his most memorable moments was taking a call in February 2017 from a history teacher in Anniston, the setting for his first play (he has since written 20 others). The high school there produced Freedom Riders and invited Quinn down to see and critique it. He spent several days there in March 2017 and wrote a reflection on the experience.

“I am not sure if I changed anyone, but Alabama changed me,” he wrote. “It taught me we are never done learning, never done experiencing and never done challenging ourselves and everyone around us.”