It’s play time: writers revel in educational absurdity

3rd August 2018 at 00:00
At this month’s Edinburgh Fringe, a slew of acts will put teaching in the spotlight

Take a group of teachers to watch a play set in a school, and they might react in a completely different way to other audience members.

In Class, an award-winning Irish play at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, writers Iseult Golden and David Horan were taken aback when a “throwaway” line “brought the house down” with a group of teachers in the audience.

One character, when hearing that support workers are important in schools, quips, “When we can get them…”

“None of us had expected that to be a joke,” says Horan, recalling the belly laughs that tumbled down from the audience.

Horan and Golden had, however, already asked three teachers to read their script at various stages, to ensure an authentic representation of a school.

Class is about a meeting between a middle-class teacher and two recently separated working-class parents, whose nine-year-old son is having problems with reading. They all want the best for the boy, but “communication becomes a bit snarled and things go off the rails”, says Golden.

Class – which has just won the 2018 Writers Guild of Ireland award for best theatre script – starts off as a comedy of awkwardness akin to influential BBC sitcom The Office, but, says Horan, takes a darker turn when the teacher performs a “very unusual action”. The writers don’t want to give away any spoilers, but say it is not something teachers are likely to do in real life – although teachers have said they “understand the impulse”.

The awkward relationship with a pupil’s family will resonate with teachers who are hearing increasingly about the importance of making them part of school life (“Schools ‘must open their doors to engage parents’”, Tes Scotland, 26 January). But the play shows that, for the many parents who had a difficult time at school when they were young, even a well-intentioned teacher can cut an intimidating authority figure, and the education jargon they deploy can frustrate and alienate.

Horan says teachers are, dauntingly, expected to understand the “nuances of class and historical relationships to authority and education that are so vital and will affect an entire lifetime”. Golden and Horan, having dealt with teachers close up, believe they now better understand the complexity and huge challenges teachers face – in writing their play, says Golden, they became “more and more impressed” by the teaching profession.

Misnaming and shaming

The title of another Fringe show, Susan Macbeth, references “the most ridiculous exam answer” that performer Jamie Webb saw in his time as a teacher, in response to a question about Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

“One of my students somehow got it into her mind that Lady Macbeth’s first name was Susan and had called her that throughout the essay!” he exclaims. “I have absolutely no idea why that could have been.”

Webb, 25, from Manchester, has written a one-man confessional comedy about his two years as a teacher in a rural school in coastal England, after he completed the fast-track training scheme Teach First in 2015. As well as sharing the funniest stories he encountered, he wants to “shed some light on how challenging a job teaching can be”.

“I have a friend who’s a director and looked at my notes and said you can’t put all that in – it’s not believable. But it is actually all true,” says Webb.

One colleague, for example, had to evacuate his classroom after a pupil brought in a python. Another student, during a class on persuasive writing, asked whether Martin Luther King was a character in the Disney film Tangled – “apparently there’s a character who sings about having a dream” – and insisted that the civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968, had visited his primary school the year before.

Webb had to stifle his laughter when a colleague, during a humdrum slideshow in an assembly on getting to school safety, concluded with the message, “Whenever you’re going anywhere in a hurry, accidents can happen.” He then clicked onto the final slide – a picture of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.

“People can say some weird stuff in assemblies, but as a teacher, you have to have that face of, ‘Yes, I absolutely agree with everything you’re saying,’” laughs Webb.

He says his worst two days at school were those that followed the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, when the mood was sombre, but he was cheered by the no-nonsense clarity that pupils often display. After Brexit, one pupil, aged about 11, said, “Sir, did we just do something really stupid?”

After his Edinburgh run, Webb will take up a Fulbright scholarship in bioethics at New York University, but his recent experience of an office job left him thinking that he may return to teaching. He says: “One day, I kept thinking, ‘What’s that emotion I’m feeling?’ I’m sitting there doing menial tasks, and I realised what it was – I was bored. I hadn’t felt bored in two years of teaching. Sometimes I was horrified or stressed out, and sometimes elated, but never, ever bored.”

Another show, Waiting for Ofsted, is written by Ben Jeffreys, a history teacher and head of drama at Westcliff High School for Boys, near Southend-on-Sea in Essex, and will be performed by 15 of the school’s pupils.

The idea for the play came during a staff briefing with his headteacher, who said “waiting for [English schools inspectorate] Ofsted is like waiting for Godot”, in reference to the celebrated Samuel Beckett play studied in so many schools over the years.

Schooling, says Jeffreys, can resemble the fruitless wait for Godot or the legend of Sisyphus, eternally rolling a boulder up a hill, with the philosophical questions they pose about whether life is about aiming for grand climaxes or finding meaning in the present. He says that staff and students are “constantly preparing for something”, whether exams, visits from inspectors or getting into university. “Meaning always seems to be given to life and education by what it’s leading to, what it’s going to culminate in, or where it’s going to get you one day,” explains Jeffreys.

But he feels that “perhaps daily life is the key thing” and that, for example, “students are always preparing for exams and not perhaps always engaging with the material they are studying”. He adds: “That was the idea – to explore whether there is something of what Beckett says about life that is specifically true in education.”

The cast will only rehearse the play in the week before they take to the stage in Edinburgh so that, says Jeffreys, they “keep it really fresh, rather than rehashing something they’ve done throughout the year”.

While Jeffreys has taken pupils at another school to perform at the Fringe – which starts officially today – none of his current cast has previously been to what is the world’s biggest arts festival.

“They have no idea what’s coming,” he says, and predicts that they will be “a little bit overwhelmed” at first by Edinburgh in August.

But he is convinced that they will go through a formative experience which, at a time when arts education in schools is in widespread decline, is more important than ever.

“Drama is so important in helping students consider different experiences,” he says. “It helps with self-expression and self-exploration – with who you are and what you’re here for. And I just think, in a whole range of ways, drama is critical to school life.”

Class is being performed at the Traverse Theatre (venue 15), 2-5, 7-12, 14-19, 21-26 August; Susan Macbeth is on at Laughing Horse @ The Cuckoo’s Nest (venue 106), 15-26 August at 3.15pm; and Waiting for Ofsted is on at theSpace @ Niddry St (venue 9), 13-18 August at 12.05pm

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