We ask this year’s National Play Festival playwrights to answer five questions about their writing process and what inspired their work.
Melbourne-based playwright Chris Summers started writing Pedagogy in the 2015 September school holidays, while teaching and studying full time in Horsham, North West Victoria. A year later, the play festival presents this gripping narrative exploring the idealistic notions of a young teacher, as her expectations of teaching and herself are challenged.
Pedagogy won the prestigious Max Afford Prize in 2016 and received further development at our National Script Workshop in March/April. We talk to Chris about the student teacher dynamic, representation of rural areas and what he was like at school.
What makes Pedagogy different from your run of the mill teacher student drama?
There’s a place for the salacious, sensationalised or sappy teacher / student story – they’ve been guilty pleasures of mine in the past, for sure. However, Pedagogy couldn’t be further from that. It is different because it is really exploring the transfer of ideas, opinions, frustrations, hopes and dreams between two individuals, one who is employed as ‘teacher’ and their ‘student’ who is supposed to learn from them. By exploring that transfer, how it works and fails and is ultimately compromised, the play is really trying to blur the boundaries between who teaches and who learns in a classroom (and how this plays outside the classroom). It’s also different because it’s about the Drama classroom – a space where boundaries are, in themselves, fundamentally challenged and reality frequently slips away. It’s raw and real to my experience: there’s definitely no Dead Poets Society standing on tables moments!
This play resonates very strongly with anyone who has been a high school teacher and some of the experiences in this play have the sense of being hard earned. Have you been in situations like this?
I’m currently undertaking a program called Teach for Australia where I studied secondary teaching in a six week intensive, then started teaching a full-time load in a high school in Horsham, North West Victoria. I’ve continued studying my Masters while teaching over the last eighteen months. It’s been incredibly challenging and rewarding, but the sheer unpredictability and emotional rollercoaster of the job – and University demands – have definitely taken a toll. The situations and characters in Pedagogy are based on many different students I’ve taught, situations I’ve been in and people I’ve met throughout the program. It’s a work of fiction, absolutely, but it’s also been a way of me processing what it is that I’ve been through, and how I feel about where I might go next.
It has been a while since a play about country Victoria has come forward. Do you think the experience of life in the country deserves better representation?
I grew up in Sydney and lived in big cities for the first twenty-six years of my life. I’d never experienced country life before Horsham, and I think I approached the idea of it with an arrogant, city-slicker mindset. Eighteen months later, I’m incredibly appreciative of the perspective I now have, so many of the excellent people that I’ve met, and the community I’ve slowly become a part of. Although it isn’t all roses, I think rounded representations of country Victoria – showing towns, like Horsham, wrestling with the old while trying to adapt to the new – are vital stories for everyone to experience; especially those in the cities. I recently saw a production of Felix Nobis’s play Boy out of the Country at the Horsham Town Hall which did a fantastic job of exploring many of those themes. With our biggest cities becoming increasingly unaffordable and perhaps unliveable, I think people are going to need to take living regionally more seriously.
Altruism seems to be a valuable quality for young professionals to add to their “story of self” these days. Are self-advancement and altruism mutually exclusive?
I thought a lot about this when writing Pedagogy – the play asks questions about whether the motivation to try and teach in a difficult setting may be less about social good, and more self-benefit upon packing up and moving on to the next job. I don’t have an easy answer though, and neither does the play, which is pretty reflective of my own experience. I think self-advancement and altruism can definitely co-exist in the moment, but which one wins out ultimately? And do they exist in equilibrium?
What kind of student were you at school?
I was so many different kinds of students, each of them equally insufferable. I was a goth who painted my nails with permanent black marker, I was a teacher’s pet, I was the kid who spent lunchtimes in the library, I was a class clown, I was the one who would always challenge the teacher and think I was smarter than them, I would get drunk in the schoolyard with my rag-tag group of misfit friends on the weekends, I was a poet and playwright and prefect, I was a middle-class ‘rebel’ with dyed blue / black / blonde / red hair. I think, like a lot of people, I had a pretty rough time at school just trying to accept myself and figure out who I truly was. It’s pretty weird that ten years later I’ve ended up back at a school, teaching – not sure high school Chris would have easily predicted that. But I’m a lot more appreciative of everything my teachers did for me now, and apologetic, too!
Thursday 28 July, 2pm
Saturday 30 July, 6.30pm
Photo credit: Pedagogy workshop at the National Play Festival 2016. Photo by Alexander Butt.