Ian Mairs interview with Kathleen Dennehey
How did you come to write a play about modern education?
A great piece of advice passed along to me was to “write about a time when you were scared.” As a second career teacher, I have to say there was nothing which made my heart race quicker than having a roomful of ninth graders staring down at me for eight hours a day.
Assuming you are writing from an at least semi-autobiographical standpoint, I felt all the fear, impotence, exhaustion and anxiety I’ve ever experienced in a classroom experience- as a teacher. Care to expound on your experience?
I had done some teaching while I was getting my MFA in Dramatic Writing at Ohio University. College teaching was a snap. Three classes a week, twenty-five young adults who were all theater majors. A year later I landed a job teaching at an inner city kids at a college preparatory magnet school in a rough part of my hometown (Jacksonville, Florida). It was exhilarating and terrifying all at once.
I took the job initially because I had been freelancing for a while and thought it might be nice to have a steady gig (and some health insurance). By the time I realized I was in over my head, I had an even more important revelation: when I wasn’t acting like a crazy person, I was really connecting to the students in a profound way.
As someone who went to all-girls Catholic school, I always envisioned public school sort of like the Wild, Wild West- and your play supports that vision. Your take on the bureaucracy of how teachers are vetted, screened and how the education system appears to be failing our children is quite damning. Was it cathartic to write about it?
In the middle of my first year of teaching (which was almost my last year of teaching) one of the administrators recommended that I attend a workshop on classroom management. When I got to the workshop, the first thing they asked us was how we handled discipline problems in our classrooms. Many of the people in the class were elementary school teachers. They all talked about elaborate systems they had which involved some sort of reward for good behavior: stars or smiley faces or cards. When it was my turn to speak and the facilitator asked me what I did when students became unruly I said, “I stand on top of a chair and start to scream as loud as I can until I run out of air. It silences the kids for a minute or two. It also makes me very dizzy so I have to sit down right after.” At the lunch break, several of the attendees came up and said, “I scream a lot too. Thanks for being honest.” So then I knew I needed to write this play.
I love the two ghosts of the old teaching system. I had plenty of teachers like those two women, except they were nuns. I learned a great deal from nuns- probably out of fear. By including Helen and Phyl, are you commenting on how school, educators and learning have changed? How, in your feeling, has it changed? And why? Is it all just about money?
Most of my plays start out as just an image. The first thing I saw with this play was the two veteran teachers talking in the break room. It was a few months before I realized they were dead. Great teachers leave an imprint on a school, which can last for decades. Their practices are adopted and adapted by younger teachers. With Phyl and Helen, I wanted to celebrate the career teacher.
Was it fun to write characters as ghosts? Did you give yourself ‘ghost rules’? As in they can comment on the scenes but not making anything float in the air?
I enjoyed writing the ghosts because they give the play a theatricality. They also serve as a greek chorus of sorts.
Also admirable is how you depict the principal as a busy and complex woman, not just a stereotypical stern, ball-busting, child-hating rule enforcer. Kudos to you on finding the deeper layers underneath. I gathered that despite your feelings about the bureaucratic tangles that interfere with and short cut education and exhaust teachers, you genuinely like this character. Care to elaborate?
I think there are many wonderful people working as administrators. It’s a cheap shot to make them into mindless bureaucrats. All schools are villages. And every village needs a leader. I worked hard to make Lois (the principal) a rounded human being. She appears to be quite strong at the start of the play. But as the play goes on, the audience begins to see her vulnerabilities.
In your opinion, what is the dramatic struggle for Mitch in the play?
At the start of the play, we see Mitch in flight mode from a job which is overwhelming the rest of the play explores whether or not he is going to make the same decision about this job. I wanted to talk about what keeps a person at one job and running from another. And that wonderful moment in life when a person finds their calling.
Is Shep a good teacher who is just tired and fed up or has he just figured out how to survive?
Shep is a type of middle career teacher I encountered. He is at a crossroads. He sees the lay of the land and the news isn’t good. When Mitch shows up to be mentored, it forces Shep to confront his own misgivings about his choices.
Actually, all your characters seem to really care, but are hamstrung by their own struggles to affect serious influential change in the education model. Would this be something you took away from teaching? Assuming that you did and/or do teach?
All of my work explores human frailty. Playwright Marsha Norman put it this way:
“When an afflicted person is literally banging their head against the wall in front of you. They aren’t doing it because they want to upset you. They are doing it because it is providing them with some kind of relief.”
My plays are about the ways we bang up against each other and the world.
The students are fascinating, and based on stories of friends who teach, desperately accurate. I’m very curious about your depiction of Ty. There is a great dramatic tension whenever he is on stage. I’m curious about his secrets; which are never uncovered, which make him a bully to teachers and other students. Is Ty based on someone you had the luck (or lack thereof) to teach?
Ty is based on a student I had my third year of teaching. He did a lot of acting out in class. It was distracting and exhausting. At the end of the year, he revealed to the whole class he had been seriously abused as a child. He knocked me for a loop. I was so distracted by all his challenges, I did not understand they were a cry for help. Ty is not the victim of abuse. He has a severe case of untreated dyslexia. It is only revealed at the end of the play as he struggles to read Ellen’s journal aloud.
How does teaching change a person?
Gosh, oh gee oh wow. How does standing in front of the Grand Canyon change a person. It just does. Ya know?
Did you have teachers who formed and inspired you?
I dedicated this play to my high school speech teacher, Marilyn Olin, who got me my first real teaching job. Next year she will celebrate fifty years of teaching. She has been a lighthouse for me anytime I was lost at sea. About anything. She let me know very quicky, teaching involved giving of yourself in way which is profound and exhausting. It’s also the most rewarding feeling.
What (or who) made you a writer?
When I was studying acting at Florida State University, they assigned scenes from some really crummy plays. I kept looking for accessible writing. The summer between my junior and senior year, I wrote a play about my brother and two of his friends, which covered their high school experiences. I performed it. The play was a hit. And I was hooked.
Who are some of your favorite writers, and what are their influences?
Alice Munro. Toni Morrison. Chekhov. Lanford Wilson. Caryl Churchill.
Why do you write plays as opposed to screenplays or novels or crossword puzzles?
I have been doing it since 1986. I don’t really question it. It’s just what I do.