School’s out for summer: Next Lesson at Above The Stag Theatre

Next Lesson is the laugh-out-loud, thoughtful and inventive new play in the Studio space at Above The Stag Theatre, which charts 18 years in the life of a fictional South London school.

Partly based on writer Chris Woodley’s own experience, the show begins during the notorious Section 28 era of Thatcher’s Local Government Act, which prohibited schools from ‘promoting homosexuality’. Here, Above The Stag’s Jon Bradfield spoke with Chris ahead of the show’s opening this Tuesday (21 Aug).

Hi Chris. You’re a teacher as a well as a writer and actor – what do you teach?

I’ve been a drama teacher in secondary schools since 2006. I teach students aged 11 to 18 who can be hilarious, talented and challenging, but working with young people is an absolute privilege.

Were you out at school?  

I came out to my mum and dad when I was 14. My family were incredibly supportive and forward-thinking. Everyone knew I was gay at school and I had a hideous time. I was spat at, sworn at, shoved around – it was bullshit. However, outside of school me and my best mate Steve were hitting Soho, G-A-Y, Heaven and Popstarz, kissing boys and dancing on tables aged 15. We had a bloody riot! No one at school had a clue we were having so much fun, so at times it was like living in two very different worlds.

When are we talking about?

I was at an all-boys’ secondary school from 1993 until 1998. I hated it so much I left aged 16 and went to The BRIT School and studied theatre for two years. It was the best decision I ever made, I could be out and no-one would bat an eye lid. I wore slutty crop tops and fur coats and hideous cream trousers with black shoes in Croydon. That was 1998 – can you imagine?!

How is being a gay teacher. How do you navigate that? Any issues?

Homophobia from students towards teachers rumbles on in the education system. It often depends on how progressive the school is or how supportive the Principal/Head wants to be. I have a zero bullshit policy. I report every incident, I want the students to be accountable for their actions, I want their parents or their carers to be informed. Sometimes kids are fantastic and welcoming and sometimes kids just need educating on the modern and very diverse world we live in.

Have you had gay pupils – either openly, or who you think probably are?

When I started in my first school I was the only openly gay teacher and no kids identified as LGBTQ. I arrived and directed The Laramie Project for the school show and invited my partner to opening night. Straight teachers always had their loved ones at opening nights so I wasn’t going live my life differently. The next year about three boys came out and a dialogue opened up that changed the school quite dramatically.

Why did you write Next Lesson and how did you decide on those stories?

I couldn’t see a play that showed the lived experiences of Section 28 from the students and the staff. I wanted it to be less about the policy and more the personal, but that’s just my style. A handful of the stories are based on other people’s lived experiences, the rest is my experience. It was really important to me that lesbian and bisexual characters had a voice in this play. Often, women seem to be written out of our LGBTQ history, and it mattered to me that we see a broad spectrum of experiences.

You must have spoken with some interesting people about this…

After the first staged reading at Above The Stag I spoke with a number of students who lived through it and gay teachers who taught during Section 28. An English teacher later emailed me, detailing a heartbreaking story about being banned from teaching Oscar Wilde in his classroom and essentially getting the sack for being gay. There are so many stories out there.

Tell me about the performance in Parliament.

Twelve theatre students from The BRIT School performed Next Lesson in June 2018 to mark 30 years since Section 28. It was camp, powerful and hilarious. They cranked up Spice Girls, Kylie and I chuckled hearing lines about ‘blow jobs and wanking’ in the House of Lords. The students had a gay old time. The Principal of the school attended. He couldn’t have been prouder of me as a former student, and his current ones, for just smashing the show.

Next Lesson runs from Tuesday (21 Aug) until Sunday 16 September in the Studio space at Above The Stag theatre, 72 Albert Embankment, Vauxhall, London, SE1 7TP.

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