I missed this performance last year. I knew nothing about Nilaja Sun at the time. I researched. I found that another play about British convicts transported to Australia (Our Country's Good) played a big role in her highly successful solo performance that began as a modest off-Broadway show.
It's a first hand account of a teacher's experiences with the education system in modern America. Nilaja plays an array of characters with minimal set and costume which is made up for in talent. Audiences are flocking to it and critics the world over are raving about it. By all accounts, a wonderfully dramatic and comical performance, I don't intend to miss it again.
Your use of the play Our Country's Good in No Child is intriguing. Was that play somehow inspirational for your work or did you decide to draw on it while creating No Child?
I used the play Our Country’s Good as a great example of people who feel imprisoned while also creating theatre and art. It may not be a play that I would teach at this young early age of 14-16 but it highlighted the struggles of my students and how they’re similar to the struggles of the convicts of Australia in 1788.
Our Country's Good dealt with breaking down oppressive discipline and instilling convicts with dignity and a sense of self worth... how similar or dissimilar are the themes in No Child?
Very similar. The theme of infusing the children with dignity, self worth and empathy is something that’s always been very close to my heart as a teacher and in reading Our Country’s Good I was inspired by the hope it brought thematically.
You must be pretty happy with how well No Child has been received by both critics and audiences. Did you have any idea it was going to be quite so successful?
No, no idea. I wrote the play to be performed on off Broadway for a four week run and then to be on my way in someone else’s play. But alas, fate would have it, here I am 700 shows later in beautiful Australia.
Have you talked to school-aged audiences after they have seen the show? If so, what have reactions generally been like?
Yes. I try to make sure to set up a post show discussion with every high school group that sees the show so that all of the kids have a well rounded theatre experience especially if it’s their first show. It is an extremely lively experience to witness high-schoolers witnessing No Child.
You drew on your years of experience in the public school sector to create this work, yet there is a lot of humour in it. Was there much laughter in the schools in real life?
Even more laughter. Our kids are extremely funny particularly when they trust you enough to open up.
In fact, the more you read about what bad shape the public school system is in America, humour seems at face value out of place when dealing with such a topic. Your thoughts?
Not from where I see it. I’m working with the kids as individuals not as a national crisis that many politicians might see them as. They are all beautiful, filled with life and fully human and so it is up to me to mirror their humanity in its most rounded shape.
Works like this are a great way of drawing attention to a situation. Do you think they can actually affect things and make a difference?
Yes I do. Perhaps it’s not a global difference or national difference or even a state wide difference but I genuinely feel that when teachers see themselves portrayed on stage in that hour they get a moment to breathe and laugh and cry and thus refresh themselves for the next day or even year of school – and that seems pretty revolutionary to me.
Have things gotten better or worse since you were moved to create No Child?
I would say, in many ways it has stayed the same however this new administration sees the value not only in students improved performance but also values great teachers. Ask me again in 10 years.
How difficult is it to address what is a very serious issue while creating a work of entertainment?
This piece of theatre reflects a great part of my life that I enjoy and I honour and so it was not a great challenge and plus I’m an entertainer at heart.
The title alludes to a Bush policy on education... how political is your play?
Oddly No Child speaks of this policy in one sentence of the play, the piece is more emotionally political.
Who do you find responds best to No Child?
The New York Times wrote “Teachers will love no child” and I’ve always found that anyone who is an educator and who loves and appreciates educators will love no child as it applauds the greatness in the teacher.
Which are your favourite characters to play and why?
As an actor when I am performing I am completely “being” each character so therefore I love whoever I am at the moment and have no favourites.
Do you have a favourite line from the play that sums up the essence of the play?
As a playwright I see the importance in every single word said and every word unsaid.
Written and Performed by Nilaja Sun
Directed by Hal Brooks
Venue: Theatre works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Date: 7 – 26 May 2013
Time: Tues-Sat at 8:00pm Wed & Thurs at 1:00pm Sun at 5:00pm
Tickets: $45 full | $35 conc & under 30 | $40 Groups 10+ [plus booking fee]