Have you ever wondered what really goes on in the staff room of a school? When the teachers are alone, sitting down after a long day, a cup of tea in hand and speaking freely? Chalkface, a new black comedy from Sydney Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, uncovers just that.
“The play is like a love letter to teachers,” playwright Angela Betzien explains. “It’s about the importance of teachers and how undervalued they are in our society. It’s a thank you for all that they do.”
Described as the love child of The Office and Teachers, Chalkface stars Catherine McClements as Pat, a primary school teacher jaded by her years of service and Stephanie Somerville, a recent graduate in her first job out of university and ready to change the world.
Alongside fellow cast members Ezra Juanta, Michelle Ny and Nathan O’Keefe, our band of teachers grapple with educational bureaucracy, workplace culture and, at times, each other, to do what’s best for their school.
“I wanted to write a play that is also about community,” Betzien adds. “For me, one of the richest communities that we all come into contact with, whether as a student, a teacher or as a parent, is a school community.”
Throughout her life, Betzien has been firmly embedded within educational communities. Both of her parents were teachers, and early in her career, Betzien wrote plays for young people which were performed in schools around the country. Now, a parent herself, she is often in and out of school on drop-off and pick-up duty.
“I noticed a really dark sense of humour around teaching when I was in staff rooms talking to teachers and hearing their stories. My parents would also come home with so many stories. I think I have been thinking about this play for 20 or 30 years, to be honest. It was always inevitable that I would write it.”
With such a wealth of firsthand experience behind it, it is no wonder Chalkface has been resonating so strongly with audiences. After seeing the play, many teachers have (jokingly) asked Betzien: How did you get inside our school? This is just like my staff room!
Another reason it’s resonating is that this play is funny. Really funny.
“Comedy is so hard. I don’t think I understood how hard until I tried to write one. I set myself a challenge of providing constant laughter throughout the play from beginning to end, which was scary,” she said.
“When you write comedy, you know whether you have failed or not immediately. With drama, people might have mixed feelings and can keep their reactions to themselves, so you don’t really get a sense of how the play is impacting an audience. But with comedy, you get it straight away. You know if people are laughing or not.”
Comedy is also collaborative. Along with the actors’ performances, director Jessica Arthur and designer Ailsa Paterson have each added another layer of humour to Betzien’s script. Paterson’s set, in particular, is spectacular. The details feel so accurate and lived in, offering many sight gags with closer inspection.
“Post-COVID, live theatre has a responsibility to bring people together again,” Betzien explains.
“It is the experience of sitting next to each other watching a story at the same time, and giving audiences a chance to see themselves on stage is really important. I think that is what theatre does best.”