A week today my debut play, Burning Books opens at the Wolverhampton Arena Theatre for two nights before being performed at Curve Theatre at the end of the month. I've been banging on about it on social media for months and I thought it would be helpful to explain a bit about its background in more than 140 characters. Especially as I've helpfully bracketed everything I've produced over the last 3 years under the 'Burning Books' umbrella. God help me when I have to come up with a new title.
The play is an adaptation of my poetry and music show (of the same name!) which I toured with my band, Jess Green and the Mischief Thieves in 2015. That show was an adaptation of my poetry collection (of the same name!) which I published with Burning Eye Books earlier that year and which was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award.
I decided to adapt the show in to a stage play after the unexpected and overwhelming reaction that I had to my poem, Dear Mr Gove, to the Burning Books show and to the collection of poems.
On the tour people who had just seen the show would come and speak to me afterwards which was great; performers love when audience members come to say nice things! People were responding by telling me about their own experiences of working in education or their daughter's, their neighbour's, their neighbour's daughter's - and they were so animated to tell me these stories.
I began receiving emails at midnight, 2am, 3am, 4am, from people who had to be in front of classes in a few hours. I make it a rule to reply to every message I receive about my work but I wasn't sure what I could say in response to these that might be in anyway helpful.
The poems in the collection and in the show are based on things I had seen and experienced; they'd come from sitting in staff rooms before I went to rile up the kids for two hours in a poetry workshop or from chats I'd had with my Mum and sister (both exhausted teachers) in the pub on a Friday night. I began to realise how much all of this wasn't just existing in my bubble but was the experience of almost every teacher who got in touch with me.
I decided that I wanted to write a play about this; a play felt like a broader way to tell multiple stories whilst simultaneously being able make real the details of the impact of teaching on the every day lives of teachers.
I put a call out on Twitter for people who worked in schools who would be happy to be interviewed and the response was incredible. Through Skype, phone, email, over coffee, over pints, over a quick ten minutes in a train station I collected stories of education professionals from around the UK and those further afield. And they all had a resounding theme - that the job has become impossible, that even if you've gone in to it with the best of intentions, to make a positive impact on the lives of young people, that aim has become impossible when your day is filled with reaching unrealistic targets, writing reports no-one ever reads, that only exist in case Ofsted drop by, with teaching a curriculum which is outdated and almost entirely irrelevant to the lives of the kids you're working with. And the hours are long, your job and reputation are constantly on the line, you're not paid enough to be as stressed as you are and on top of that every day the politicians and right wing media tell the parents of the kids you're teaching that you're not working hard enough to deserve the pay cap to be lifted, or to receive that pension you were always promised.
And of course the human side of all of that is teachers with undiagnosed mental health problems who don't get home in time to put their kids to bed 5 nights a week, who work all weekend and all through the holidays and when they decide to instead spend time with their actual children they feel guilty for letting down the ones they're responsible for in the classroom. And so it spirals and spirals and spirals until what? They give up? They decide that in fact, it is too hard, it is too much, it's not worth ruining themselves and their families over.
So I've attempted to write a play about this. And after some generous Arts Council funding, support from both Curve Theatre and the Arena Theatre and many many many drafts I have a final piece which will be on in Wolverhampton 6th and 7th Oct and in Leicester 25th - 28th Oct.
If you go to see it I would love for you to get in touch and let me know what you think.
I hope that Burning Books asks questions which are becoming increasingly important. What do we do when are losing so many good teachers? When we have an education system buckling under the weight of government cuts?
This is a story of protest and the teachers who fight back.