Perhaps no group has suffered more under the Walker administration than teachers. Not only were they subject to cuts in salary and benefits, but they were portrayed as greedy and more interested in their own union power than the children they teach.
In response, Mercury Players Theatre presents Talking Out of School, 13 original short plays written by Wisconsin teachers, kindergarten through college. Produced by Marcy Weiland and husband John Smith, the show gathers stories from the classroom and lets educators share their thoughts and experiences. The play opens Jan. 6 at the Bartell Theatre.
"Mercury Theatre has done shorts ever since its first year, but this year we focused on educators because we felt there was a clear agenda to obliterate public education," says Weiland. "We wanted to do a show in support of teachers, to give them a voice, so that people aren't speaking for them."
To that end, last summer Weiland and Smith started pairing teachers with three local playwrights: Jan Levine Thal, Holly Walter Kirby and Marty Mulhern. At first the response from teachers was slow, but as word of the project spread, good material accumulated. "We wanted teachers that had never been playwrights, and last summer, I think educators already felt overwhelmed by what was happening," says Weiland. "Finally, there were a few brave souls."
The resulting shorts - a mere 5-10 minutes each - range from anecdotal to conceptual. In one, a student's water breaks while her class is reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Other plays feature dead substitutes and zombies.
While a handful of pieces are overtly political, others explore the wide-ranging emotional landscape of being a teacher in today's public school environment. Common themes: confronting retirement, dealing with students' triumphs and tribulations, and the rewarding sense of purpose that comes with changing people's lives for the better - in the moment, or in the future.
Mercury is giving audiences the rare opportunity to not only enter the classroom, but to share the inner thoughts of a besieged group. It's not surprising that teachers are demoralized by the attacks on public education, and that many of them are questioning their calling. Is that where the story ends? Theatergoers are about to get schooled.