No Child…

Brisbane Festival

No Child…

Brisbane Festival and QUT in Association With Theatre Works and Melbourne Festival

Brisbane Powerhouse

26th – 29th September 2012

“There are no subjects that teach a child how to be human.”

Nilaja Sun’s No Child… directed by Hal Brooks, is precisely why we teach. And why we don’t teach. And why so many choose never to start teaching. And why so many choose to finish teaching. No Child… expresses why I started teaching. And why I stopped. It’s why I’m teaching again and why I said at the end of my first day at another new school this year, “OH. MY. GOD. I’m Michelle Pfeiffer and this is Dangerous Minds.” I’m not even in Mt Isa anymore. I’m teaching Performing Arts to a whole new demographic on the Sunshine Coast. The students are in Prep – Year 7. American followers, that’s kindergarten to the seventh grade. That means these kids are between 5 and 12…and they’re going on twenty-seven.

The law that is known as “No Child Left Behind’’ is the primary statute governing the federal government’s role in education.
First passed during the Johnson administration as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it was rebranded as part of its last major overhaul in 2001, when Democrats joined with President George W. Bush to make its focus the use of standardized test scores in schools, particularly those serving minority students.
While No Child Left Behind has been praised for forcing schools to become more accountable for the education of poor and minority children, it has been derided for what some regard as an obsessive focus on test results, which has led to some notorious cheating scandals. Critics have also faulted the law’s system of rating schools, which they say labeled so many of them low performing that it rendered the judgment meaningless.
The law set the lofty — and controversial — goal of making all students proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.

Source: The New York Times

During the show, Nilaja Sun steps into the shoes of 16 different characters, each offering their own perspective on the part a new teacher plays in their lives. Appropriately, Nilaja wrote the play like a lesson plan, to tell the story of “teaching artist”, Miss Sun, who takes on a notorious tenth grade class of “academically and emotionally challenged youth” (more commonly known as “delinquents”) once a week for six weeks to put on a play. The play Miss Sun chooses – and berates herself for doing so – is the Australian work by Timberlake Wertenbaker (not to be confused with Justine Timberlake) about British convicts on the First Fleet, Our Country’s Good.

“There is a way to help the growth of a soul of a child.”

No Child Nilaja Sun

Nilaja teaches her class – and us – that seemingly elusive skill, empathy, reminding us that there are kids who feel like prisoners long before they take their seat in a regular classroom each day. Sometimes it’s too easy to forget. She inspires, motivates and helps to free the souls of students who go through 20 – 30 minutes of security checks daily and who expect to go to jail. Or die at the hands of a Bronx gang.

Nilaja’s ability to embody each of the students, their classroom teacher, their principal, the security guard and the school janitor is beyond belief. Through subtle changes of breath, vocal tone and placement, posture, facial expression and gesticulation she is able to convey completely different personalities from one moment to the next. The changes in character are instantaneous and have the opening night audience transfixed. An empty stage, except for some chairs and a broom, and some stark changes in lighting to denote sudden beat changes, take nothing away from the sole performer.

I’ve never heard sustained silence in the Brisbane Powerhouse and I’ve never heard so much spontaneous, delighted laughter either. No Child… is bold and brave and riotous. It’s also terribly sad. The hilarious upbeat moments are delicately juxtaposed against devastating circumstances and the most maddening of outcomes. We feel every high and low with Nilaja. We feel her pain, her determination and we feel her struggling to keep on top of things. It’s so hard sometimes to feel like you’re a step ahead of the students. Sometimes it’s impossible and sometimes it doesn’t even matter. Sometimes all we can hope for is to stay in step with the kids, to slow down and replace expectation with acceptance. Place our faith not in the system, which continues to let us down, but in the students and parents, who are more open to change than they think. Nilaja boldly shows us variations on a theme that demands alternatives within the system.

I feel like giving Nilaja a big hug and telling her, “YOU ARE AN AWESOME TEACHER”. I feel like this is my story and the story of countless teachers – and parents – with whom I’ve worked and commiserated and celebrated the small successes. I feel like there are teachers in this audience. This is an audience who recognises the efforts and emotional struggle of teachers everywhere! And who appreciates the incredible journey that each character experiences, as well as the ambition, artistry and formidable talent of the teaching artist, writer and actor, Nilaja Sun.

“The arts, particularly theatre, teaches the students how to speak, how to communicate, how to empathise…”

Nilaja Sun’s is not just a virtuoso performance; it’s an awe-inspiring life-changing one. No Child… will challenge your view on this country’s education system as well as NYC’s. It will inspire you to consider your own education and perhaps it will even encourage you to rethink whatever pretty package you’ve designed for your children’s education. This show is superbly written, directed and executed and it feels like it’s come as a warning, at a time when we need to remember that once, we were all taught to be critical readers and viewers and thinkers. The themes promise to ring in our ears long after we’ve left the theatre. Now, if only our curriculum writers, policy makers and tired, undervalued teachers could all see this show and be (re)inspired to continue to make the changes we need to ensure no child is left behind.

No Child… goes to Melbourne next. Don’t miss it.


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