I was a schoolteacher before I started writing for the theatre. I taught at Eastbrook School in Dagenham, a large comprehensive school on the Essex-London border. It was the most demanding and rewarding job I have done. I worked with teachers who were inspiring and with kids who were furious and fascinated, vulnerable and hilarious alike.
There are times when I wonder if I should have stayed in teaching. The work of schoolteachers is important. Sometimes it can feel as though my work as a playwright is self-indulgent in comparison. On occasion there are experiences that suggest this is not the case.
Last year the National Theatre produced a staging of my adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that could be set up and broken down, transported and staged in school assembly halls and classrooms throughout the country. This year it is once again visiting secondary schools across the UK and I am as proud to have been a part of this tour as I am of anything in my working life.
To my delight, as part of the tour, the play was staged at Eastbrook School. It meant the world that I was able to see it.
It is a changed school. In the 20 years since I last worked there, they were given the money to rebuild the place entirely. But its spirit, that Dagenham sprit of intelligence and defiance, remains palpable. And the kids seemed recognisable. These were kids that spoke truth to power. At least they did when I was trying to teach them. They took no prisoners and held no truck with being fobbed off.
If the production hadn’t been of the highest order, they would have let us know.
But it is. The performances in the touring ensemble are poised and clear. The redesign is compelling. It is uniquely theatrical. It changes the way in which the kids perceive their schools. They enter familiar assembly halls with a sense of excitement and delight. And they watch the play with as much engagement and insight as any audience I have seen in any of the play’s incarnations.
Theatre operates as a kind of empathy machine. Its job, by dramatising the mess and contradiction of humanity, is to make us better humans. I can’t remember a time when empathy and compassion were more needed than now. I can’t think of a more catastrophic time to remove arts funding from our schools or from the national curriculum. It is a perverse thing to happen, but it is happening.
At a time when theatre trips are losing funding, when live screening of plays is replacing live experiences of them, when teachers are overstretched and underpaid, theatre workers need to step up. We need to visit schools. We need to talk to teachers and students and engage with them in the importance of art. I can’t think of a more searing example of that than the National Theatre schools tour of Curious Incident. I can’t think of a time when our work has needed to be, and felt, more important.
Simon Stephens is a playwright and artistic associate at the Lyric Hammersmith