With interactive white boards, iPads, online learning and ever-changing ways of performing maths calculations, parents may think schools today are very different places from the classrooms of their childhood.
However, Bruiser Theatre Company’s latest production, Teechers demonstrates that little has changed and the academic opportunities given to our young people are still very much dictated by wealth.
For Lisburn-born actress Nuala McGowan it’s a case of life imitating art, as the play’s central message resonates with her own experience of trying to afford drama school fees.
A graduate of Mountfield Academy of Theatre Arts in south London, Nuala recalls almost having to give up on her acting dream due to the extortionate tuition fees.
“Firstly, I had to travel over to London to audition which was expensive, and back then you even had to pay audition fees.
“Many, including Mountfield, were conservatoires so they weren’t technically universities and you didn’t qualify for a maintenance grant or student loan,” adds Nuala, who only managed to secure her place by landing a scholarship and bursary.
People are often apathetic towards politics, but the only way you are going to change things is if you start engaging. It’s probably good to get a wee bit frustrated, because then you will do something about it— Nuala McGowan
Living in London, however, she had to supplement this with working in her local pub two or three evenings a week and all weekend.
“I just did what I had to. Then there were fellow students who went to posh private schools who didn’t have to pay rent and never had to worry about money. I found that a bit of a culture shock,” adds Nuala,” a former pupil of St Dominic’s in west Belfast.
But the 33-year-old, who divides her time between London and Belfast, has no regrets. She has worked extensively in theatre and even starred in a horror movie – the Bafta-nominated The Power.
“It was set in a hospital during the 1970s miners’ strike. We filmed in an abandoned hospital in Essex which was creepy and cold. I love scary films so it was interesting to see how they did the special effects,” adds Nuala, who was disappointed that the cinema release in 2020 was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic.
The versatile performer has just finished performing in Bruiser’s Christmas show and is delighted to be working once again alongside director Lisa May in Teechers.
She has a long association with Bruiser and credits them with helping her, as a 12-year-old, decide acting was the career for her.
“The first Shakespeare I saw was A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Bruiser took to my school. Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read. It was so funny. I went home and told my parents that I wanted to work with them one day.”
Nuala went on to take part in their summer school and landed her first professional theatre job in their production of Cooking with Elvis.
“They were casting for a 14 year old, and I was 21,” laughs Nuala. “But I looked young and it was a dream come true.”
In Teechers Nuala plays the role of a 16-year-old student, Hobby, as well as a headmistress and a bully.
Written by John Godber in 1984, the play is set in Whitewall Academy, a struggling comprehensive, and centres on the drama teacher who ignites the passion of three year 11 students with his idealism and belief that all children should be treated equally. But will a job offer from a private school change things?
This production, updated with a modern social commentary and music, including Billie Eilish and Harry Styles, features terrifying teachers, recalcitrant classes, cynical colleagues, and obstructive caretakers as the students put on their hilarious end-of-term play.
Bruiser’s Artistic Director Lisa May says Teechers is perfect for Bruiser’s renowned physical theatre performances, with a minimalist set that allows them to “push the boundaries” and “find lots of different techniques within that to tell the story”.
She believes the production “raises really important issues about our current education system”.
“Those themes are still there, that we are using a very antiquated system that is class-based essentially, so it is not a level playing field.
“This makes it sound very dark, but it isn’t. It’s packaged in a very comedic, funny, tasty way,” Lisa hastens with enthusiasm.
Joining Nuala in the three-hander are Mary McGurk and Chris Robinson. “It’s like a farce, switching between characters,” laughs Nuala, who describes Teechers as “a light hearted message-driven play”, which challenges audiences to “think about how they can change the status quo”.
She was part of the cast when Bruiser brought the play to schools back in 2022 and saw first-hand how its themes, such as the marginalisation of arts subjects and facilities, were played out in reality.
“Touring to schools was like mirroring the show, going from performing in a theatre within a schools drama department ,that had obviously received much investment, to going to a school with no facilities and performing in their assembly hall.
“At the end of the show we had students ask us what they could do to make a change.
“People are often apathetic towards politics, but the only way you are going to change things is if you start engaging. It’s probably good to get a wee bit frustrated, because then you will do something about it.”
As well as acting, Nuala plays the bodhran and sings in the traditional band Ceolini with her best friend and two sisters, performing at festivals and events mostly in London
“We take songs we like and arrange them in a four part harmony with guitars, bodhran and harmonica,” she enthuses.
Whilst she doesn’t fancy giving up acting to become a teacher herself, she is planning to start training later this year to become a vocal coach, with a view to returning permanently to Belfast and helping local talent.
“The best thing I got from my drama training was the voice training and learning how to use and project my voice in a way that doesn’t force or damage it.
“That really came into play during the recent Christmas show when you’re dancing while you’re singing and playing all these mad different characters. You can’t lose your voice or the show won’t go on.
“You need to understand the mechanics and the breathing. In my experience, there doesn’t seem to be very many voice teachers in the north. So I’d love to try and come back and help train people who don’t want to go away or can’t afford to go away to drama school.”