The play that captures the fallout after Section 28
We chat to the writer of Next Lesson
Most of you will be aware of Section 28, the piece of legislation brought in during the Thatcher government which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality. Many of you will have first hand experience of how it set back the LGBT rights movement and changed things for the worse.
For Chris Woodley, writer of Next Lesson, it was only too real revisiting these decades in history to create this semi-autobiographical play. As both a gay student throughout this time and a teacher in post-section-28 schools, he had the insight on the aftermath as well as the initial impact. We chatted to Chris about his life, the play and the future for him and LGBT education:
Tell us all about Next Lesson?
So Next Lesson is about Michael who is a gay student at a South East London school in Bromley. He then becomes an English teacher at the same school and it’s about the effect that his coming out has on that school and the parents and teachers in it. I would also say that around the main story of Michael there are other stories that we get to learn from other teachers, students and governors within the education system. It travels in time from 1988 all the way up until 2006.
Section 28 features quite heavily. Why was that such an important issue for you?
Growing up in Bromley in a 90s secondary school I was quite badly bullied and it had, I feel, a massive effect on me going through to adulthood. When I then became a teacher and went back to teaching in a secondary school in 2007 I was really curious about what sort of effect Section 28 had had on the education system as it was. So, for me it was kind of a cathartic way of putting those demons to bed and understanding what effect that policy has had on me and others similar to me in that time.
What’s the worst thing you’ve seen in your life in relation to this?
I think the hardest experience was – and to encapsulate how painful it is to think about these times – is a memory I have from English class. There were two boys talking and one of the teachers at the time turned around and said to them: “If you’re going to keep talking to each other like that, I think we’re all going to start to get a little bit worried about you” implying that they were flirting or that there was something other than just chatting going on between them.
He was almost using homophobia as behaviour management to sort of shame people. That’s without getting into hideous incidents of my own where people have sworn at me, spat at me, shoved me around, kicked me around, all of that. When I think back I think, if the experience is coming from the people who are meant to be taking care of you which is your teachers, it’s frightening.
That was your school experience. Do you think for schoolkids now, things have changed since the Thatcher years?
Absolutely, but there’s still so much more work to be done. There needs to be a better provision of sexual relationship education in our secondary school situation. There needs to be more of a dialogue about same sex relationships in sexual education or PHSE.
I still think it’s interesting about how different schools will deal with homophobia differently. If I was in a school and got called a “batty boy” by a student as a teacher, I’ve definitely experienced different ways in which schools would deal with that. The Thatcher years certainly left a muddled feeling after 2003 – when section 28 was finally repealed – about what we could and couldn’t talk about. When I started teaching I bowled up and insisted we do plays about sexuality. I would say some teachers were ok with that and some were curious as to why I was doing that, but I was really keen to get into secondary education and have some sense of visibility.
And then, what happened, being an openly gay teacher in a secondary school meant that within a year there were seven students that came out and felt much more like there was a positive role model that they could see. That was quite powerful.
From what your’e saying it all seems very autobiographical, what was it like putting it to paper?
I’m not going to lie I did fucking cry a lot, but I think getting the first draft written was incredibly difficult because I didn’t know how close to the bone to go with the events or experiences that had happened. It was actually harder seeing it live on stage being performed by incredible actors who were putting life and flesh into words that I had written about real incidents. That was actually harder. It was quite challenging to go back to those times and think about what I went through.
Even in gay-friendly industries like theatre, there can be internalised homophobia. Have you experienced anything like that?
I’ve been really lucky since I’ve left drama school and I would say at the theatre I worked at, they have embraced me as an actor and as a writer and supported me. I’ve not had my eyes open to those aspects of the industry because I’m only three years out of drama school but I’m certainly aware, especially on dating apps that there’s this kind of culture we have that masculinity is much more appealing than femininity.
But I think that I’ve always been like “this is me,’ you either accept it or you jog on”. In the acting industry I’m at a stage where my casting is gay best friend or a lot of camp American comedy and I enjoy that and that’s fine, but as a writer I like to write myself a role that isn’t about sexuality. This might not be something other casting directors think I may be capable of doing because they’ll only see me as a camp American or “gay guy”. I’d rather give myself the power to write a role that isn’t gay and do that.
You were in Ricky Gervais’ Extras as a rent-boy for Lionel Blair. What was that like?
That was amazing. It was a random thing where I got called up and, originally, they asked if I was happy to be seen as a gay character in Extras the new Ricky Gervais comedy. I was like absolutely, great. But I didn’t know until I turned up on the day that I was a stand-alone character. I thought I was going to be part of a group of chorus boys. What’s really weird is that even like ten years on people still text you and email you when it’s repeated like “was that you?”. I’m glad I haven’t aged too much in ten years!
What do you see for the future of LGBT education?
I think probably we might be going more towards a standstill, which is sad and disappointing. I would really hope that we could move forward. I’m sort of at the grassroots of it trying to fight the homophobia that I see among students but outside of that creatively it’s things like writing this play. That’s my contribution to that to try and raise awareness.
In 2006 when I was doing my PGCE I did a research project in a London school and I was comparing homophobic abuse to racial abuse within the secondary education system. It was off the scale in terms of the type of language and the bullying that those students would see. That’s the reality of where we’re at.
Tell us what you’re up to next?
With Next Lesson, we go back into rehearsal in October, then we’ll have the full run at the Pleasance Islington from the 20 to 25 October. There’ll be a post-show talk on one of those evenings, which is very exciting. We’re hoping that it has another life possibly in school or across other theatres.
I’ve also written two more plays. The second is called Jody Loch and the Three Bears that looks at gay adoption. It’s about two gay guys that adopt a child and the impact it has on their relationship. Then the third one’s called The Soft Subject that looks at whether drama GCSE has a place or relevance in the education system.
Tickets are available for Next Lesson here. Updates will be posted on Chris’s Twitter.
Words Jessica Lindsay, @jesswritesgood