New play pokes fun at university life

Familiar scenarios may have academics rolling, or reeling, in the aisles

January 16, 2014

Source: Rex Features

Isn’t it ironic? Will uncapping undergraduate numbers feature in Sellout?

The scandals that sometimes line these pages – from stories about grade inflation to sexual harassment and dodgy overseas dealings – often seem like the plot of a theatrical farce. So it was only a matter of time before a play was written about the current dramas besetting higher education.

Sellout – a “political comedy” by dramatist David Lane – gets its first rehearsed reading at the Exeter Northcott Theatre, University of Exeter on 24 January.

At its heart is Frank, a 48-year-old senior lecturer who has just returned from enforced leave after complaining about the fact that student “Jessica Charter was ushered through to her next year of study despite not just failing but getting one of the lowest marks the department’s ever seen”.

When it comes to students, Frank takes the old-fashioned line that “somewhere in that throng of leggings, ironic flat caps and deck shoes is something we’ve never seen before…We need to push them, it’s what they’re paying for.”

Yet everything the lecturer stands for is under threat, from a head of department who wants him to “closely monitor [his] stakeholder interface” and a younger colleague with an Excel program to “time [her] student allocations to the minute”.

With depression, excessive alcohol, collapsing families and doomed office romances thrown in, it is clear that Mr Lane has an amusingly bleak view of university life that is likely to be familiar to many academics.

Although he describes Times Higher Education as “a rich seam of research for two years while writing the play”, he has also drawn on his experience as a visiting tutor at four universities. He enjoyed the experience, but he was irritated that “teaching is seen as a sideline”, while “hourly paid teachers are often regarded by students as lecturers, who should be available 24/7”.

All these themes came together when Mr Lane got a place on a course at the Hall For Cornwall theatre in Truro to develop a research-based play. He started by sending a questionnaire to students and lecturers, focusing on the balance between teaching and research.

He followed this with 10 hour-long interviews with lecturers and soon realised he wanted to build Sellout around “an individual whose values are decimated by an institution”.

While “keen to make people outside academia aware of what is happening in higher education”, he would also like to see it go on tour to campus-based venues such as the Northcott.

The reading is being organised by Tom Mansfield, of the Upstart Theatre Company, and freelance producer Andrew Smaje, who are actively seeking partners for a full-scale production.

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