Bethany Stuart spoke to David Lane, playwright of the groundbreaking play, SELLOUT, which he hopes will spark debate about the higher education system.
David Lane is an Exeter graduate turned playwright with eight years of experience teaching at various institutions. His experiences revealed certain uncomfortable truths about the higher education system bending to the will of an increasingly capitalist society.
His new piece of political theatre – SELLOUT – brings to the surface these realities in the hope that they gain a platform for debate, not just amongst students and those intrinsically connected to the education system, but on a national scale. With the upcoming performance at the Northcott Theatre, Mr Lane was enthusiastic to communicate with the students, for whom his work is especially relevant:
Can you sum up SELLOUT in one statement?
All the things you wanted to know about your lecturers’ workplace and its critical impact on you – and some that you probably didn’t.
Whilst most of us would consider the implications of an increasingly capitalist higher education system from a student perspective, from your experiences teaching what can you tell us about the implications for lecturers?
…Burnout, disillusionment, a managerial culture choking their ability to engage fully with scholarly endeavours, reduction of people and their work to numbers and ratings, a utilitarian view of what education is for (getting a job, rather than discovering knowledge that illuminates the world and how we live) and at worst, an environment that encourages feelings of fraudulence, loss of confidence and bullying. Put all of that together inside the person who’s standing in front of you trying to teach, and you have a problem.
You state that the “universities are mutating in a capitalist world” – do you think there is anyway to prevent this, or is it inevitable?
If I knew the answer to that I’d go and file it at Westminster! I think the job of a playwright is to dramatise recognisable human experience by communicating it through stories that engage an audience, so that’s my priority.
Other than your own experiences, did anything else inspire or influence the thought-process behind SELLOUT?
It has been inspired by about 10% of my own experience and 90% everybody else’s. This play began when students on one of my modules were seeking to confide in me some feelings about their course and their tutors: but as non-permanent staff there was little I could do about it, so I spoke to a trusted colleague. What he described in response was much of what I have already mentioned, but he also handed me a fantastic paper by an academic called Andrew Sparkes, titled ‘Embodiment, academics, and the audit culture: a story seeking consideration’.
Sounds pretty dry, but he had converted various pieces of evidence from lecturers’ experiences of being continually ‘measured’ into a short fiction narrative that showed me the other side of the story: that the work culture was incredibly damaging to the values many lecturers had, and their health and happiness too. This kick-started a much longer consultative research process…Playwriting is a craft and requires rigour so it’s been a long process.
If the audience leave with just one message, what would you like it to be?
Stick it to the man even when the man is still kicking you when you’re down.
Is it especially important to you that SELLOUT is performed at Exeter in the Northcott Theatre?
Yes, for two very different reasons. Firstly I’m a graduate of the Drama department here at Exeter (2001) and I remember going to the Northcott to see performances, so to have a play up there, even just a reading, is really exciting. Secondly, very recently I’ve learned that the paper Andrew Sparkes wrote also kicked off a series of accusations of a pressure-cooker working culture at Exeter University so it feels rather relevant that the play is getting an outing here.
In recent years you mentored a member of EUTCO, what advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Can I steal some advice? The best I was given was from Sarah Dickenson, a former dramaturg of Theatre 503 and Soho Theatre in London: ‘don’t get it right, get it written’…Nobody can teach you how to start – you have to do that bit yourself…Oh, and have something to say that people will want to sit in a dark room for two hours and hear your actors banging on about…theatre is a hard enough sell as it is, so if you’re going to write something, make it worth your audience’s while.
The Northcott Theatre will be showcasing SELLOUT in a one-off reading on Friday 24th January at 7.30pm to raise awareness so that it can become a fully-fledged production, allowing Lane’s eye-opening and relevant message to spread nationwide. As Mr Lane so aptly stated, let’s all go “stick it to the man” and get involved in the politics of a system which has such a huge influence over our futures!
Buy tickets from the Northcott here.
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