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When Marti Gobel was a youngster growing up in San Diego, her mother, a single public high school English school teacher, used to drag —er—take her to every school-related event and activity imaginable: English literature class, art appreciation day and every single administrative meeting on the academic calendar.
She also spent a lot of time in the teacher’s lounge.
“That’s where 90 percent of the action in a school goes down,” says Gobel, who’s based in Milwaukee. “And nobody gets to see it. It’s the teachers’ space to eat, to vent, to shake off all the stress and frustration they’re feeling.”
All that behind-the-scenes intel is coming in awfully handy as Gobel directs Forward Theatre’s production of “Exit Strategy,” Ike Holter’s play about a teaching staff and fast-talking administrator forced to contend with the impending closure of their public high school. Most of the play’s action takes place in—where else?—the teacher’s lounge.
“Most kids don’t see their teachers being human,” says Gobel. "To me, they’ve always been human.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention to the crises afflicting public education in the United States over the last several decades will recognize the career-threatening issues facing the teachers in “Exit Strategy”: A severe lack of funding, and rules that force teachers to teach to standardized tests rather than developing more individualized curricula, just to name two.
The play centers on Ricky, the assistant principal forced to deliver the news of the impending closure and, eventually, spearhead the desperate attempt to save it. Gobel says she was intrigued by the fact that Holter’s script has the other teachers repeatedly exhorting Ricky to “do his job.”
“We are doing our job,” says Gobel of the teachers—in the play and in public schools across the country. “That’s a large message of the play.”
The play’s explicitly set in Chicago (not Madison) and Gobel and Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Forward’s artistic director, made no attempt to try to localize it. Madison hasn’t had to face the prospect of closing a public school in many years. Still, says Gobel, the play has plenty of there-but-for-for-the-grace angles to it.
“Madison is in some ways not aware that this could happen here,” Gobel asserts. “Once you’re on the path of this happening, it’s hard to turn around.”
“Exit Strategy” runs from Jan. 19 to Feb. 4 in the Overture Center’s Playhouse. For ticket information, click here.
Aaron Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.