"Usually if you hear anything about the public schools, you hear these horror stories," says Mary Fulham, director and co-writer of P.S. 69, a hilarious new one-woman comedy that examines one teacher's experiences at a Brooklyn public school. "But we wanted to say that this is the way it is. How many millions of kids go to the public schools? I think, in terms of what they're dealing with, it could be a lot worse."
Indeed, it could be. But when Molly, the timid but determined heroine of P.S. 69, begins her first day as a substitute teacher, it doesn't seem like it could be much worse. She can't find her classroom, the other teachers carp at her, the kids won't listen, and their parents only complain. Then Molly finds out that she won't get her first paycheck for six weeks. Suffice it to say, this isn't the kind of temp job she was expecting. But, as she tells us, substitute teaching is an easy career to break into: Anyone with a B.A. (and without a police record) can do it.
The trick is sticking with it. In addition to the everyday challenges of teaching and surviving on a meager salary, teachers find themselves up against troublesome students and belligerent parents, with little support from school administration. And then if they actually want to gain certification as a teacher, there is a new set of obstacles to overcome. Molly learns all of this the hard way.
Comedian Susan Jeremy plays this would-be teacher, whose illusions come crashing down on her pretty quickly. And Jeremy had her own real-life experiences to draw upon in co-writing and playing the show. "I was a substitute," she says. "I just went from room to room, and they didn't care; wherever they put you, they put you." She points out, though, that P.S. 69 is a work of fiction: "This is just an excerpt of my experiences teaching, exaggerated, based on a pretty rough school. A lot of the characters and experiences did happen, but the story itself is fabricated."
Anyone who ever attended public school will hear the ring of truth in the tale. The overcrowding, the labeling of 'problem students,' the in-school politics, and the general chaos of the school system are all issues present in the play. "I wanted [the audience] to see what went on," says Jeremy. "When I started to substitute, that was the first time I had been exposed to an elementary school since I had gone to one. And I had no idea what a closed world it was."
Jeremy and Fulham chose to utilize Jeremy's considerable comedic talents in order to create the world of P.S. 69. With the help of some background noise recorded in her real-life classes, Jeremy plays all of the teachers, students, parents, and friends that populate Molly's life--more than 20 characters in all. "There are a lot of people that I've actually seen in the schools and dealt with," says Jeremy. "Then, as a stand-up, I have a lot of characters in my act already. So what I did was to cast my characters in the show, and others were taken from the schools that I worked in."
Through dead-on accents and evocative gesticulation, Jeremy fills the stage with a bevy of original yet completely recognizable characters. Several, from the no-nonsense gym teacher to the youngsters with attitude, you'll probably remember from your own school. Jeremy also creates some memorable characters outside of the school, notably a mellow friend of Molly who convinces her to make some extra cash as an exotic dancer and a single mother (of one of her students) on whom Molly has a terrible crush.
Both Jeremy and Fulham have had the pleasure (and pain) of experiencing the New York public school system and the people in it, albeit from different sides. "Susan was a substitute teacher where my kids went to elementary school," says Fulham, "so we knew a lot of the same characters. We knew what some of the issues were, and how difficult it is for the teachers. There are all these ridiculous hoops that you have to jump through."
But, according to Fulham, she and Jeremy weren't out to make a major statement with P.S. 69. "I just wanted to recreate the place and time that was this elementary school in Brooklyn at the turn of the century," she says. "The show is more of an historical document than a political statement."