Take a peek into “The Teachers’ Lounge”

Lindsay Lillig

This spring, the UMKC Theatre undergraduates will perform playwright Stephanie Demaree’s first full-length play “The Teachers’ Lounge,” directed by Stephanie Roberts. Every artist involved in the production is thrilled to be a fundamental part of this original work — especially the playwright.

“It’s very exciting to know that this thing I spent months working on, without ever imagining it might actually be read by anyone besides me — let alone produced, is now taking on a life of its own,” Demaree said. “It’s so much fun to have a director and actors working on it, to get to hear their perspectives and to see them bring ideas that would never have occurred to me on my own.”

The fact that Demaree has the possibility to experience and serve as an active member in the rehearsal process for her own play is highly uncommon. More often than not, the playwright has no communication with the director or actors. When working together, the playwright and director may disagree due to contrasting visions. However, that is not the case for this Stephanie-duo.

“She has the rare opportunity of being in the room with us — listening to hear if dialogue rings true, or if there are holes in a scene or extraneous parts,” Roberts said. “All around it’s a process with a lot of give and take between the actors, director and playwright. I’m also excited for the actors to be able to work on a new play. Not only are they an integral part in the development of the piece, they get to experience working with cuts and additions, which will only make them a more flexible professional.”

Not only is “The Teachers’ Lounge” a new work, but it’s also a refreshing storyline compared to most contemporary plays in its genre. The script answers the question almost everyone has asked themselves at least once: What exactly goes on in the teachers’ lounge? Its insight provides more than we as students and mere observers may have ever expected.

“I think my favorite ‘big idea’ in the play is the struggle with commitment — whether it’s in a career or a relationship,” Demaree said.  “Do you stick with a situation in which you’re not entirely happy and try to improve it, or is it best to just step out and start over?  For a person who has just graduated or entered the ‘real world’ for the first time, you’re often dealing with questions of when and how much to commit for the first time, but these are also questions that will continue to come up throughout life.  Working on this play has helped me sort out some of my own feelings about commitment. Just finishing it was a commitment I didn’t know I was ready to make.”

Roberts, too, is working with this idea. She summed up the play with a nice, universally-applicable bow.

“We’ve all been to high school, we all know teachers like this,” Roberts said. “And even if that is not the case, most of us can relate to the sticky interpersonal relationships and the big ideas of the play.  It’s a story about commitment, about when to follow your dreams and when to stick it out and make a difference.”

The characters of “The Teachers’ Lounge” are, you guessed it, teachers. They represent the educators of past, current and upcoming generations. Furthermore, they are real, everyday people who are dealing with problems audiences will understand all too well and for which they will possibly gain a new respect. Because of this, it is of the utmost importance that the actors keep their motivations grounded.

“In this process I gave the actors assignments regarding their character’s background. As each of them shared their discoveries, it informed the whole group as to the culture of these people,” Roberts said. “I’m also using an exercise that Theodore Swetz brought to UMKC from the director Risa Brainin called ‘Happy/Sads,’ which connects the actors to their characters in a very personal way.  That is my main approach, that the actors bring the story to life through the self.

It is obvious that this technique rings true for the actors, as well. The students were eager to discuss their characters, processes and many other thoughts on being in an original play.

Frank Lillig

Character: Rick Barnes. Rick is laid back and easy-easy going.  He finds ways to work with the rules that are given to him and doesn’t let them mess with his cool.  He relates to the go-with-the-flow type of people while most others in this story are busy trying to re-correct the stream.

Challenges: I am used to more classic or older plays.  This, being a contemporary work, warrants a different approach that I am not entirely used to.  With Shakespeare, all you need to know is right there in the text, while with a contemporary piece, it’s all subtext.  I really relate to the character, though, so that makes it a little bit easier to work with.

Original play status: It feels really cool because we are the original cast for this show now.

Why see the show? It’s a look into a world that many people have only seen one side of.  Most of us are used to being students, and now we get a glimpse into the personal lives of the teachers.  We see how they deal with all the same drama that high schoolers do, with a few extra problems added. And, the cast is extremely talented.

Rasheedat “Ras” Badejo

Character: Karen Johnson. Karen is the girl’s girl. She’s cynical, shady (in the drag sense, not the “she’s horrible” sense), strong and ultimately wants the best for the people she cares about. She’s a tough mother-shut-yo-mouth! Sorta like a Liz Lemon (for all you “30 Rock” fans out there). She’s real and very relatable in the sense that she doesn’t want to be alone, but she is still very independent. I see a lot of myself in Karen. I feel like a lot of strong women can see themselves in Karen and empathize with her.

Challenges: Karen is a 27-year-old Social Studies teacher. I am a 23-year-old actor who is regularly mistaken for a 15 year old with spunk (it’s the baby-face). I’m normally cast in roles that prove me to be the youngest. Now I get to be a grown up. The challenge with playing the girl’s girl is not coming off too “bro-y” or bro-like. She can run with the guys, but she’s very grounded in her femininity. This is my first leading lady role of my college career. You can imagine the odd amount of stress that can put on someone to do well and give ‘em hell. I’m not a traditional ingénue, but nor is Karen which is quite relieving.

Original play status: It feels pretty awesome, but terrifying. Normally in a play that has been published and performed for a while, you have a reference to go back to when you feel stuck or confused about a moment. Not in a new play. But what’s absolutely great about being the first person to play a role, is that when it is performed again, people will come back to your performance for insight, which is really cool to think about. Because, Teachers’ Lounge is a new work, I feel obligated to make this opportunity count, but not just for me, but for the playwright. Stephanie did such a great job of writing a well-crafted play that everyone can enjoy and I want to do my best.

Why see the show? Audiences will enjoy “Teachers’ Lounge” because it is a fun show about relatable people. It’ll make you laugh, think and want to hang out at a bar with your favorite high school teachers. (You should try it, it’s a really good time!) Oh, and Gummy Penises.

Malcolm Gibbs

Character: Mr. Hofstadter. My character is very interesting, while inherently funny in his actions. I love the brief dialogue my character has with Rick — it’s actually great advice on and off the stage, and within or outside of schools. Weirdly, Mr. Hofstadter is very relatable. Although I’m not 70, I’m not great at math and I certainly couldn’t teach it, what is relatable is his relaxed presence, and his carefree attitude.

Challenges: This character, so far, has been really interesting to work with. Setting up my character, so when I do speak it’s surprising and still poignant, takes work. Working on my character from such a root level is definitely new and challenging for me. Before, characters I’ve played had been well established in dramatic literature. The characters were easier to analyze, but Mr. Hofstadter is more complex due to the character having never been performed before.

Original play status: I’m very excited to be working on this show, this being my first acting experience at UMKC. I’m even more excited to be working on a new work with such a great cast, as well. It’s interesting seeing characters being defined and becoming more dynamic as time goes on with rehearsal. The flexibility allows the actors and director to do a lot more, I think.

Why see the show? At its roots, it’s funny, it’s charming and it’s a nice love story. More than that, is the experience of doing it in a school. Making the situations more relatable for teachers and students alike. I just hope everyone laughs. At least a little.

Mariah Thompson

Character: Marcy Wheeler. She is relatable in her work ethic. She desires for things to go a certain way and abides by rules. Her intentions are for the common good, while her approach seems to annoy the other characters often.

Challenges: Marcy is not well liked by other cast members. It is often difficult to play a character that possesses annoying or less admirable qualities. However, my challenge is finding positives about Marcy and relating them to qualities similar to myself. I have to find moments where I can become super relatable and contrast it by providing the character’s many little annoyances.

Original play status: I am very excited to participate in a new work. I will be the first person ever to play Marcy Wheeler, which is super exciting. The possibilities seem endless. I enjoy the process of creating a new work from the ground up. Stephanie Roberts, our director, has been super enjoyable and really identifies with bringing the text to life. The cast is all very excited about their roles in the show as well as creating a new work. We all are bonded more so in this production more than others because we are the first to get the show on its feet which is a really neat experience.

Why see the show? I think audiences will enjoy the show because so many moments are so relatable. We have all been to school in our lives and the conversations, relationships, et cetera, in the show absolutely are noted in academic settings.

Steven Miles

Character: Mr. Wheeler. Wheeler’s biggest uniqueness has got to be that he is the leader. Being the vice principle of a high school, he definitely has different challenges than the teachers do. And I think what makes him relatable is the fact that he struggles. He doesn’t necessarily know how to effectively lead, or is at least nervous about it, which is cool. I think we’ve all been in that kind of situation — not sure if you’re up to the task — and seeing that makes him relatable to at least myself.

Challenges: The biggest challenge has got to be Wheeler’s age. He’s 51. So, that 30 year gap is a little daunting. Previously at UMKC, I haven’t really played a character that is that far removed from my actual age.

Original play status: It’s actually pretty cool. I really like having the opportunity to work with a playwright who is still working the kinks out of the script. It’s also cool as an actor to get to craft a character without any other preconceived ideas. So, in a way it’s been really freeing because I feel like it’s easier to just play around with different things or character choices. I love working with Stephane Roberts, too. She always attacks a scene in a very fun “let’s play around with a scene and see what happens” kind of way and I love that. It makes discovering new things about a scene or even my character all the more gratifying and exciting.

Why see the show? I think anyone will enjoy it simply because it is so relatable because, well, we’ve all been to high school. We all know that crazy math teacher or those two teachers that you notice are spending a little too much time together. Stephanie has done such a great job of writing a play that really captures what high school is like. Also, I don’t know about anyone else, but the teachers’ lounge has always been this mysterious, mystical wonderland of chain smoking teachers, buffets and fantastic creatures — is that just me? — and now we get to see inside!

Peter Morgan

Character: Mr. Singer. Mr. Singer is the awkward yet okay-with-it character in the script, not to say that every script has characters like him. Being sort of the comic relief at points in the play, Singer does not cause other characters any extra trouble. He is there to have a good time with everybody, just as I would if I were a long-term teacher … or at a wedding reception.

Challenges: I have never had to build a character from only what is in the script. Usually you are able to find a video online of past performances, or even interviews with cast members. But for this show, none of that exists, as this will be the premiere of the play. I am amazed by the way that our team is working so closely together, by discussing lines and characters and scenes as a group, giving everyone a chance to have their opinions be heard. I have not been a part of a show like that yet, and yet I find myself asking why every show cannot be like this. By working so collaboratively, we are forming bonds not only as fellow teachers, but as fellow cast members. I can already feel the strength within this show, and, I know that, come opening night, we will have a play that you won’t want to miss.

Original play status: Having the opportunity to be part of the original cast in a production at UMKC is a huge honor. Being able to collaborate with the playwright is exciting and eye opening, as it gives us all firsthand insight on every aspect of the play, from themes and character progression to the drive behind each line.

Why see the show? Everyone can relate to “Teachers’ Lounge.” If you have ever been a student, you will be entertained by the lives teachers lead when right outside the classroom. If you have ever been a teacher, then you will be able to sympathize and laugh at the problems teachers encounter on a day-to-day basis. And if you are either of these, or maybe even neither, then you will be in for a show bound to deliver some unspoken love interests, disappearing coins and a devilishly handsome science teacher.

Lindsay Nelson

Character: Claire Benedict. Claire is fresh out of college and brand spanking new to the whole teaching game. She is nervous and a bit out of her element at first, but she is driven and ambitious and goes after what she wants, guns blazing. Claire is also a good example of someone who may appear to live on the superficial side of things, but she simply wants to make it in the world. She wants to follow her dreams and be loved — a journey which sometimes proves to be more of an uphill battle than initially expected, something I believe we can all relate to in this game called adulthood.

Challenges: In all actuality, Claire and I have a lot in common. If I were to have picked a different career path, it would have been to teach English, and I most likely would have jumped in right out of college. The main challenge when portraying Claire is to not look at her objectively. I, as Lindsay, can read the script and understand that Claire isn’t supposed to win this time around, but as Claire, I can’t have that wisdom. It’s simply another opportunity to play with one of the wonders of being an actor. We get to portray all sorts of individuals in all sorts of situations — literally channel their thoughts and behaviors — to present slices of life which people otherwise may not see outside of a theater, and that will never stop feeling wonderful.

Original play status: Honestly, the most exhilarating part of being cast in a new work is the fact that I am an original cast member. The names of this cast will be with this play for the rest of its time. That is so awesome! Also, working and conceptualizing with the playwright, and bringing these characters to life for the very first time is an opportunity I never imagined having while still in college. This is truly an incredible experience to be a part of.

Why see the show? “Teachers’ Lounge” is a funny, lovable and relevant play. It deals with everyday people struggling with commitment — something we all struggle with every day. It sheds light on situations which we students and non-teachers tend to no think about. Stephanie also did a fantastic job writing characters who remind everyone of a teacher they had at some point. It makes you smile.

Alex Ritchie

Character: Jason. Jason is definitely the odd one out among this cast of characters. He’s the only one that’s not affiliated with the school in any way. He’s a programmer at some startup company and his defining quality is that he just simply can’t commit. That’s a pretty common thing though, fear of commitment. Jason just takes that quality to a bit of an extreme.

Challenges: Jason is not a very wordy character — he’s only in like one and a half scenes, so there is not a whole lot of text to go off of when developing this character. Just about everything I do with Jason has to come from something I’ve made up specifically for him, which I’ve never really had to do before as an actor so this has already turned into a very interesting process.

Original play status: Quite fresh.

Why see the show? I think that “Teachers’ Lounge” stands out because it is such a relatable story with relatable characters. Yeah, they all take one quality and push it to the extreme, but, at their cores, these characters are just normal people and that’s what makes working with this show so fun.

Anna Day

Character: Ms. Schwartz. My character is the sweet/evil crotchety/motherly librarian. I believe that she is relatable through and through in that she is the epitome of a librarian (in my opinion). Being on her good side is the best thing in the world, but once you mess with the librarian’s carefully set forth system, you are going DOWN! I know that’s how my librarians were in high school. I can’t shake the image of Ms. Schwartz as a slightly wrinkled lady with pointy glasses and some beads attached to the ends of her glasses on a string so she doesn’t lose them (and for extra style). Also, from the northern parts of Minnesota. Who knows if that will stick, but it was definitely a personal first impression. I guess only time will tell.

Challenges: The most challenging part of Ms. Schwartz is her age. As a woman in her late 50’s, she’s not old, but she’s not young. It’s very challenging as a 21 year old to discover what makes a 58 year old unique both physically and vocally, and to not put on a “too old lady” mask. It’s very difficult to find truth and self in the character while still accurately portraying her age to the best of my ability.

Original play status: It’s really exciting to be able to be the very first cast of actors working on this piece for a full production! We get to fully create without any pre-conceived bias of how it’s been done before (although that IS slightly terrifying). It’s amazing to be working directly with the playwright and the text to really bring the words to life for the very first time.

Why see the show? I think the subjects that are discussed in the play are very relatable to both students and faculty members alike. Every student wants to know what goes on behind the doors of the infamous teachers lounge, and now they have the chance. For teachers, I’m sure it’s very relatable and comical in that it is a dramatization of what they have to deal with on the daily.

Sara Platt

Character: Mrs. Roberts. Mrs. Roberts is someone who grew up in this town and she remembers having class with some of the teachers who are now her colleagues. Though my character is smaller, she has a history with this school. She doesn’t really engage like the others, but she truly wants the best for all the students. She wants to make a difference in a student’s life; she has only been here a semester, but she’s been teaching all her life.

Challenges: I think this play is more difficult because I want my character and the show to be exactly as Stephanie Demaree imagined it to be. It’s best how she can add and subtract to fill out the sights and the characters so the audience will see all she envisioned.

Original play status: It feels exhilarating because the play is a living piece of art that is being changed and adapted.

Why see the show? This play is quirky, honest and new so there hasn’t been a chance to set it yet. I think audiences will like this play because the teachers feel relatable to the teachers we had growing up. Also, this is a behind-the-scenes look at what happens in the lives of teachers when they’re not with the students.

Olivia West

Character: Stage Manager. No one understands me.

Challenges: Being an SM on a show is a time consuming position, but with an original play the element of new additions is added, too. So keeping up with each new version of the script is a task in itself, but it’s also part of the fun of an original production. This is also my first production at UMKC because I have been working with local theatres this past semester. Being given the opportunity to stage manage on my first production here is an honor, and it is an even bigger honor because it is an original production. I am very grateful for everyone involved in this show and that I get to work with such amazing people.

Original play status: I’m very honored to be able to help bring Stephanie’s play to life. Also to be able to work with the playwright is a rare opportunity to have.

Why see the show? “Teachers’ Lounge” is a play like no other, in that there are so many diverse characters that you’ll be wanting to know more and more about as the show goes along. (It’s kind of like “The Office” if it was set in a high school Teachers’ Lounge.)

“The Teachers’ Lounge” will run April 22-26. This performance window is drastically smaller than with most shows, so take the initiative to make a reservation as soon as they become available. It is just as rare to be an original audience member, so snatch up the opportunity.