Frenzied school life is acted out

Award-winning playwright and teacher Helen Hallissey is enjoying much success with her latest production set in a dysfunctional school, writes MARIA ROLSTON
Frenzied school life is acted out
There Goes the Bell : Delia Wins the Spellathon! School Principal (Malachaí Mac Amhlaoibh), Delia’s mother (Mags Walsh), Delia (Emma Ross), the Fig-roll long Parish Priest (Gerry Motherway) and Spellathon Master (Kathleen O’ Flynn) celebrate Delia’s big win as she receives the coveted trophy (Warren Tait).

ANYONE who has ever set foot inside a school or classroom will recognise the traits and antics of the teachers, pupils and parents of the fictional Ballytrasna National School.

At least, that’s the hope of award-winning teacher and playwright, Helen Hallissey, who has written and performs in the comedic play, There Goes The Bell, now being staged for its second week of sold-out performances in Cork Arts Theatre.

The play, which is staged by the Cork Retired Teachers Association of Ireland (RTAI) Drama Group and which features a number of teachers and actors who are well known within local amateur drama circles (Paddy O’Brien, Gerry Motherway, Malachai MacAmhluoimh, Marion O’Callaghan and Grace Donovan) brings the audience on an hilarious exploration a highly dysfunctional school. And according to its author, the play takes its inspiration from the everyday life of real schools.

“I wanted to translate the frenzy of daily school life into an enjoyable but telling forum, and live theatre is perfect for that because it can give a very accurate representation of real life situations and emotions,” said Helen, a teacher in Scoil Mhuire Girls’ Primary School in Ballincollig, who has won national awards for storytelling and playwriting since she was four years old.

She says the comedy is about a dysfunctional school and a family with ‘pushy parents’ who arrive into Ballytrasna parish looking for the perfect school.

“The Delaney family are always moving, looking for something better. This is their fourth school. The father wants to move on again but the children want to stay because they like it and have made friends,” said Helen.

But what makes the school dysfunctional?

“Lots of things, that I exaggerated for effect! There’s headlice, for one thing, and there’s a shifty caretaker selling school equipment in the school shed. There are arguments over the healthy eating policy, with the teachers eating rubbish in the staff room but insisting that the children eat healthily.

“There’s a parent-teacher meeting that goes all wrong. The parents start arguing with each other in front of the teacher and it gets out of control. There’s also an unexpected visit from the school inspector and a new teacher who’s not qualified to teach at all.

“The characters are also all caricatures. There’s a hapless school principal, a fig-roll loving parish priest, a nosey postwoman and a formidable school secretary who is actually running the school.

Helen Hallissey.
Helen Hallissey.

“The mother is the central character of the play and she’s a part of everything. She’s played by Mags Walsh, who teaches in Carrigaline National School. It’s her first time on stage and she’s a gem,” said Helen.

Of course, everything in the play is heightened for comedic effect but like all good theatre, the play reflects a reality and presents a universal message that the audience can identify with.

“The average school day goes at a very frenetic pace and in the play, we have several different things happening at the same time. The teacher might be dealing with various levels of differentiation and ability in the classroom and at the same time, there’s a child in the toilet, someone else is under the table and someone else is passing notes.

“It reflects the atmosphere and zaniness of the classroom, where there’s always something happening and where teachers are most definitely in locum parentis, but it also highlights the fact that there’s no such thing as a perfect day for teachers. When the bell rings, you just have to stop and be satisfied with what you have achieved in your day.”

Helen, who has not one but four separate MA degrees in drama in education from Trinity, UCC, Oxford and Cambridge universities, says she was inspired to become a teacher by her own primary school principal and that she hopes to have instilled a love of language and storytelling in the children she has encountered throughout her own career.

“I had a very gifted principal in Canovee National School, Mrs Rita O’Brien. She had the most wonderful command of the English language and she really developed children’s imaginations. We were constantly reciting poetry, telling stories and dramatising stories and poems. She worked our imaginations as readily as she worked our academic skills.

“She was a consummate storyteller and she made learning a very enjoyable experience. Lots of her students subsequently became primary school teachers and I owe my love of English and drama to her and to my father who was very involved in amateur dramatics in Crookstown,” she said.

The playwright, who previously received the national Comhalachas Dramaiochca Na hEireann award for Sarah Scanlon, a play she wrote in Irish about a girl who discovers that her sister is her mother, has had several other plays staged in the Briery Gap Theatre.

Of her current sold-out production, she says: “It’s really a romp. We’re expecting that the audience will be 50% teachers, so they will recognise the incidents and laugh at the familiarity of it and we’re hoping that the nonteaching audience will enjoy the pace, humour and acting skills of the performers.”

There Goes The Bell by Helen Hallissey continues in Cork Arts Theatre on Friday and Saturday, November 17 and 18, at 8pm.

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