Nilaja Sun’s No Child… Takes Over Theatre Works

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By: Natalie Claire King


With a slight delay down the phone line, as our voices travel back and forth from Melbourne and New York, Nilaja Sun, writer and solo-performer in the play No Child…, discusses the shows 10-year success, why she is drawn to teach drama in such challenging schools, and the real reason behind her pre-performance nerves.

With every word, Sun radiates passion and enthusiasm – it’s easy to imagine her contagious energy taking the spotlight. No Child… was first commissioned in 2004 when Sun received an arts grant from the New York City Council. Since then the show has been performed over 800 times across the US, Europe and will be returning to Melbourne (after performing at the Arts Centre for the Melbourne Festival) in May at Theatre Works, St Kilda.

“I literally wrote this play to do it for four weeks and it’s like all of a sudden 700 shows and I’m like wow! These people want to see it!” Sun said, never envisaging the play to be such a hit.

“I think it’s also because teachers want to see a show that is about them… I felt that it was important not just to highlight bringing the arts into schools but highlight the great and triumphant work that teachers are doing in the schools, and make it funny and make it joyful, but also be realistic about the challenges.”

In 2008 Sun began licensing the play out to solo-performers in America, and to performers who developed the play into three-actor and 17-actor pieces.

“I am so thankful that people are having a conversation about education. There have been 45 productions of it and it just keeps going and I always get calls, ‘We’re doing the show here! We’re doing the show here! Come out and see it!’”

Written and performed by Nilaja Sun, and directed by Hal Brooks, the play tells a story about a newly employed drama teacher who struggles to teach students who don’t expect much more than to drop out, get pregnant or go to jail. Sun draws on her own experiences from when she began teaching drama in high schools in 1997. She now juggles her time between performing No Child… and teaching drama to underprivileged students in New York. Most recently, or more precisely, that afternoon, Sun was working with young women who, in the past, were caught up in the sex trade.

“They were either sex workers or played some sort of part in sex trafficking, and they want to write their own story and tell the audience why they went down that path. For some reason, I choose communities and schools that may seem challenging, but to me they fulfill my soul because I find that sometimes, because they haven’t had as much, they’re so hungry to express themselves and to do even just a little bit of drama, or to write a play. I find so much enjoyment in working at schools that some people might call horror schools or really challenging schools,” Sun said.

In No Child… Sun portrays 16 characters including parents, teachers, security guards and administrators, who she says all play a part in shaping the moods of these students.

“With security, some of what they call ‘high impact’ schools here in New York City, the students have to go through a lot of security, even before they walk into class, which many times greatly affects the energy and the mood of the students. I wanted for the audience to get a chance to see what many of our students go through on a day-to-day basis.”

In what has been described by The Age as an “astonishing one-woman show [that] bores under the skin of America’s public education system,” Sun hopes by the end of the performance the audience will have fallen in love with at least one of the characters and get a glimpse into the school system in New York, and perhaps school systems around the world.

You can expect Sun to be nervous, like most actors before a performance, but she says the nerves only hit because she cares deeply about the play and sharing her story.

“I get nervous before every performance but that’s only because I really care. I care that people hear the words, they can understand the story, [and that] their hearts open.”

No Child… by Nilaja Sun will be playing at Theatre Works, St Kilda between the 7th and19th of May. Bookings can be made through Theatre Works on 9534 3388.

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