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Emma Anderson - The Lesson Interview

The Lesson is the debut play of Emma Anderson and comes to Theatre 503 in London from Tuesday 30th January until Saturday 3rd February. 

An underfunded secondary school in South West London. A slowly crumbling drama studio. A rapidly crumbling education system. With her ‘big girl hero teacher pants’ on, Clara has just three days to save Daniella from being kicked out of mainstream education. Battled against an unforgiving school structure, an uncooperative superior and four unruly teenage girls – will Clara be able to save her job let alone anyone else?

Inspired by Emma Anderson’s time as a drama teacher in a London academy school, The Lesson is an unflinching look at the reality of the UK’s state-education structure, the ever- growing strain on teachers and the young people who fall through the cracks of the flawed system.

The Lesson was a finalist for the 2019 Papatango New Writing Prize. The production is supported by JW3, Stage One Bursary, and Tsitsit.

Ahead of the run we caught up Emma to discuss the piece in more detail.

What inspired you to write The Lesson?
I taught in South-West London Secondary school for twelve years; I loved elements of my job, but I couldn’t watch as Drama was slowly eroded from the curriculum and across the country as a whole. But I still felt very passionately about education and wanted people to see what it was like from the inside. Working in a system that is underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed. I wanted to write about the saviour teacher complex; the feeling that we are the hero of the system, that only we can hold it up, teachers are constantly told by the government that only we can make a difference to children’s lives, that all of society’s problems and issues should be dealt with at school. So, The Lesson became my ‘Dear John’ letter to education.
How did your own experiences transpire into the piece The Lesson has become?
I have been a teacher, a pastoral lead, admin support in school, I’m activity involved in the National Education Union and was at one time a teenage girl.

Seeing the real-life consequences of chronic funding cuts. Which has left buildings and services in disrepair, the pandemic has highlighted more children with SEND needs, but schools and boroughs are unable to meet their needs, in part due to a further decrease in staff retention. Schools cannot take the burden of a larger system fail, Social Services are facing similar problems, a housing crisis and a mental health crisis are bringing the school system to its knees. All these experiences and people have fed into the fabric of The Lesson.
How did you approach developing the play?
My focus has always been on developing Clara, my protagonist, showing her making a journey through a difficult week, a chance for the audience to view the complicated and often messy system at work. While the girls and Abi make up the institution it’s Clara who is fighting her way through it, trying to make sense of what her purpose is. I wanted to make Clara a problem the system has created, giving her no support, making her feel like she was the only one who can help Daniella.
At what point do you feel your work or a piece is complete or is it on going?
The great joy and challenge with theatre is the ever-changing nature of a piece, there comes a point when the lines are learnt, and the play is on where from the writers’ point of view it is as complete as possible. It is why the front of scripts often say this play was printed before rehearsals were complete, as they say a play is made in previews and Press Night marks its solidification.
How do you view the education system today does that reflect in the piece?
I think in comparison to when I was at school and even since I began teaching that there are huge progressions in education, and most educators are continually developing their practice and schools are looking how best to support their students. However, I believe that at its core education needs huge reform, it is archaic, and exam driven, for a large proportion of students it is not fit for purpose. Students are expected to learn by rote and creative subjects are being cut from the curriculum in a large proportion of community and academy secondary schools.

The cast of The Lesson.

What keeps you inspired as creative?
I find inspiration from the world around me, I try to take as much art and culture in as I can; theatre big and small; Art in particular abstract and surreal art, where I often find lots of ideas and inspiration; listening to podcasts, in particular quirky stories about the human experience, in all its pain and glory. And music, I’m a big believer in building the plays world in sound as well, so making a playlist for each of my plays.
What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing The Lesson?
I would like the play to open discussions about the education system, conversations about the problems in education now. People want to talk about the time when they were in school which in a system in constant flux, is completely outdated. I would like people to watch the play and see similarities to their own experience but understand that, by forcing the system to try and run under the same system as it did twenty years ago, when there was more funding and a different work force for children to go into, we are setting up our teachers and students up to fail.

The Lesson runs at Theatre 503 in London from Tuesday 30th January until Saturday 3rd February 2024. Tickets are available from

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