Arzhang Pezhman used his experience as a secondary school teacher to inspire his latest play. Roz Laws met him.
Arzhang Pezhman’s first play was a generational conflict set in a newsagent’s shop.
His latest, Gravity, is set in a Midland secondary school where a teacher struggles to engage his pupils in science.
It is no coincidence that Arzhang used to work in his father’s shop, and as a science teacher in a tough Wolverhampton secondary school.
The maxim ‘write about what you know’ has served him well.
Though he would rather not name the school where he taught for a year, in case his former colleagues recognise themselves.
“I had a racist character in my first play, Local, and afterwards quite a few people came up to me and said ‘Is that me?’,” remembers Arzhang, 34.
“They took real umbrage. There is quite a vicious senior teacher in Gravity, and I don’t want people to see the play and think that’s them.
“It was quite a tough secondary modern in north Wolverhampton, though it’s an academy school now and has improved, I gather.
“I wanted to portray the pressures on teachers, both from unruly and aggressive kids and from all the red tape and bureaucracy.
“There are plenty of plays and films about pupils losing it and shooting up schools, but what happens if a teacher loses their rag, with dramatic consequences?
“I’ve had plenty of personal experience of disruptive pupils. One lad kept trying to get into a fight with me, offering me out. He was only tiny, weedy but very bolshie. He kept saying ‘you and me, let’s fight it out’.
“I’ve had to try to break up some really vicious fights between big 16-year-old lads. Having to get in between them was terrifying.
“Then there were the two year nine girls, aged about 14, who were punching it out. They both had long hair and twisted their opponent’s hair round their fingers and wouldn’t let go. I was standing between them for ten minutes, unable to pry them apart.
“It ended painfully with chunks of hair on the floor. It’s shocking, it really shakes you up.”
Gravity is a Birmingham Rep production, staged at the MAC in Cannon Hill Park next week and then on tour including Bromsgrove’s Artrix and the Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton.
It features science teacher David, who is desperate for his students to share his enthusiasm in physics, especially the Large Hadron Collider.
One boy, Kyle, takes an interest and shares David’s thirst for knowledge. But when Kyle is picked on for his trouble making classmates, all of David’s good work starts to unravel.
Arzhang says: “The Large Hadron Collider is exciting, but unfortunately we don’t have particle accelerators in very school science lab. That’s the stuff pupils like, but it is hard to keep their interest.
"You can show them how to mix vinegar with sodium bicarbonate to make an erupting volcano – that holds their attention for a while. You have to be passionate about your subject, that’s really important.
“The problem I try to highlight in Gravity is that it’s devastating when a pupil seems bright and engaged but changes when adolescence hits. They go from caring about the subject to disengaging completely, and it’s an arrow to the heart when you see that blank look in their eyes.”
Arzhang was born in Iran to a British mother and Iranian father, who moved them to Wolverhampton 30 years ago.
He used to run a shop in Wakeley Hill, Penn, where Arzhang worked and sold copies of the Birmingham Post, and is now a governor at a primary school.
“When he first came here he really felt like a fish out of water, but has really involved himself in the community,” says his proud son.
Arzhang studied biology at Leeds University but was always interested in writing plays, so he put one on in his final year. It might have been easier not to stage it during his final exams, though.
“Only four people came to the first performance, but even that scatter of laughter and applause was enough for me to think it’s what I wanted to do.”
It won him a place on an MA playwriting course at Birmingham University.
Then, in 2000, Local won the Royal Court’s Young Writer’s competition.
“I didn’t even know what the Royal Court was or how prestigious it is,” says Arzhang.
“Much to the dismay of all the literary people on my course! There I was, this biologist, who knew nothing about the Royal Court but had a play on there.
“I was a bit swept of my feet and overwhelmed by the experience. And afterwards I struggled.
“I felt I had written my life story, and I dried up. I thought writing was all about truth and people will sniff out something fake.
“But over time I’ve realised it’s not just about me. You can explore the truth in other people, which is more difficult but necessary. I remember a tutor telling me ‘you need to get a job’, so I could get more experience of life.
“After my playwriting course I was making a hand to mouth living as a writer, and by doing a bit of tuition work.
“Most people, if they are struggling to write, distract themselves by going for a walk or watching TV. I decided to distract myself in a major way by getting another skill, so I went in for teaching training.
“I now lecture in playwriting at Wolverhampton University and tell my students that, other than your imagination, there are three sources for storytelling – research, from books or newspapers, observation from incidents you see and personal experience.
“I do have two more ideas for plays that aren’t based around professions I’ve had!”
* Gravity plays at MAC from February 23 to March 3. For tickets ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk