Is there any area of day-to-day life with as much untapped dramatic potential as the parent-teacher interview?
Whether it's the modern phenomenon of helicopter moms and dads or high-profile fights over progressive curriculums and no-fail policies, parents and the professionals who teach their children have never seemed to be so at odds as they are today.
"It's an environment that's ripe for conflict in so many ways," playwright Jordi Mand says. "There seems to be a lot of tension between what a school can offer and a parent's expectations can be."
In any case, Between the Sheets, Mand's play being premiered by Toronto's Nightwood Theatre this week, certainly has the right setting for a back-to-school time slot. It takes place on meet-the-teacher night in the colourful and vibrant environment of a Grade 3 classroom plastered with construction-paper projects, where an interview between a mother in her early 50s and the twentysomething woman instructing her special-needs son turns much darker than its surroundings.
Growing up with learning difficulties of her own, Mand remembers her own mother defending her to teachers in similar situations. "There were some struggles with subjects – math was a big one," she says.
After the set-up, however, Mand's drama quickly diverges from her own life experience – the first major twist coming about 10 minutes in, when the mother accuses the teacher of sexually tempting her husband.
But while that is the narrative bomb that explodes early in the play, Mand and her cast say the main theme of Between the Sheets is not infidelity, but marriage and the impact that parenting – especially parenting a child with special needs – has on it.
"This why the play is appealing," says Susan Coyne, the actress and Soulpepper Theatre Company co-founder who is playing the mother, Marion. "On one level, it seems like it's about two women fighting for a man, but it's about so much more."
Director Kelly Thornton says Between the Sheets dramatizes "the challenge of the modern woman," the supermoms who have the high-powered job, husband and kids, but have trouble balancing all those competing interests.
"That's the new problem with no name," says Coyne, whose grown-up daughter recently expressed concern that her mother was working too hard. (A writer in addition to being an actor, Coyne has film projects on the go – and recently has been meeting around her kitchen table with her Slings and Arrows co-creators Mark McKinney and Bob Martin to plot out a possible return of the cult Canadian TV show.)
Mand's play does give equal time to the point of view of the young teacher and "other woman," Teresa. "Fighting for the young mistress is an interesting place to come from – our discussions get really heated sometimes," says Christine Horne, the award-winning indie theatre actress who is playing the character. (Horne and Coyne, a generation apart as actors, both have a slight build, a casting choice suggesting that the unseen male character in the play has exchanged his wife for a younger version of her.)
Since becoming involved in the play early on, Horne has gained plenty of insight into what lies ahead of her character if she ends up with the father of her student. At her first reading, she was single, but by a workshop last year she was about six months into a relationship with a single dad. Now, she is living with him and his child and playing the role of step-parent.
"The journey has been really interesting, really informed me," she says. "It's hard [being a stepmom] in emotional ways that I couldn't imagine."
Horne recommends Wednesday Martin's book Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, which she likes for the focus it puts on the relationship between father and stepmother. "A lot of books put the focus on the child, which is, of course, important, but making sure your relationship survives is important too," she adds in a follow-up e-mail.
While Mand, who at the age of 27 is younger than both her characters and cast members, has neither kids nor step-kids, she has channelled her own fears about parenting and long-term relationships into Between the Sheets, her first full-length play. She has also spent long hours talking to women about children and relationships, particularly Horne and Coyne, a divorced mother whose ex is Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz. "People are really eager to talk about being married, being in a long-term relationship and being a parent," she says.
It is the Nightwood's expectation that many of its audience members will be eager to talk more too. The feminist theatre company has tacked on a conversation with parenting and relationship expert Sara Dimerman – co-author of the recently published How Can I Be Your Lover When I'm Too Busy Being Your Mother? – to the performance on Sept. 27.
That discussion – and the show – is intended not just for women. Coyne draws attention to the Nightwood's latest motto – "Theatre for everyone. Made by women." "A lot of men have come to this show [in workshops] and are kind of blown away by it," she says. "It just goes like stink – it's such a wild emotional roller coaster."