David Marquis has spent nearly 40 years writing and performing three installments of his one-man play ‘I Am A Teacher.’ He draws from that experience in the classroom, diving into education issues that are as relevant today as when he wrote part one in 1976. The three plays will be performed as a trilogy for the first time this weekend at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas.
Back in the mid-’70s, David Marquis was a young Dallas teacher, relaxing in front of the TV watching college football on a Saturday afternoon, when he got a call about one of his former students. The kid had been shot to death.
Marquis was traumatized. He’d worked with this student, helping him get his life back on track.
“That event motivated me to write a play about what it means to be a teacher who really cares about kids,” he says. “In fact, I remember specifically being at his funeral and swearing that he would not die in vain. I had no idea what that meant. But a few months later, I sat down and wrote the first draft ever of ‘I Am A Teacher.’ ”
In this weekend’s trilogy, two actors play younger versions of Marquis’s title character. The star of part three? The playwright himself.
During a recent rehearsal, Austin Tindle is on stage as the young teacher in part one. Dressed in khaki pants, a blue shirt and tie, he stands in front of a desk that holds a stack of books and a coffee mug with pens and pencils. A brown leather briefcase sits on the floor.
“I had a group in here last week working on essay questions. How to answer essay questions,” he says to the audience.
The character faces frustrations familiar to any teacher. He sees, for example, that his students are struggling with grammar. They’ve been taught so many different ways, they’re confused.
“Add to that that some students never see their parents read or write,” he says. “They never see the language in written form.”
The original play had a powerful effect on teachers, other educators and even students, Marquis says. So he decided to retire from teaching and continue writing. Then came part two, with the teacher in his 40s, a 20-year veteran of the classroom.
“He’s really kind of burned by different changes in educational reform and the passing of students just to get them through,” says Brian Witkowicz, who plays the 40-something teacher in part two. He’s about ready to hang it up.”
Off stage, Witkowicz is a drama teacher at the Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Grand Prairie.
“Now we have standardized tests that are state mandated and here he’s dealing with them having to do test scores and make sure that those are up and if there’s a kid that’s lagging behind, he’s getting pressure to just pass them through and we still have that today,” Witkowicz says.
Marquis thinks audiences can relate to his teacher because ultimately, he’s a guy just trying to make it through the day. He’s trying to help students but faces an uphill battle.
“And no institution mirrors our society as closely as our schools,” he says. “So as a result when people come see the play, they see what we’re dealing with in the 1970s, what we were dealing with in the 1990s, what we were dealing with today.”
And that’s where part three comes in.
“It’s a teacher in his 60s who’s on the verge of retirement and he’s gotta figure and think about how many good fights he’s got left in him,” Marquis says. “Is he ready to walk out the door go sit in the sun or he’s ready to come back and take it on one more time.”
David Marquis sounds an awful lot like the guy he plays on stage.
Part Two of I Am A Teacher will be performed Thursday night at 8 p.m. at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas. Part Three will be performed Friday night. All three parts of I Am A Teacher will be performed Saturday and Sunday beginning at 2 p.m. You can find more details at Art&Seek.