Into the 'Pit' of public education

Local teacher/actor Shamrock McShane opens original play tonight


Published: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 9:47 p.m.

Shamrock McShane, center, stars in "The Votive Pit," a play he wrote based on his experiences in the public school system. The play opens tonight at Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.

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Shamrock McShane, center, stars in "The Votive Pit," a play he wrote based on his experiences in the public school system. The play opens tonight at Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.

DAVID MASSEY/The Gainesville Sun

Facts

IF YOU GO
"The Votive Pit"
WHAT: Original play about public education by Shamrock McShane

WHEN: Opens tonight. Performances: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Jan. 29

WHERE: Acrosstown Repertory Theatre, 619 S. Main St.

DETAILS: Mature material, attendees under 17 require accompanying parent or guardian

BENEFIT: Tonight's performance is a benefit for the Alachua County Education Association

McShane

'The American dream of public education has turned into a nightmare."

That's not the kind of thing you expect to hear from the Westwood Middle School Teacher of the Year. But for Shamrock McShane, part of being a teacher is to expose ignorance.

And with his new play "The Votive Pit," he hopes to open a window into what he calls the "trench we have dug and into which we now pour the blood of our kids."

McShane, 53, has been teaching language arts at Westwood since the early '90s and has taught at just about every academic level during his career. Six years ago, he began work on a script that would incorporate his experiences from his 18 years of teaching and the many characters he's met along the way.

The result is "Pit," a darkly humorous drama that portrays the school year's final 13 hours at the fictional Odyssey Middle School. The play begins its run with a benefit performance for the Alachua County Education Association tonight at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.

"You are going to get an idea of what it's like to be locked in a room with 35 eighth-graders, when you are expected to teach them," says McShane, who has written and performed in numerous plays in Gainesville. "It's a coup de theatre. We're using just about every element of drama to create something for an audience that's going to have an impact on their life."

That includes taking the audience to school, literally. Director William Eyerly, himself a local teacher, tears down the "fourth wall" to give the production an interactive element.

"I really wanted the audience to be right in the school," he says. "They walk in the door and sit down, and they're students. They're in the midst of the play. The audience is part of it. They're in the world of Odyssey Middle School, so they may be reliving some middle-school experiences themselves."

Some audience members may even be sent to "the office."

McShane takes what's ostensibly the lead role in the play, though he says "Pit" is definitely an ensemble piece filled with juicy parts. The cast includes a number of veteran Gainesville actors, including three with actual classroom experience. And Julie Tidwell, who plays detached administrator Wendy, actually was taught by both McShane and cast member Dirk Drake at Westwood.

The play carries an R-rating for "its mature treatment of school violence, high-stakes testing, academic freedom and prayer in school." But McShane, who goes by Tim in his academic life, says he's not too concerned about potential backlash.

"Ironically, I think that the reason my colleagues chose me as Teacher of the Year is that they believe that I would stand up and say things," he says. "And, no, I don't think that I should get in any trouble because, as a teacher, we battle ignorance. So if you're going to expect teachers to just sit idly by when they see things that are patently stupid, then they're not really doing their job."

McShane and his son, Michael, hope to begin shooting a big-screen version of "Pit" this summer. In the meantime, McShane emphasizes his work presents an exciting opportunity on the local theater scene - a fresh, original play. And Eyerly contends the reward will be a new outlook on education.

"The play really brings to life the frustration we feel in a way that the general public can understand," he says. "There is a lot of humor. We laugh in rehearsal so much, but the funny thing is you laugh, and then you think, this is true, and it's not funny."

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