Catherine McClements goes back to school in Chalkface

Catherine McClements returns to the Adelaide stage in a new satirical comedy by award-winning writer Angela Betzien that takes audiences into the staffroom of a fictional Australian school where two teachers face off in a ‘brutal smackdown’.

Jul 29, 2022, updated Jul 29, 2022
Stephanie Somerville and Catherine McClements play teachers Anna and Pat in the new comedy 'Chalkface'. Photo: Matt Byrne

Stephanie Somerville and Catherine McClements play teachers Anna and Pat in the new comedy 'Chalkface'. Photo: Matt Byrne

“They never helped me with my homework – ever!” says actor Catherine McClements, when asked what it was like growing up with two high school teachers as parents.

“But the great thing is that they were always on my side. If I got a bad report, they were on my side, and I really appreciate them for that. I think they knew how a child develops and a year in a child’s life doesn’t mean that’s what their schooling will be.”

Now McClements is able to draw on her own background as she embodies a teacher herself in the State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company co-production Chalkface, opening at the Dunstan Playhouse on August 5. Penned by Angela Betzien, whose writing credits include the ABC television show Total Control, the play is set in a primary school staffroom where a clash occurs between the old and new guard.

If you’re wondering just how much drama can take place in one staffroom, the answer is plenty. “You’d be surprised,” McClements says with a laugh. “It has that sort of sense of The Office – it’s the politics of those communal rooms where nothing is private.”

The actor – last seen in Adelaide in the play The Events and best-known for her roles in television shows such as Water Rats, Rush, Wentworth and, most recently, the Netflix thriller Pieces of Her – plays “brilliant but bitter” long-serving teacher Pat Novitsky, while Stephanie Somerville is the newcomer Anna, fresh out of teacher training and brimming with enthusiasm and new-age thinking.

Chalkface director Jessica Arthur and writer Angela Betzien. Photo: Jessica Zeng

A battle between idealism and reality ensues as the two teachers clash over a challenging student known as Hurricane Little who has previously been taught by Pat and is now assigned to Anna’s classroom. While Pat may seem jaded and stuck in the past, McClements sees her character as symbolic of the pressures teachers are under in real classrooms ­– something which has been brought home to many parents forced to home-school their children during lockdown.

Chalkface is directed by Jessica Arthur, Sydney Theatre Company resident director, who describes it as “almost like a love letter to teachers and the people that shape us”. Writer Betzien hopes audiences will be able to recognise their own communities in her play, saying she wants it to be “a fun, raucous and thought-provoking experience in the theatre after two very bleak pandemic years”.

McClements agrees with their sentiments: “It’s a huge comedy. It’s funny… but at the heart of it is just this incredible respect for the vocation that is teaching, and for the heart and soul that teachers put into those little kids.”

She visited an Adelaide primary school as part of her research for the role of Pat, and says Arthur and the cast ­– which includes Nathan O’Keefe, Ezra Juanta, Michelle Ny and Susan Prior (currently starring in ABC TV’s Aftertaste) – spent time in the rehearsal room discussing their own experiences and stories about teachers. Some of those stories have made it into the play, including one McClements shared about her parents not letting her read books by Enid Blyton when she was a child.

“It was the ’70s and they were quite strict,” she says, explaining that in the play Pat doesn’t let her kids read Blyton books. For McClements, the ban only made the stories more enticing: “I scurried away in my room and read The Wishing-Chair and I found it really great; it was like reading porn in my room!”

Catherine McClements during rehearsals for Chalkface. Photo: Jessica Zeng

Performing with State Theatre Company South Australia is like coming full circle for McClements, who spent a year living in Adelaide and working with the company in 1987, shortly after graduating from drama school. The artistic director then was John Gaden, and she says she relished the opportunity to work with leading actors and creatives at a time when the company was still riding a high after the Dunstan era; she even got to meet writer Patrick White when they performed his play Shepherd on the Rocks.

“And we did two Shakespeares… it’s like heroin, Shakespeare, for an actor – they just can’t get enough of it; it’s just fabulous. We finished off with Away [by Michael Gow]. It’s one of the great Australian plays… at the time it was new and it was so well received and so warmly embraced by the audience; it was just a beautiful production. It was a great year.”

McClements enjoys both stage and screen work, but says she never watches anything she does on television or film because once she’s played her part, the end result is in the hands of the director and editors.

“The great thing about theatre is that you never see it, you just experience it,” she says, acknowledging that live performance adds another level of excitement for an actor.

“It’s the adrenaline you get addicted to, and also doing something from the beginning to the end, just to have that arc of performance, the arc of storytelling, that’s the addictive thing, whereas with film and television… it’s very rare you get that sort of run-on in a scene. it’s just a very different discipline.”

Chalkface, a co-production by State Theatre Company South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse from August 5-20. It will then have a season at the Sydney Opera House (September 15 – October 29) before touring to Paramatta and Canberra in November.

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