Teacher-playwright merges humor, drama
At first blush, classroom bullying, death and Asperger syndrome don’t seem like fodder for humor in a play. But playwright Aaron Sommers is hoping that the comedy mined from all-too-human situations is just one of many lessons audiences take away from his latest work, Death of a Dragon Slayer.
“I think people will be surprised that there really is a lot of humor that takes place in a regular day,” said Sommers, who is a special education teacher at Concord High School. “In the classroom, there are moments, as teachers would say, ‘If someone were here videotaping, they’d find a lot of funny things happen.’ ”
That said, Dragon Slayer, which goes up tomorrow at the Players’ Ring Theater in Portsmouth, isn’t a comedy. But the humor helps to endear the characters to the audience, as well as help them through a drama that tackles the important relationship between a student and teacher.
“It’s based on experiences I’ve had with students with Asperger’s, but also experiences that I haven’t had that I’m sure people out there will be able to relate to,” Sommers said.
“There is that ‘Write what you know’ piece, but I think that writers really have to step outside of their comfort zones. They have to. . . . People should take risks and let their imagination go where it wants to; it can be really rewarding.”
The play follows the story of a first-year special education teacher, straight out of school, who establishes a bond with a student who has Asperger syndrome. After understanding his love of a Dungeons and Dragons-type game, she incorporates it into her curriculum to help teach him. The play focuses on their interaction with each other and the student’s interaction with the others.
For “students with Asperger’s, (the classroom is) their kind of place of safety because they know that they are not necessarily going to be judged by the teacher like they would by the outside world,” Sommers said. “I hope audiences take away two things. That schools can be and really have to be a safe place for students for any learning to take place. And kind of along those lines, teachers can really do a lot to make children feel safe in their classrooms, just by really taking the time to understand their perspective.”
This is the second play that Sommers has written and the second to be staged. Sommers has been at the high school for 10 years, which is hard to believe when he says it out loud, he said. In addition to his teaching, he’s been submitting his writing on the side for quite a while, earning his first published work in a journal called Confluence in 2009.
It was a journal that he didn’t think got much attention outside of academia, but the piece caught the eye of an agent who asked the journal editor for Sommers’s contact information.
“I never heard back from the agent,” Sommers said. “But it was nice that someone had expressed interest enough to contact the editor. And so that kind of emboldened me to write some more and send out some more, and just about every year since then I’ve had something published.”
He’s striking a similar kind of streak with his plays.
The first play, also put up by the Players’ Ring, was called A Cross-section of the Hirschfields. The play told the story of an older couple, one of whom is dying.
“I know it’s really cheerful; a real pick me upper,” Sommers said. “But the story is really just a dialogue between the two people.”
That piece was based on a short story Sommers had published out at Dartmouth about a year before.
He said that play had a great deal of influence on the second one.
“I learned the importance of not making everything so dire and stark, and that it’s nice to add some humor,” Sommers said. “The humor that was in the first play really kind of worked well. I mean, people like to laugh and be entertained. I didn’t just write it thinking what the audience would do, but I realize that it’s not exactly healthy to dwell on terminal illnesses and stuff like that when you’re writing.
“You can still talk about bullying and important issues and about things like people with Asperger’s,” he said. “And it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.”
The Death of a Dragon Slayer will run at the Players’ Ring Theatre in Portsmouth tomorrow through June 29. Friday and Saturday shows are at 10 p.m.; Sunday shows are at 9 p.m.
Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students, seniors and members. Reservations for the show may be made by phone at 436-8123 or playersring.org/box-office.