Secrets of the staff room revealed: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge at Bonfire 2018

Joe Vanderhelm, teacher and Rapid Fire Theatre improviser. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Haven’t you always wanted to go backstage in the education system?

Admit it. Haven’t you always wondered what goes on in the teachers’ lounge after the bell rings? What — and who — are the nation’s educators kvetching about? What’s the most absurd homework no-show excuse they’ve ever heard? What’s the grossest thing they’ve ever seen slime out of a school locker?. What’s the most moronic thing ever written on a Social Studies term paper?

Your golden opportunity to ask a teacher is at hand: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge comes to the Bonfire long-form improv festival Saturday night (10 p.m.). It is the brainchild of Rapid Fire Theatre star Joe Vanderhelm who is, as it happens, a high school chemistry teacher who also, as it happens, teaches drama.

In fact, caught up with Mr. Vanderhelm (as he’s known by day) on the eve of Louis St. Laurent High’s first student matinee of the school production of The Little Mermaid. The school has acquired new theatre equipment, and he’s spent much of week trying to figure out the sound board, an improv exercise in itself. “Always an adventure,” he says amiably. “I’m a life-long learner.”

For Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge, he has mined the talents of the seven Rapid Fire Theatre improvisers who are also employed as educators — in the Edmonton Public, the Edmonton Catholic and the Red Deer school systems. The improv roster includes one student teacher, and one school outreach worker.

Joe Vanderhelm aka Mr. Vanderhelm), Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge, Rapid Fire Theatre’s Bonfire Festival. Photo supplied.

“For a long time I was the only one,” says Mr. Vanderhelm of his Rapid Fire cohorts. “Then there was one more. Another then another.” Class, this kind of bench strength should not be wasted.    

When you think about it, improv and teaching aren’t world’s apart. What is teaching but improvising? All day long teachers are performing extempore in front of an audience that’s constantly feeding them cues and reacting. “It’s a captive audience,” laughs Mr. Vanderhelm, a 10-year veteran of the profession. “The audience can’t really leave for 88 minutes.”

“It’s the same adrenalin kick at school or doing improv onstage…. The bell rings. The curtain goes up! In education there are some real stakes….” 

“Since Grade 10 I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher,” he says. The problem was deciding which of his passions — chemistry, physics, theatre — should be his major. “After a risk benefit analysis,” he jokes, science got the nod: more chances for a job, especially if you can teach in French too, as Monsieur Vanderhelm can. 

For Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge, “the plan is to invite the audience (in person and online) to submit their actual questions they’ve always wanted to ask a teacher. ‘Is it true … you pick favourites?’ Or ‘what’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen in school?'” 

“Then, whichever questions the audience finds the most appealing, we’ll improvise scenes based on them.” He dreams up an example. “The grad prank when kids left a whole bunch of dead fish in school over the May long weekend” might give rise to a scene about fishing.  The connections might be thematic; they might be free-associative, or character-based. “Teacher World” as Mr. Vanderhelm puts it, is “a treasure trove of possibilities.”

By the time the school year gets to April, there’s an ample supply of stories from which to cull — anonymously and disguised, of course, so as not to breach any confidentiality agreements and codes of conduct. “We’re starting to get exhausted,” he laughs. “In September everyone loves being a teacher. In April….”   

So, ask away; the teacher brigade is in a weakened and susceptible state, and ready to divulge.  As Mr. Vanderhelm says, “everyone goes through the educational system but not everyone gets to be a teacher….” 


Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge

Bonfire 2018

Theatre: Rapid Fire Theatre

Directed by: Joe Vanderhelm

Where: Citadel Zeidler Hall

Running: Saturday 10 p.m.


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