Go Deeper

Teach Your Children That Exchanging Sexually Explicit Messages with Their Teachers is Maybe a Bad Idea

Posted September 1st, 2011

At a rehearsal last week for the 2011 Philly Fringe Production Teach Your Children, animated backdrops were projected on a screen spanning most of the stage.

On either side of the screen were large flat-screen monitors, which, when the actors are on stage, display scrolling text message exchanges involving a 17-year-old student and a much older teacher who are in a sexual relationship.

“I was looking for a vehicle to allow me to portray how we manage our relationships now. Within the past 10 years we’ve completely changed how we talk to each other,” says Tom Tirney, the board president of the Philadelphia Dramatists Center and the writer of Teach Your Children. Tom has written five previous plays, including one show, Salesmanship for Life and Limb, that was produced for the 2009 Philly Fringe at Plays and Players.

For the 2011 Philly Fringe, Tom took as his inspiration a recent sex scandal at Council Rock High School in Bucks County, where a highly regarded math teacher and a 17-year-old student developed a sexual relationship.

After the jump: Um, sex scandal? You’re obviously clicking through.

“20 years ago this affair probably never would’ve come to light. The affair itself was legal, in this case, but this guy went to jail because of the 6,000 messages that they exchanged,” Tirney said. The affair was legal because the high school student in question was older than the age of consent for sexual activity in Pennsylvania although, according to news reports, the teacher had the student research the age of consent as their relationship developed. The teacher was charged with endangering the welfare of children and corrupting the morals of a minor, based on those 6,000 messages. The teacher pleaded guilty. While these situations are fraught, Tom insists that judging such people–or such characters–isn’t the point of this show.

“I had been writing sketches of characters and situations where I used the idea of simultaneity, but I didn’t have the story. As soon as I read about this case, it clicked. While the physical relationship took place face-to-face, the buld of the relationship took place in the air,” Tom said. “That’s how they revealed themselves to each other. The text messages can function in a few ways. First, they tell another narrative thread. Second, they’re an ironic or comic commentary on what’s happening on stage. Three, they contradict what happens on stage. We demand that the audience multitask, but they’re always a reflection of what’s happening on stage, using digital features to enhance theatricality.”

“I don’t think that cinema or teleision, or YouTube, does a good job showing this communication in the ether. Instead, you see different modalities trying to compete with each other, and it doesn’t work.”

Our reliance upon electronic mediation of our relationships, Tom said, with iPhone in hand, is “lamentable and exciting at the same time. This is the way the world is. I use it, it’s inherently useful, but frustrating. I think it’s taken people apart. I think intimacy can be compromised by it. It’s not rude to not answer your phone.”

“We’re only beginning to find out how this is changing our relationships. Behavior has evolved behind the technology. It becomes a bar to getting to know somebody. It’s hard to reach someone over the phone. Some people only want to deal with others in a certain way,” Tom said.

“It can be good, because you can manage a lot more relationships more efficiently. Communication has become more informal, and that’s a good thing–I think it cuts down on a lot of bullshit. But I don’t believe art has caught up to this. It’s a disruptive technology, and it’s changing so fast.”

See Tom’s take on the tech at Teach Your Children, which opened last and runs most nights during Philly Fringe, at the Theater at Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, 2111 Sansom Street, Rittenhouse Square. All shows 8:00 pm except for a 2:00 pm matinee on September 11. $13.

–Nicholas Gilewicz