He sits hunched over at his desk, staring desperately down at his half-finished work. Crumpled papers fall listlessly onto the ground as he rises from his chair, indignantly pacing the floor. Settling back into his seat, he scratches his chin and pours himself another glass of whisky, cursing the plight of the academic world.
One might think he’s a graduate student with writer’s block, or perhaps an undergrad struggling with his thesis. However, Andrew Clarke’s comedic play “Academy Fight Song” is about a professor’s journey through academia, encouraging us all to think again about the scholar behind the desk.
The Centastage production premiered earlier this month in the Nicholas Martin Hall of the Boston Center for the Arts, and will play until Saturday, Sept. 26. It was written by Clarke and directed by Joe Antoun, who are both performing arts professors at Emerson. The lead character, Professor Davis, is played by Craig Mathers, who also teaches theater at the college.
According to Antoun and Clarke, “Academy Fight Song” has been in production since 2010, and in the last five years, they said they have refined and reenvisioned the play, workshopping the plot and characters through four staged readings leading up to the official premiere.
The story took its first breath when Clarke wrote a monologue inspired by Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim”, a novel highlighting the hardships of being an educator.
“[It] suggested a conflict,” Clarke said. “I couldn’t shake the monologue and what had lead up to it.”
From there, the piece transformed into “Academy Fight Song,” in which Davis, in search of job security, agrees to attend an academic conference. Blissfully unaware that things will go tragically and hilariously wrong, he finds himself drunkenly delivering a lecture in place of a rising literary star—an ex-student of his who happens to be sleeping with his ex-wife.
“I have a sort of darkly comedic view of the world,” Clarke said. “Things spiral out of control and there are always people who always try to keep it all together. Those are the characters I write about.”
Similarly, Antoun’s philosophy as a director forces characters to struggle in the face of change.
“I like the story to be told and the characters to be forced to adjust or change what they are—and‘Academy Fight Song’ has that,” Antoun said. “I view [the play] as not a statement on academia, but of one guy who learns through all the bad things that happen to him, that teaching is his passion.”
After Antoun graduated with a master’s in playwriting and directing from Emerson in 1991, he returned to join the performing arts faculty, where he has taught and directed students for 15 years. He and Clarke first channeled their shared creativity in 2005, when Antoun directed Clarke’s short play, “Breakfast with Harvey.” The pair met at the college, where Clarke has taught playwriting for 13 years.
“Our relationship is sort of unspoken,” Clarke said. “[Antoun] and I just get along. This work is too hard not to do with people you like and respect.”
Mathers said that while Professor Davis can be a foolhardy character, his passion for teaching is the core of both his triumphs and mistakes.
“I really love that the heart of everything that takes place is that he really loves his work, he loves teaching, and he loves his students,” Mathers said, “and I certainly understand that from my time at Emerson.”