Tutor gives out some homework

By Linda Herrick

When Wellington writer Dave Armstrong was commissioned to write a play for Circa Theatre in 2005, he came up with a tale about a flashy self-made businessman struggling in his relationship as solo dad to his bratty 14-year-old son.

The son is failing in school, especially in maths, and as a last desperate move - because the father sees maths as something you need for a job - he hires a private tutor, a woolly-pully lefty liberal.

The Tutor was set in Wellington when it was staged at Circa that year, winning the Chapmann Tripp Most Outstanding New New Zealand Play.

But deep down, Armstrong knows this comedy-drama about a white, middle-class, dysfunctional family is an Auckland story.

When the Auckland Theatre Company production of The Tutor opens tomorrow (directed by Jonathon Hendry), we'll see the father, John Sellers (played by Peter Elliott), at home in his Paritai Drive mansion, with Rangitoto in the background.

Sellers and his son Nathan (Damien Harrison) are more bonded to their cellphones than each other, and Nathan is perpetually on the make for money.

His mother is long off the scene, an "alcoholic slapper who shot through to Perth.

Left me with Nathan when he was 3", as Sellers puts it.

But now she has cleaned up, returned to Auckland, and is pursuing full custody in the family court. It turns out that Sellers needs the tutor - Richard Holton (Eryn Wilson) - to get Nathan's grades up so he can provide concrete evidence he's a good dad.

Throw money at a problem, and it'll go away, is his theory. And that, Armstrong reckons, is the way among a certain breed of Aucklanders.

"I think it is an Auckland story," he says. "I see among well-to-do white people this dysfunctional family thing. It is hidden and manifests itself differently, sometimes through drugs.

"What impresses and horrifies me about Auckland is when you move among the artistic or middle-classes, they are all obsessed with schools, they will travel miles to get their kid to the right school, and they talk about the schools at the dinner parties - and some of them, you wonder if they even know their kids' names.

"I suppose what The Tutor is saying is, if you're really worried about your kid's education, sit down with them and teach them and don't throw money at it.

"John Sellers throws money at his problems and I think parents in Auckland do sometimes because money is such a big part of Auckland and its world. But maybe there is a better way of working it out."

To get inside the character of the tutor, Armstrong didn't have to look far.

He was a maths teacher for a year and since quitting to take up writing has kept his hand in with some relief teaching and private tutoring.

"I call myself a failed maths teacher ... I started out as a teacher at a pretty low-decile school and I was quite idealistic. But I found teaching incredibly stressful, trying to teach kids who weren't interested in maths.

"Through doing a lot of relieving teaching it gave me an insight into very high and very low-decile schools. I taught kids like Nathan who just didn't want to know and listened to sounds on their iPod.

"You try and find common ground to make them interested, but the trouble is they can often see it coming. They know you're trying to be cool and groovy. You try to be nice to the kids and friendly and never show fear. As one who showed fear ... "

Writing got Armstrong out of the classroom. During his "year from hell" he started writing for the sketch puppet series Public Eye and discovered he could earn more money from TV in a week than from five weeks in a classroom. And it was much more pleasurable.

Then came work for Skitz, Spin Doctors, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby and script editing for the first series of bro'Town. The play Niu Sila, which he co-wrote with Oscar Kightley, won the 2004 Chapman Tripp best new play award, and it will tour later this year to Britain. He has also just started the year as writer in residence at Victoria University.

But he'll be in Auckland for The Tutor's opening night and hopes the audience will relish the digs at the New Zealand of today labouring under political correctness, the Helen regime ("What is bloody numeracy?" asks Sellers in the play. Holton: "Arithmetic under a Labour Government."), and a deep concern about the divide between parents and their kids.

You might be surprised where your sympathies go. Armstrong was.

"Holton is a bit like the liberal good guy and Sellers is the free-market, self-made Rogernomics man," he says. "I discovered as I went through the play that Holton is a bit of a tosser and Sellers is a really good guy."

What: The Tutor, by Dave Armstrong

Where and when: Maidment Theatre, tomorrow until March 10, then touring to Palmerston North, Hamilton, Wanaka Festival of Colour

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