The teacher’s lounge is a safe haven, but in a school slated for closure there are no safe spaces.

Such is the reality for the characters of “Exit Strategy.” As an unnamed Chicago Public School is set to close at the end of the academic year, a handful of people band together to save it.

A school administrator, a student and several teachers reflect a variety of individuals who want to protect the school, said Forward Theater artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray.

“It’s showing many points of the cycle of life in public education,” she added.

More-so the play, staged by Forward Thursday through Feb. 4, is open and honest about what goes on behind the closed doors of the mysterious teacher’s lounge.

For director Marti Gobel there was a lot of appeal in giving context to the lounge. Gobel’s mother was a high school English and history teacher, so growing up the teacher’s lounge was familiar territory for Gobel. And the teachers were more than just Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so from a certain class.

“This play really smacks of the texture of that culture,” Gobel said. “I think it’s very easy to forget that teachers are just people. Some are mad, some love their jobs, some of them are tired of being full energy since it’s been decades and now they’re done. All of that swirls in the teacher’s lounge.”

Gobel said playwright Ike Holter uses “the voice of the people” and their experiences to highlight larger issues. In this case the issue is steeped in chaos all of which takes place in the teacher’s lounge.

With a preeminent skill for dialogue, depth and play writing prowess, Holter’s work has not gone unnoticed. His Chicago based plays have been workshopped at prestigious locales such as The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. He is also one of the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize recipients—a literary prize from Yale University.

One of the most remarkable things about Holter’s plays is that they tackle issues without being “issue plays.”

They engage with audience members on a deeper level without hitting them over the head with lecture. None of the characters are ever on a soap box about anything, Uphoff Gray said.

She added that “Exit Strategy” is “an entertaining piece of theater that will send you home with some perspectives on our community.”

The fact that “Exit Strategy” is about Chicago and not Madison helps offer that perspective. If the show took place in Madison or a city like Madison, it may have detracted from the main points of the show.

People would have been on “hyper alert”, Uphoff Gray said. They would have been too busy trying to figure out what school was being talked about or negotiate around the local politics of the production. This way it’s an opportunity for audiences to “relate to issues we are working on as a community here” instead of focusing on how the show reflects this particular community.

Gobel agreed and said the play is relevant to anyone regardless of where they live in the country.

“There are always problems with funding the public school system,” she said. “No one expects that it’ll get that bad for their school. This can serve as a cautionary tale. This could happen in your neighborhood. This could touch everyone and that’s what people should try to accept.”

Among the advisory company of Forward, there was no denying the need to do “Exit Strategy.”

The board fell in love with the script, Uphoff Gray said. She said the board sometimes finds plays that match their mission so exactly that they need to seek it out right away to consider for upcoming seasons—“Exit Strategy” was one of those plays.

“There was something so compelling and vital about it,” Uphoff Gray added.

Having grown up in the culture of a teacher’s life, Gobel was especially thrilled after Uphoff Gray approached her about directing “Exit Strategy.”

Gobel immediately came to mind to direct it once the play rights were secured, Uphoff Gray said. With a strong directing career growing in Milwaukee, it felt like the “perfect project” to bring her back into Madison.

Gobel was last seen on Forward’s stage in the April 2016 production of “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.”

Uphoff Gray said Gobel “viscerally understood the play” which makes the production that much more exciting for Forward.

As an artist, the daughter of an educator and a teaching artist, the show is perfect for Gobel’s direction.

“I know schools,” she said. “I know how they teach and I know through my training with The Kennedy Center what is a good way to educate people. And it’s interesting to watch teachers coming at education with heart.”


Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.