Dave Armstrong talks Kings Of The Gym
Fri Jan 25 2013 | BY ATC
We talk inspiration and high school PE with playwright Dave Armtsrong.
What inspired KINGS OF THE GYM?
The initial idea for KINGS OF THE GYM probably occurred in the mid
1970s in the gymnasium of my secondary school. Back then, most
gymnasiums in co-ed schools were little man-caves - oases of
testosterone where the PE teachers, who were usually male, ruled
the roost. In their striped tracksuit trousers with the
ever-present whistles around their necks, these teachers would
command us to go on long cross-country runs and play all sorts of
ball games, which were highly competitive and very physical. Most
of us enjoyed them but heaven help you if you were overweight,
bookish or both. Liberal English and drama teachers wouldn't go
near the gym, preferring the coffee plungers, literary magazines
and pottery mugs of the staff room. Though as a breed, PE teachers
seemed to be very different from other teachers, I enjoyed their
Bringing very different characters together (across
racial, class and sexual divides) is something of a signature for
many of your plays. What opportunities does this open up for you as
Across the divides is where I think a lot of conflict occurs in our
society. A lot of New Zealanders spend their time berating groups
of people without really knowing them. I was a very liberal,
left-wing teacher myself, but found I really enjoyed the company of
the slightly redneck PE teachers on staff. The same thing happened
with religion. I am not religious, and I am very critical of the
anti-gay attitudes, for example, of some fundamentalist churches.
However, when I got to work recently with a large number of
Pasifika actors, most of whom were devout church members, and I
joined their prayers before a performance (no kidding!), I realised
I also had a lot of misconceptions and prejudices about religion as
well. These kids were wonderful, but just happened to be very
religious (and knew how to party!).
Are there any particular events/people that were the
starting points for any of the characters?
I think everyone has had a teacher like Laurie and a principal like
Viv at some stage of their lives. Pat is probably the most
autobiographical of the characters. Annie reminds me of a lot of
young Polynesians I meet today -educated, attractive, and with a
sense of humour, but also intensely competitive and often highly
religious. Some of the recent events in the education world as well
as events surrounding organisations like the Destiny Church also
had an influence on this play, as did my interest in science and
How much of the story do you know before you actually
start writing the script?
I know a fair bit but not every detail. Writing, rewriting,
workshopping and rehearsal is a journey of discovery, which is why
I enjoy the process so much. Quite often what I think is my main
theme at the beginning of the process changes by the end.
Characters also change. With this play I tended to write 'goodies'
and 'baddies' in the early drafts, and then realised that my heroes
should have flaws and my villains had some very likeable
characteristics, so I changed everything accordingly. I think this
makes a play more real. Let's face it; flaws are often the most
likeable thing about people. I like to think that all four
characters in KINGS OF THE GYM are likeable.
Education is something that exercises both parents and
children. Politically it's a minefield too, and no doubt you
experienced this yourself as a teacher. What makes you optimistic
about the state of education in NZ? What makes you
What makes me optimistic about the state of education is the
teachers and parents of our nation. Most are committed and
wonderful. You always get a small minority who aren't so good, but
that's true of any group. One of the things that I think KINGS OF
THE GYM is saying is that we must be very careful how we judge
teachers. Someone like Laurie may not tick all the Education Review
Office boxes, yet in many ways he is a superb teacher.
What makes me pessimistic about education are the changes that
are currently being introduced. National Standards and Charter
Schools won't do a thing to help education in this country. Our
obsession with assessment and ranking means teachers and parents
are being encouraged to take their eye off what's really important,
and that is learning and having a bit of fun while you do it.
We're delighted to have had an on-going relationship
with you since THE TUTOR, with NIU SILA also in our programme this
year. We workshopped KINGS OF THE GYM at an early stage. ATC has
also produced WHERE WE ONCE BELONGED, LE SUD and THE MOTOR CAMP.
It's great for us to bring your work to Auckland audiences. Any
standout experiences through the seasons of these ATC productions?
Surprises, memorable moments?
Too many standouts in our long marriage to detail! It's been a
really great relationship for which I will be eternally grateful.
One memory of THE TUTOR was attending early rehearsals and having
the joy of watching Peter Elliot develop the role of John Sellers.
My enduring memory of WHERE WE ONCE BELONGED is sitting next to
Colin McColl in a packed Downstage Theatre in Wellington at
festival time and watching 250 Pasifika students roar with laughter
then cry with emotion at ATC's amazing production. LE SUD stands
out as a wonderful experience, not just because ATC did such a
beautiful production, but because of its development. LE SUD was
part of ATC's Next Stage season and director Raymond Hawthorne
helped me literally take the play apart and put it back together
again. It was great fun and I learned so much from Raymond and the
Were you sporty kid? What would Laurie's nickname for
you have been?
I was a sporty kid in a very non-sporty family. Dad had rebelled
against the whole 'real men play rugby' thing in his youth so when
I came along and loved soccer and cricket, my
classical-music-loving parents found it a little strange. Though
Dad did have a mate who was a PE teacher who was very like Laurie.
Once I persuaded my parents to come to watch me play in a soccer
game and a massive brawl erupted, mainly because our team cheated.
Dad grinned ear to ear all the way home in the car saying sarcastic
things like 'the wonderful thing about sport is that it builds
character.' Laurie probably would have probably called me 'Army',
'Legweak', or 'Curly' (I used to have very curly hair when I was at
A cup of tea and a lie down! Recently, I've been completing a Wild
Creations residency in Bannockburn so also expect a play set in
Central Otago some time soon. (Note: when playwrights say
'soon' they mean within the next ten years).