Excluded? Michael Stewart
They say that everybody's got a tale to tell, and Bradford's Michael Stewart is no different. But even after writing books, stage plays and a radio play set in Bradford, Michael says it's not been an easy journey from school outcast to wordsmith!
Michael's certainly come a long way from sitting outside the headmaster's office for a whole year after having narrowly avoided being expelled from school. In fact it would be interesting to see his former teachers' reactions to the fact he's now not only an author and a playwright but also a lecturer in creative writing at Huddersfield Uni and a writer in residence at Bradford's Theatre in the Mill! And that's before he had one of his plays broadcast across the nation on BBC radio earlier this year after winning a major award! It could easily have been so different...
'Excluded' hit the airwaves in 2007
Ironically, his Bradford-based radio play - Excluded - is set in school, exactly the place where things first went awry for Michael. They're supposed to be the happiest days of your life - or so the crusty cliche goes anyway - but for him it just wasn't to be: "I was bored. It doesn't work for lots of kids really. I think if you're very opinionated - which I was, as well as being bored with the curriculum - you're going to rub up against the system. I saw it as a sort of battle. Me against them."
One pupil versus the education system was always going to be an unequal battle and that's how Michael's future at school ended up on a knife-edge: "There were two of us who got into a lot of trouble and so they had a meeting and decided that the best thing to do was to split us up and expel us. Then one of the teachers said, 'Hold on a minute. If you expel them they're just going to hang around together outside the school and be even more trouble.' So almost at the toss of a coin they decided to keep one of us in isolation and one of us would be sent off school grounds. I thought I was the unlucky one because I had to sit outside the headmaster's office for a year at one of those folding exam tables. I thought I'd drawn the short straw, but it turned out to be one of the best things that's happened to me."
It was during that year of isolation that he went from being like one of the kids he later wrote about in his own radio play to becoming a very different person indeed: "I spent that year being left alone from nine to half three and I just got stuck into the work and I really engaged with what I was doing. At the start of that year I was at the bottom of the groups for English and Maths but by the end of the year I'd scored second highest in Maths and second or third highest in English so they moved me from Group Five to Group One!" From then on, the learning bug had clearly bitten - it just took a while for Michael to act on it. After leaving school and working in a factory, Michael finally returned to education when he was 22. He studied A-levels at night school before going to university, studying teaching at Bradford College and finally lecturing at Huddersfield Uni. Michael admits: "It's been a very circuitous route!"
Now, Michael's been back at school once again to research his radio play which finally hit the BBC's airwaves in Spring 2007. He says his return to school was an odd experience: "I live in Bradford and I researched the play by going to three schools in Bradford. Now, I haven't been to a school since I was at school and it's changed so much really. I wanted to get it right. Things like isolation and exclusion kind of existed at school when I was a kid, but in a completely different way. We called it being expelled! What was interesting about going back to school to research this play was seeing it from the teachers' perspective. Yes, if I was a teacher I'd want thirty kids to keep their mouths shut and get on with their work and do as they're told!"
Excluded is set in a failing Bradford comprehensive, with the action taking place during an OFSTED inspection that could see the school closing down. Michael explains: "The headmaster's solution is to get the three worst kids off the grounds for the day and get the inspection done without them. The PE teacher who's in the school's bad books is given the job of taking the kids out and it all goes horribly wrong immediately, really..." Based on real case studies and interviews with teachers and excluded pupils in Bradford, Michael says Excluded has been compared to the famous Willy Russell play Our Day Out. But, says Michael, "It's much darker and grittier than that...All drama is about conflict, two people forced together and hopefully 'drama' comes out of that process."
Michael: "Persistence pays off!"
And it's that darker side of life which Michael says he revels in when he's writing: "It's where the truth is. The facade - 'Have a nice day!' - isn't theatrically interesting. What's interesting with people is what's underneath. I remember that HIV advert in the 1980s, the one with the iceberg. You saw the tip and then you went underwater and it was very dramatic. That's what life's about, going under the water and seeing that big ugly shape underneath. Theatre and fiction explores what's underneath. When you get there it is pretty dark and dirty but that's not to say there's a chink of light, no redemption. But when you go foraging in the cesspit of people's lives, you find ugly things and that's where it gets interesting for me!" No wonder his new theatre company's called Dark and Dirty!
So, with his play recently broadcast across the UK's airwaves and with lots more literary irons in the fire, what would Michael's advice be to up-and-coming authors and playwrights in Bradford, Huddersfield or wherever in West Yorkshire? His answer is in the form of 'a terrible joke': "There's a knock on the door at a man's house. The man goes to answer and there's a snail there. The man picks the snail up and throws it as far as he can and closes the door. Then, about three years later, there's another knock on the door and it's the snail again. He says: 'What the hell was that all about?!' My advice is to be that snail: persistence really pays off. I've seen a lot of good writers who've not stuck at it. Rejection's part of the industry - but occasionally something pays off!"
From the boy who sat in disgrace outside the head's office to the man who is now writer in residence at the Bradford Theatre in the Mill and lecturer at Huddersfield Uni, it's clearly been a long trip for Michael Stewart. But, he doesn't seem to regret the time, effort or heartache it's taken to get from there to here. Now, as he focuses on adapting Excluded for the stage and gets to work with Dark And Dirty, among many other projects, he's got his eyes firmly on the future not the past...
last updated: 22/04/2008 at 16:42