Perils of the Fishbowl: In Loco Parentis

An interview with Andrew Holmes, director of In Loco Parentis, a new play to open at the Street Theatre exploring sexual assault and university politics at a fictional Canberra college.

L: Tell me about In Loco Parentis.

A:  It’s a play that explores an entrenched culture of violence against women in Australian residential colleges within universities. It looks to question what is the duty of care to students in this sort of environment, both from the colleges and from the university more broadly, and universities more broadly.

It was written by Helen Machalais – she’s lived in a couple of different colleges around Australia in her time at university. And it was also inspired by a survey that was done in 2011 called “Talk About it” by the National Union of Students, which found that a huge, like, a really high number of sort of rape and unwanted sexual encounters on campuses around Australia.

L: Talk to me about the characters of the Play.

A: The main two characters in the play are two students. One is called Mitch and he is the President of the college that the play is set in and around. The other is a girl called Katy who is a Senior Resident at the college. It plays out that an allegation of sexual assault is made against the college President, Mitch. Katy, being a Senior Resident and someone who’s there to help girls, is attempting to pursue that throughout the university and make a big case out of it. The play centres around how the university and the college, in the broader context, deal with this incident.

What’s really interesting about it as well is that it does play into broader university politics as a whole, it’s not jut a focus on students. The other two main characters are the head of a residential college, an academic, and a university sexual health officer. So it’s not just student-focused; it does broaden out to issues within the educational landscape and the human dynamics and power plays that occur within that as well.

L: Do you think this is something that’s going to resonate with a Canberra audience?

A: Yeah I think it will. I think particularly because Canberra is a bit of a university town in that respect. But I think it resonates with a lot of audiences that are in Canberra or not, because there’s actually been a couple of headlines in the last few months that have really brought this issue, I think, to a head. And I think we’re pretty lucky to be going on at this time where it is something that’s been amongst news headlines in the last few months.

L: How does the play represent college life?

A: Something that people we’ve talked to about college mention is that college life is quite insular, it has that kind of fishbowl. Everyone knows everyone and knows what’s going on in and around the college. And we really wanted to try and play that in how we staged it. So as well as the four lead characters we also have a chorus of five students and they kind of act like a traditional Greek chorus; they’re always there watching, commenting on the action as it happens.  Something that Helen really specifically wanted to look at throughout the writing of the play is that these colleges, or some colleges anyway, want to deal with their own problems themselves. It’s seen as “our business” and we don’t need interference from universities more broadly.

It should be said that this is a play that does only really look at the bad side of college and it doesn’t look at the wonderful things about college. We’re all very aware that colleges aren’t completely evil places or anything like that at all. But you know it is a specific look at one side of what college is like. But, that being said, what a lot of people, including students who came along to the development earlier in the year and a couple of our cast members who have actually attended colleges, said is that there are elements of college that are captured really well in the play. That Helen has managed to really tap into it.

L: Do you think that students from the ANU would find it a bit familiar?

A: Yeah I think they would. I think anyone who’s been to uni but also anyone who’s been between the ages of 18 and 22 and, you know, gotten really drunk at a party will probably also find elements of it that resonate as well.

L: What type of rehearsal process did the play involve?

A: I’ve been attached to the play all year. We did a workshop development on the play with Helen, earlier in the year in April, where we spent four days in the theatre workshoping it. And she could then take the play away; she worked on rewriting a few things. And then we’ve been rehearsing for I think seven weeks now. Yeah, a couple of rehearsals a week for seven weeks

L: What’s your approach to directing this kind of work?

A: Well I’m very much a believer in what actors bring. I’m not a director who likes to go into a rehearsal process with a preconceived notion of what I think should happen. So I very much work with the actors and we work scenes basically talking through the text, what subtext and emotions do they think are in the scenes. And then the first thing I get all the actors to do is to improvise scenes around those emotions and around the basic structure of the scene so they can really tap into the raw emotional part of it, because for something that is dealing with quite heavy issues, if it’s not believable, if it comes across as fraudulent, then it just can’t have the effect we need it to have on its audience.

L: Tell me a little bit about yourself.

A: I’m the 2013 artist in residence director at the Street Theatre this year, and I’ve been working with them on a couple of different projects this year and have done some work for them last year. And I’m currently a PhD student in Drama at the ANU.

L: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: I think it’s important to note that the show is part of the Made in Canberra season at the Street theatre, which is a season that is devoted to looking at works written and produced all locally. The Street theatre is sort of one of the only companies around in Canberra that are actually really investing in local work. So the Made in Canberra season each year is a big part of their investment in local theatre and theatre makers.



In Loco Parentis will be performed at the Street Theatre from October 25th to November 2nd.

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