Academic turns playwright to change lives

The cast of Anne Southall’s play Biting the Hand.
Anne Southall
Education and Trauma lecturer Anne Southall.

Academics often wonder if their thesis will make it into the hands of those who can learn from their research. Education and Trauma lecturer Anne Southall has perhaps found the most assured way to achieve this.

Ten years ago, when she laid out the raw materials of her research into the effects of early childhood trauma, it was so disjointed, she didn’t know where to start. So she took the unique path of turning it into a play.

Next month, Biting the Hand will be staged for the third time in Bendigo to a conference of teachers, counsellors and allied health professionals with a thirst to change outcomes for some of our most hard done by kids.

Biting the Hand is the story of Daniel, who represented the worst case of abuse Anne had ever seen as a teacher. When she met him she was assistant principal at a special school in Moe.

“I’d long been interested in kids that didn’t fit into the special school system but were coming in in droves,” she says of the sort of student Daniel was; angry, abusive, dangerous and severely disadvantaged.

An actor plays the character of Daniel in Biting the Hand.

“He was the worst example ever I’d seen of abuse within a family and the system,” Anne says. “This boy was abused, physically and sexually, in three different foster homes and by his own family.”

Anne was studying a physiological therapy degree and researching the neuroscience of childhood trauma. Over the course of a year she documented her talks with Daniel, his psychologist and other teachers, including a colleague and childhood trauma survivor.

In her attempt to make sense of the material, she turned each person involved into a character, which formed the basis of her play.

“The play was a reflection of the research I did but it was incredibly deadly boring – it was a masters degree,” she says. However, her supervisor saw its potential and sent it to a friend, the director of Hobo Theatre, which is a company specialising in social realism.

“He said he’d like it to go to the editor and she was the editor from hell,” laughs Anne. “She was an amazing woman. She asked me, what do you know about theatre? I said, nothing really, and she said, it shows and you can’t use any of it.”

With the editor’s guidance, Anne re-wrote the play, leaving only Daniel’s words verbatim.

“What’s really hilarious is, the actors all asked if it was too over-the-top,” Anne says of the language used and situations portrayed. “The teachers who hear that laugh because this is what we deal with every day. I don’t think people have a clue what teachers deal with.”

Anne says it’s confronting and affecting to see the sort of conversations she’s had over her 30-year career portrayed on stage. “I really feel that theatre as a form of teaching is incredibly powerful and one of the few things that is human-to-human, and so personal, it’s quite an experience.”

“It rattles cages,” she says of the play. “People cry and most are terrified. But there is a resolution at the end, we do take the audience to a place where they can change this.”

Teachers, counsellors, welfare workers, mental and allied health professionals are invited to see the play and take part in the La Trobe Hard Yards conference on understanding childhood trauma, in Bendigo on May 30. Book here.

One thought on “Academic turns playwright to change lives

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  1. No musty thesis left on a dusty shelf and never read for Anne Southall! Presenting the heartbreaking message of the effect of trauma on the development and behaviour of children in the form of a play, is a brilliant way to reach a much wider audience. Educators, Health Professionals and the general public alike will benefit from viewing this.
    Anne is a brilliant educator and a very creative and inspiring individual who I had the privilege of working with, ( and learning from) at the said ‘Special School’ many years ago. Congratulations Anne on pursuing something so needed and worthwhile.

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