La Trobe Drama at Olympian heights

Posted on May 29, 2012


Leo Milesi in the lead role, flanked by student actors Sophie Petridis, left, and Renee Palmer

La Trobe University’s Student Theatre will represent Australia at the prestigious International Student Drama Festival in the UK in June, part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

A troupe of ten student thespians led by director, Bob Pavlich, will stage the only authorised production of Kenneth Cook’s iconic Australian novel ‘Wake in Fright’ ever performed overseas.

And they’ll be treading boards in the footsteps of acting and entertainment greats like Ben Elton, Stephen Fry, Rik Mayall, Pete Postlethwaite, and Michael York. 

The La Trobe play, adapted for the stage by Mr Pavlich, was chosen for the festival from about 140 other student productions from around the world.

Britain’s National Student Drama Festival has been a proving ground for many of the country’s top performers for the past fifty years.  This year, says Mr Pavlich, is the first time it has opened its stage to international students, as part of the 2012 Olympic cultural festival.

It bills itself as: ‘See the future stars of theatre and musical in 20 hand-picked productions from around the world.’ Ten of these come from the UK, with the remaining plays from countries including Germany, USA Japan, Israel, Georgia, Iran, Palestine, and Zimbabwe.

The Festival, from 22 to 30 June, will be held in Sheffield – home of The Full Monty and Arctic Monkeys. Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Dewar, has contributed funds towards the students’ airfares.

Congratulating Mr Pavlich, the actors and all those involved on their success, Professor Dewar said their efforts have provided a great opportunity to showcase another aspect of the University’s achievements to the  wider world.

Pre-departure fundraiser

To pay for the cast’s accommodation, there is a special pre-Olympic fundraiser season for local audiences from 6 to 8 June, at the Menzies Theatre on La Trobe’s Melbourne campus, Bundoora.

Mr Pavlich says the La Trobe production is the only authorised stage adaptation of this gothic outback novel with full support from author Kenneth Cook’s estate.

Eager to escape, but trapped: Leo Milesi as John Grant

It was originally performed at the Northcote Town Hall and then at the Festival of Australian Student Theatre in Brisbane last year,  where it received overwhelming support from the festival’s organisers and audiences alike.

Mr Pavlich says ‘Wake in Fright’ is the story of a young city teacher, John Grant, eager to escape his one-room outback school for the summer holidays. He heads home to Sydney, passing through the rough mining town of Bundanyabba – loosely based on Broken Hill where Cook worked as a young journalist.

Hellish limbo

Grant becomes hopelessly stranded, loses all his money gambling and ‘sinks into a cycle of drunkenness, hangovers, fumbling sexual encounters and increasing self-loathing’.

‘Trapped in a hellish limbo, the once ordinary world of rural Australia becomes the setting for his grotesque and at times surreal nightmare,’ says Mr Pavlich.

‘I suspect Cook shared my view of this place that is so isolated in the middle of the desert and perhaps because of this isolation has chosen to separate itself from the rest of Australian society.  It has developed its own particular culture and set of behaviours that are very far removed from the romanticised view of the outback that was often portrayed in books and films of the time.

‘For me this story is about the two Australias that existed then – and perhaps still do; the urban, sophisticated coastal dwellers who look with distaste at what they see as the brutish, inward looking and male dominated society of the interior.’

Cook wrote ‘Wake in Fright’ in 1961. It was and adapted for cinema a decade later. 

(The film has an interesting history. While it starred a number of overseas actors including Donald Pleasence, it was also the screen debut of Australian actor Jack Thompson and the last role for the much-admired Chips Rafferty who died soon afterwards. All prints were then lost until the accidental discovery of a damaged copy in the US, which has since been restored and re-released.)

Performance and analysis

The La Trobe cast: creative experience and specialist knowledge

The cast of the La Trobe production is Leo Milesi as John Grant with Sophie Petridis, Stephen Foster, Kurt Mottershead, Matthew Bolger-Hobson, Jacob Pruden, Renee Palmer, Matt Sharawara and David Wright.

Nearly all are students in the University’s 25-year-old Theatre and Drama Program, one of Australia’s first specialist courses combining practical production and performance with academic analysis.

Theatre and Drama Head, Professor Peta Tait, says the course allows students to develop specialist knowledge combined with creative experience. Forty per cent of its graduates work as writers, actors, directors and hold various other roles in the creative arts industry; many others go on to teaching.

Some well-known theatre and drama graduates are performers Bob Morley, Verity Charlton, Tim Ross and comedienne Corinne Grant.

Award winning playwrights include Robert Reid – whose new work ‘On the Production of Monsters’ is currently being performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company, following his production of The Joy of Text last year –  and Damien Miller . 

Among graduates who have gone on to become successful directors are Julian Meyrick, Laura Sheedy, Lauren Taylor, who is now working in Canada, and Lucy Freeman. 

Fundraiser season from 6 to 8 June, 8 pm, Menzies Theatre, Melbourne Campus.  Tickets: $20 Full/ $12 Con.  To purchase or for more information, contact T: 9479 1198 or E:

Learn more about Theatre and Drama at La Trobe

More about the International Student Theatre Festival