Australian social history explored in notorious girls’ detention centre reunion

REAL-life stories of former inmates at the notorious Parramatta Girls’ Training School in NSW have been combined to create a tragic and humorous yet uplifting play, making its WA premiere at the Old Mill Theatre this May.

Written by Alana Valentine and directed by Siobhan O’Gara, Parramatta Girls follows the story of eight girls at their 40-year reunion.

The girls were innocent victims of a harsh regime but had their own ways of coping with the system that oppressed them, trying to make good in tough times. When the system spat them out, they became the mothers, sisters, work mates and wives of Australia.

Described as a “powerful social document”, the play is on the NSW high school curriculum and also a dynamic dramatic piece.

Siobhan was inspired to direct Parramatta Girls because she loves plays about the social condition.

“The Parramatta home was the most notorious girls’ detention centre in Australia and, as an institution that ran under several different guises from 1821 to 1974, it’s an important part of Australian social history that should be told and remembered,” she said.

“The play’s reunion is a way for some of the girls to finally let go of their memories and find healing, for others it’s a chance to dispel the ghosts and for all of them it’s a way to share the pain and to catch up and reminisce.

“I would like the play to be a tribute to the endurance and strength and character of all the girls who suffered the hardship and brutality of the juvenile detention system.”

According to the 2004 Forgotten Australians Senate Committee Report: “Upwards of, and possibly more than 500,000 Australians, experienced care in an orphanage, home or other form of out-of-home care during the last century.

“As many of these people have had a family it is highly likely that every Australian either was, is related to, works with or knows someone who experienced childhood in an institution or out-of-home care environment.”

Siobhan has a wealth of theatrical experience behind her, founding the Brisbane Irish Theatre Players in 1990, working with the Canberra Irish Community Theatre in the mid-90s and the Old Mill Theatre from 1998 as a director, stage manager and on lighting and sound.

Since moving west, she has also co-directed After Dinner and Beyond Therapy at Playlovers and stage managed Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and A Laughing Matter at the Dolphin Theatre.

In 2007, Siobhan received a best director nomination for Necessary Targets at the annual Finley Awards and was named best stage manager at the 2011 Milly Awards for Amadeus.

“With Parramatta Girls, my challenge is to ensure our production depicts the harsh, unforgiving regime but also the joyous moments in these girls’ lives and their hopes and fighting spirits,” she said.

“The audience needs to recognise the resilience and energy that was required for these girls to make the successful lives they did, despite the psychological legacy and hardship and deprivation they suffered.

“I have a wonderful cast and each has researched and worked on her character and done everything possible to understand the emotional and traumatic life these girls endured.”

Parramatta Girls plays at 8pm, May 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25 and 26 with a 2pm matinee May 20. Tickets are $20, $15 concession – book on 9367 8719 or oldmilltheatre@iinet.net.au.

Please note: Parramatta Girls contains adult themes and strong language and may not be suitable for children under 15.

The heritage-listed Old Mill Theatre is on Mends Street, South Perth, opposite the Windsor Hotel and Australia Post.