Communicating with strangers online seems to be becoming more normalised with the accessibility to the internet and the readiness of apps intended for that purpose. But the behaviours or actions of who you communicate with online often are not.

Lead by MAD Swan Productions and based on the original script written by Irish writer, Enda Walsh, Chatroom premiered on Wednesday 16 June at the Arts Academy’s PO Box Theatre in Ballarat. Directed by Mary-Rose McLaren and Alexandra Meerbach, as well as a cast of nine students local to the area, Chatroom aims to ‘engage and educate the whole family and, give young people the chance to discuss what does and doesn’t work when it comes to social media, and ‘actions’ against cyber bullying.’1

We are introduced to six different teenagers William (Max Rushton), Eva (Mady Gay), Emily (Isabella Thomas), Jack (Tristan Broekhoff), Laura (Quinn Muller) and Jim (Harrison Baker) who communicate online via a number of different chatrooms in their area. Topics discussed range from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to how Britney Spears has corrupted the minds of young teenage girls.

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Things take a turn when Jim opens up about how his father abandoned his family when he was six, how his mother despises him, how he endures daily beatings from his brothers, and the death of his only friend, Timmy. Over the years this has led to Jim experimenting with drugs and alcohol as a result from developing depression and becoming suicidal. Eva and William decide that Jim would be a great candidate for their cause to start a teenage revolution.

At the conclusion of the show, the audience were asked to participate in a review about mental health and how what has occurred in Chatroom can apply to reality. The review was led by Jackie from headspace in Ballarat, Kristy and Gail from Survivors of Suicide (SOS) and Sally, the Principal of Catholic College Bendigo.

Director Mary-Rose wanted to begin by pointing out a few things that may have gone unnoticed during the production. “Jim says it’s 2am and his mum was vacuuming, this could be due to the fact that she is lurking and knows that he is depressed and won’t go to sleep until she knows Jim is safe, or she is living in a bubble and has no idea.” She adds that “the suddenness” of William and Eva turning on the others and kicking them out of the chatroom got to her, as well as the setting. Jack was depicted to be in his lounge room which represents how cyber-bullying is happening in our own homes and parents are unaware, as no character in the production spoke to their parents about Jim’s intentions. One student explains that this was because if their parents knew they were communicating with strangers online, they would get in trouble.

A student said, “We don’t want to go to our parents and tell them we’ve been in an online chatroom and inform them about the victim, as we have to deal with the repercussions of being in a chatroom in the first place.”

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Another student told us that open conversation, showing your parents what you are doing, and how you are able to communicate with strangers online can assist to combat this. It worked for her and helped bridge the gap of what parents don’t understand about technology and the internet. If you want to speak to your parents, have an open line of communication and explain what you are doing. They will grow to understand what you are doing and they can be a support system.

Whilst there are some great initiatives such as RU OK? Day implemented to help kick start the conversation of how to approach somebody who is depressed, suicidal, or at risk of being suicidal, both students and parents felt they weren’t confident enough to approach the person affected and asked what the best way to do so is. Jackie from headspace says that asking outright is best.

“Outright ask, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ It’s better than avoiding it altogether.”

However, she says that with days such as RU OK, society seems to think that you only ask on the one day of the year.
“If someone isn’t okay, it’s a question that needs to be asked on a daily basis.”

The focus then shifted to how schools are helping to deal with cyber-bullying and suicide. Some parents said that schools should be doing more, but Sally from Catholic College, jumped to the teachers’ defence.

“Schools provide as much support as they possibly can, but if we don’t get the support and backup from home, it undoes all the work we try to do. We try to engage the parents as much as we can as they need to be empowered to be parents.”

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Overall, Chatroom achieves its vision by depicting scenes of teenagers communicating online which coincides with how it is done in reality. It illustrates that you never really know who you are talking to, and that the personalities of who you meet can be changed in an instant. The words used in chatrooms do hold power and participants can be easily influenced by them. The deliberate use of settings such as the lounge room and bedroom, highlights the fact that these instances of cyber bullying and harassment are happening in our own homes, with parents being unaware of what is happening. This in turn encourages students, and parents alike, to have an open line of communication and be more informed about online activity.

Words by Dakota Richards


Editor’s Note: Chatroom is  playing at the Post Office Box Theatre in Ballarat from Wednesday 15 to Saturday 18 June 2016. The play is intended for an audience of Year 9+ students and their families as it deals with quite complex issues. Tickets are available here.

You can find out about MAD Swan’s upcoming productions by following their Facebook page.