'Office Hour'

New play about campus shootings offers little in the way of answers, but aims to spark conversation.

April 12, 2016

Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, wrote poetry that frightened his creative writing professor. In the aftermath of the massacre, the professor talked about how Cho’s writing caused many students to drop a poetry class, and others wrestled in news articles and essays with the right approach for handling a worrisome or even frightening student.

It was in reading one of those essays that Julia Cho’s new play about school shootings began to coalesce. “It opened this door back to my own experiences teaching in grad school,” she said. “I didn’t have troubling students like that, but I could imagine being a teacher in the higher ed environment -- you do come into contact with students with different needs.” In her play, called Office Hour, it’s unclear whether an unsettling student, to put it mildly, just needs a little help, a lot of help, an empathizing professor or a straitjacket.

John Glore, associate artistic director of South Coast Repertory, the California theater company producing the play, sets up the situation in promotional video like so: “Imagine you’re an adjunct professor of creative writing at a large state university. And then a new semester starts and in walks this kid, young man, and you know as soon as you see him, he’s trouble. He wears a hoodie pulled down tight around his head, he wears dark glasses, he sits in the back of the classroom, he never says a word, won’t answer questions. But even more troubling than the way he stares at you and the way he refuses to talk is the writing itself. It’s horrible in every sense of the word. Badly put together, full of shocking violence and graphic sexuality. This kid is bad news.”

Early in the script, several professors gather to discuss the student. “The shit he writes is only part of it,” one says. “I mean, that’s not really what we’re talking about, is it?”

“Then what are we talking about?” asks Gina, one of the two leading roles in play.

“All right, I’ll just say it: he’s a classic shooter.”

For the most part, Office Hour -- which will run April 10-30 -- is set in a single room, where Gina speaks with the student who may or may not be dangerous.

On the first day of rehearsals, Julia Cho told her actors the play they were about to begin working on wasn’t about the Virginia Tech shooting. Or that’s certainly not all it’s about.

“I didn’t want to come into the first day of rehearsal and start a conversation with the actors and the director where it’s ‘let’s tell a story about mass shootings or why they happen or how they happen,’” said Cho in an interview. “I mean, I think that’s obviously what the play is about. But then it seemed to me that the play also had this other component to it … it was sort of this desire to start talking about it in a very personal way so it wouldn’t become an issue play, or only an issue play. That in its way the play is about a very particular woman trying to make a connection to a very particular student.”

The Play

Gina, the instructor in Cho’s play, tries to speak, to connect with Dennis, the student, in her office, for an hour. But Office Hour isn’t likely to leave the audience with a definitive answer to their questions or a good idea about whether or not Gina made the right move.

“I just want people walking away wanting to talk,” Cho said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “My biggest hope is people come out of the theater wanting to have a conversation about it.”

The 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech made an impression on Cho, she said, not only because so many people lost their lives but because the shooter, like her, was Korean-American. The play’s script doesn’t specify Dennis’s or Gina’s ethnicity, but both characters are played by Korean-American actors. Sandra Oh, of Grey’s Anatomy, plays Gina, and actor Raymond Lee plays Dennis.

“There was a period of time, whether consciously or not, where I was waiting for someone to write about it,” she said. Not just about the shooting itself, or school shootings in general, but “also shine a light on what it mean that the shooter was Asian-American.”

Years passed, but each new shooting kept the issue fresh in Cho’s mind, and eventually, an essay by a professor who had to deal with a similarly troubled student prompted Cho to begin writing what would eventually become Office Hour.

The Real World

The play itself certainly doesn’t suggest a course of action or solution to campus shootings, but campus procedures have evolved since the incident that inspired it.

“The fairest thing to say is that prior to the Virginia Tech incident, there was not broad awareness of recognized and accepted approaches for how to deal with such concerns,” said Gene Deisinger, deputy chief of police and director of threat management services for Virginia Tech.

Since then, and to some extent because of that incident, most colleges and universities have added a “multidisciplinary process,” like a care team or response team, that bridges all the relevant campus resources. Some sort of “centralized mechanism” that allows campus police, mental health counselors, the administration and other departments to approach a situation collectively.

This kind of approach, Deisinger said, “is increasingly common and probably at least the norm, with the majority of colleges having [this kind of] multidisciplinary approach.” Whether or not it works, however, and whether those campuses are measurably safer, is still unclear. “A lot of the information up to this point is anecdotal and case specific,” he said, and “you can’t just use the absence of violence as an outcome.”

But some research indicates this approach may improve other measures, Deisinger said, like how safe people on campus feel after an incident or how many people use campus health services who might not have otherwise.

Ultimately Cho said her play is about two people trying to connect and empathize with one another, which is a message Deisinger approves of. “The fact that they are trying to connect is a positive thing,” he said. “That is, overall, something we advocate.”


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