Voices in Dialogue: Peter O’Connor

Reflections on the 2019 International Drama in Education Research Institute

There was so much in the way of stimulating learning and idea-sharing at the 9th International Drama in Education Research Institute (IDIERI 9) in Auckland last year (2018) that it was impossible for delegates to get around to watch each and every presentation. Thankfully, the Dialogue team solved that problem by capturing and making available all the wonderful work that was shared. Almost a year on, some of the ‘aha’ moments and ideas that delegates had during their time at the event may be all but long forgotten. Extensive notes may have been made, but they are easy for us to neglect to look at when we’re back home and caught up in the business of life. Best intentions to go back and watch footage of the sessions missed may quickly be taken over by other seemingly more pressing matters.

Below is a snapshot of a conversation with IDIERI 9 convener, Peter O’Connor, about his experiences of the 2018 Research Institute. In our discussion, I invited him to reflect and share insights and ideas that were generated from the perspective of his different ‘hats’ during the weeklong event. In sharing this conversation on the Dialogue platform, we hope to prompt our community of Drama Education and Applied Theatre practitioners to re-engage – or, indeed, to engage for the first time – with some of the presentations, and to stimulate further conversations. It is hoped that through this shared dialogue, the richness of IDIERI 9 may be prolonged, so that our discussion may sustain us that little bit longer until we meet again in Coventry (United Kingdom) in 2021.

A Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, Peter heads up its Critical Research Unit in Applied Theatre. In addition to his academic role, Pete – along with his wife, Briar – runs Everyday Theatre, facilitating programmes in a diverse range of locations such as psychiatric hospitals, youth justice facilities, prisons, schools, and earthquake zones.

Their award-winning work centres around the intersection of the Arts, Social Justice and Citizenship, a focus that emerged out of Peter’s childhood experiences of growing up in poverty. A product of his parents’ belief that education can change the world, Peter was influenced by his father’s commitment to socialist values, and a conviction that life is about service. Claiming to have ‘stumbled’ into the Arts, he became fascinated with the powerful way they can make things happen in people’s lives.

I spoke to Peter on a Tuesday afternoon, bridging the two-hour time gap between Melbourne and Auckland to catch up with him between his classes. Two months after the conference, having fully recovered from his immense efforts – thanks in no small measure to a holiday to sunny Queensland – Pete was able to share his unique perspective of being both at the helm of the conference as a whole, and in the audience of his colleagues’ many individual lectures.

Kelly: When we were in Auckland, you spoke about how you wanted us to be fed at the conference on a number of levels. As you were on your holidays paddling out into the waves to surf at Kirra Beach and had time to reflect, did you feel like you achieved what you set out to do?

Peter: The feedback we received suggested we might have. It’s always hard to tell, and even though it’s been two months since, it’s still hard to get that distance. I think we fed people well physically, and I get the sense that we did feed them well intellectually too. You know, when you’re running a conference, selecting your keynotes is vital, so having Many-Ann kick things off with some deeply intellectual theory, and then Wasim talking about how you construct theatre in Palestine in the world’s largest prison, to Jan’s really playful auto-ethnographic recollections of her life – I felt really happy about that. Starting the conference on the first morning with practice was really important for us, so there weren’t any papers in the first session. Everyone had to go and do something practical, and that was to remind everyone that, as academics in this field, the work that we do is embodied, and is about embodied practice. I think that was really useful. And I think spiritually visitors were fed by the warmth of our welcome which was genuine. We used the processes of the pōwhiri – the singing and those kinds of things – to bring people into our home. The power of some of the performances meant that we were fed emotionally. You know, there were many occasions in the conference where people laughed and cried and got angry. There was one moment at the conference when people got angry during the talk that followed the New Zealand Panel [see the article below]. That was great! Creating a conference isn’t just about having people think. We wanted them to sense it in multiple ways.

Kelly: Can you go into a little more detail about that moment when people got angry?

Peter: There were some really direct challenges around what it is we can do and achieve in Drama Education and Applied Theatre. And there was a challenge from one person that ignited an angry response – and I really enjoyed that moment in the conference. People were passionately defending and arguing for the place of Drama and Applied Theatre in education and tussling with it and working with it, not just in a dry, academic way, but actually really engaging with it. I think, looking back on it now, it was one of the highlights of the conference. People were really uncomfortable in that space, and you kind of want that at a conference. It’s important to build senses of community and break down the senses of isolation many of us feel – but we don’t want to walk away from it thinking we all feel the same.

I think sometimes that those unsettling moments at conferences are important. Patti Walker’s auto-ethnographic performance was another one that was deeply unsettling. Madeline McNamara’s performance of incoherent people speaking about New Zealand’s racism, troubled and unsettled things too [see the article below]. Those were the kinds of moments that made me feel like we were successful.

Kelly: From a delegate’s perspective – if you were able to attend things and take off that organiser hat for a moment – was there a particular moment or presentation that really challenged your thinking or gave you a new perspective on an idea that you were already familiar with?

Peter: Yes – for me, that would be when we went out on our trip to the theatre to see Michelle Johannson’s work, ‘Heads Held High’ [see podcast to the right]. Now, Michelle was my Masters student, so I know her work really well and I love it. We’ve talked a lot about the difference between resilience and resistance. There’s a real push in Applied Theatre to build communities to the point where they’re resilient – so that they’re able to take the shit that capitalism throws at them. What really interests me in Michelle’s work is that she’s moved way beyond resilience and wellbeing to the politics of resistance – having young women dressed in military fatigues, working in a particular way to challenge the way in which neo-liberalism and colonisation have marginalised whole communities. There was one moment in the performance where – for me, it was kind of like the highlight of the whole week – there were three or four young women who came out in traditional Niue clothing and did the Haka. Now, I’ve been going to the theatre in New Zealand for a long time and I have never seen that on a stage. It was extraordinary. There were so many risks Michelle took in doing that. The power of the moment was chilling. The costuming, the pure dramatic force. You know, the wonderful thing about it was that the common settler perception is that it is men who perform the Haka, and there were these powerful women and it was just like, “Wow!” I mean, I’ve seen many, many male Haka, but to see women do that, and to do one from Niue. It wasn’t from here so I’d never seen that before. It was amazing. It was this disruption of devised theatre that Michelle makes with this very traditional theatre form – and it was a reminder that, in many parts of the world, theatre has always been about political change. What was really interesting for me was that young people were going back to traditional forms to express their political resistance to the things which are shaping the suburbs in which they live. It was a moment that kind of summed up the conference theme of ‘The Tyranny of Distance’. The whole bit about, ‘How do you find an aesthetic form to shift and change the things which destroy community?’ That’s what I’ve always found really powerful about Michelle’s work. Having worked with her for years, I was blown away that she did that in that show because I hadn’t seen it before.

Kelly: Was there something, in terms of what you saw or heard, that left you wanting to know more?

Peter: I always feel like that if I go and see anything that Helen Cahill talks about – for a whole range of reasons. Her practice [see the article to the left about her IDIERI workshop] is so richly and deeply informed, so I wanted to follow that up. I was also interested in a group of teachers who came up from Wellington. They talked about the research that they were doing themselves, and it reminded me that one of the original drivers of IDIERI was for teachers to see themselves as researchers. When IDIERI first started, most of us were teachers who had a basic idea of how to do research, and now it has shifted – most of our community are researchers who have a basic idea of how to teach or make theatre. So there has been this enormous shift. This group of six teachers from Wellington came up and talked about this research they were doing – about how they were teaching Shakespeare and the impact it was having on their school and the way in which they were working to make sense of it. I want to follow up on that because I’m really interested in how teachers of Drama can see themselves as researchers. We often position them as co-researchers, when we’re working with them within the academy, but these teachers were researching on their own and it was really interesting in terms of what they were trying to achieve, how they were going about it, and what it was doing to shift their practice. So that’s something I’m going to follow up.

Kelly: You presented with Briar O’Connor and Caitlin Kennedy about your work with Everyday Theatre. Was there something in that workshop, or at the culmination of the conference, that you didn’t say, or that you wanted to express?

Peter: Well, there is always more to say. In terms of the workshop, it would probably be about the possibilities of Applied Theatre as Research – which is the book that Michael Anderson and I wrote (but which also goes beyond that to years of finding ways of using Applied Theatre as a complete methodology). I don’t think this was pursued strongly at IDIERI. It’s probably too big to go into, and this probably isn’t the place, but overall I was happy with the work that Briar and I did – and we just wanted to share it with whoever was interested.

IDIERI isn’t a conference – it’s a research institute – and I think we were really good at sharing our research at this IDIERI but I’m not sure we got the balance right in talking enough about research, and how we research, and the kinds of things that are important when we research our work. That is really why we set up IDIERI – so that, as researchers, we could not only share the work that we are doing but we could challenge assumptions around the ways in which we research. And I think if we missed something at this conference, I think that’s what we missed. The keynotes were really great keynotes, and they really focused on the conference theme, but this notion of what it means for how we research, or why we research, and what are the implications – I don’t think we did that. When I looked across the programme, I’m not sure that we saw a lot of that across the papers and the workshops. I’m not beating myself up over it, but that was a reflection.

Kelly: What’s a performance that you’ve seen most recently that you’ve liked – either on an artistic level, or on an intellectual level, or you just plain enjoyed?

Peter: Well, actually the last performance I went to, I saw Bob Dylan. I’d seen him in 1978 with 40,000 people in a big stadium with a big band. The thing about Dylan is that people have been booing him and walking out of his concerts for fifty years! So there are some songs, like ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, that he’s performed over 1,500 times. Every time he plays it it’s different, and the other night he played it as a talking blues, and I just loved it! You know, here he is, he’s 77 years old, a Nobel Laureate, Academy Award Winner, Grammy Awards… You either love him or you hate him, and I’ve always loved him, but there’s just something about the performance, you know. You can still be relevant and important and have stuff to say about the world when you’re 77 – you don’t have to be young. One of the things about Drama Education and the Arts is that it’s often positioned either for young people, or if you’re in prison, or if you’re in a retirement village and have dementia. I have this idea that the Arts are for everybody and are lifelong and they give joy. Can you imagine if you were out there doing 100 shows a year and you’re in your 70s? And it was really challenging about the work we do in retirement villages, because he’s the age of many of those people. We go into retirement villages or retirement wards and they’re playing ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’! And it’s like [laughing], if they stick me in a retirement village and start playing ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ at me, you know, I will end up demented! Yeah, it was a great gig.

Kelly: What are you working on at the moment that you’re excited about?

Peter: Well, I’ve started working with Auckland Homeless Theatre Company, and it’s really cool. One of my Masters students has been the director of the theatre company and they put on shows and do all sorts of stuff. He emailed me and said, “Have you got any students who would like to come along and do some work with the company?”. I just emailed back and said, “Oh to hell with the students, I’m going to do it myself!”. What’s really exciting me about it is that I’m not doing any research on it. I’m just going to play, and that’s really important for academics. Research is great, but sometimes if you’re a theatre maker or an Applied Theatre worker, just actually going and doing it and just having fun doing it is really, really good. I’m hugely excited about it. There are people who’ve been doing the work for four or five years, so I think what’s really exciting is I’m sort of going in as an apprentice. I’ve never worked in that space – I’ve worked in lots of places like it – but I’ve never worked there and there are lots of people who’ve got skills and lots of knowledge that I don’t have about how to make theatre in that place. There are lots of research projects that are very exciting but that’s a really yummy one for me.

To find out more about the work that Peter does with Everyday Theatre, visit http://appliedtheatre.co.nz/