Homeless play wins friends and awards

An interactive play featuring actors who have all at one time been homeless has won a national arts award.

Professor Peter O'Connor, second from left, with the production team of the play That's What Friends are For receiving their award at Parliament on Wednesday night.

That’s What Friends Are For, produced by the Hobson Street Theatre Company and devised and directed by the University of Auckland’s Professor Peter O’Connor, is the recipient of the 2019 Arts Access Creative New Zealand Community Arts Award.

“The award recognises the unique capacity for theatre to make a difference with some of the most vulnerable in our society and to open dialogue between people who rarely find opportunities to speak to each other,” says Professor O’Connor, who is an expert in applied theatre at the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.

“The interactive performance meant audience and performers got to meet each other on the stage in a unique way.”

The play challenged the audience to make friends with the actors on stage in just 50 minutes and involved doing things together like painting part of the set. Professor O’Connor particularly remembers the response of an audience member, a recent Aucklander from Korea, who approached him after the first show.

“She said when a large Māori man’s hands reached for hers and led her to the back of the stage and together they painted the stage backdrop of Auckland’s old City Mission, something inside her melted away.

“The barriers she’d put in place no longer made sense, she said, and she was simply with another human being, painting. She found it very liberating and said how important she felt it was to make something beautiful with someone she’d initially feared,” he says.

That’s What Friends are For was performed as part of the 2019 Auckland Fringe Festival earlier this year, where it won the Spirit of the Fringe Award and was supported by the Auckland Street Choir, a community choir whose members are either homeless or recently housed. It also toured to the Wellington and Dunedin Fringe Festivals and was joined by a local community choir in each city.

The Hobson Street Theatre Company began in 2010 as a weekly drama activity for people who use the services of the Auckland City Mission. Since then it has developed into a professional company that’s so far performed ten shows in a wide range of venues. Any profits are shared equally among the cast.

For some people, attending the classes and taking part in the company’s productions has been a stepping stone to fulltime employment. For others, it has helped them find roles in television commercials and films, and for almost all the participants it’s helped boost their self-esteem and confidence.

Perhaps our policymakers might rethink our homeless people as a possibility rather than a problem.

Professor Peter O'Connor Faculty of Education and Social Work

The Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2019 were held on Wednesday evening in the Banquet Hall of Parliament and presented by the Hon. Carmel Sepuloni, the Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage.

They celebrate the achievements of individuals and organisations which provide opportunities for people with limited access to engage with the arts, as either artists or audience members. Watching members of the company receive the award was a special moment, says Professor O'Connor.

“The great power of the arts is that by creating beauty, they shake us into seeing ourselves and the world differently, and better. Perhaps our policymakers might rethink our homeless people as a possibility rather than a problem.”

He is heading to Los Angeles in November to collaborate with the Skid Row Trust to create a multi-media performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he will be working with a group from one of the largest communities of homeless people in the world; around 8000 people live in a 50-block area.

The project will involve local artists and community workers and builds on the work he did with the Hobson Street Theatre Company. And in March 2020, the Company will perform at the International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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Email: julianne.evans@auckland.ac.nz