Over 180 people from 24 different countries gathered at the University of Auckland’s Epsom campus for the 9th International Drama in Education Research Institute conference at the beginning of July to examine the way drama is making a difference in people’s lives and learning.

Professor Peter O’Connor

“They affirmed the role of theatre as a form of political resistance at a time of increasing nationalism where human rights are under threat everywhere,” said one of the organisers, Professor Peter O’Connor from the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

Participants reinforced the power of telling stories that have either been deliberately or wilfully suppressed or oppressed, Professor O’Connor said. The conference heard powerful presentations and witnessed inspiring performances about the way theatre is being used in communities to:

  • Heal
  • Resist
  • Celebrate
  • Commemorate
  • Challenge
  • Provoke

The conference theme – “the tyranny of distance” – referenced the distance between the very wealthy and poor, between the place of indigenous people and settlers, between the north and south and the tyrannies that arise out of that kind of distance.

“The way theatre acts as a bridge across these divides and ravines was affirmed by participants telling stories of their extraordinary practice,” Professor O’Connor said. This included applied theatre work with women in prisons, with indigenous Australians, with children in institutional care in New Zealand, people displaced by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, deaf communities, people on the autism spectrum, marginalised young people in urban Asia, transgender people and gay Asian men, among many other groups.

A highlight of the week was a performance of Heads Held High by South Auckland school students at the Mangere Arts Centre, devised and led by Michelle Johansson of the Faculty of Education and Social Work and Teach First NZ. It brought together 60 young leaders from nine South Auckland schools to re-story the world they live in, challenge negative media representation and to show us what it really means to lead.

To find out more about Heads Held High and how pupils are challenging media stereotypes, visit Radio New Zealand’s website.

Professor O’Connor describes it as an example of theatre as local resistance. “That’s the nature of Applied Theatre – it’s applied beyond entertainment. It has other purposes. That’s what’s been so vital here at this conference.”

Professor O’Connor commented that “the reality is that drama along with other arts has essentially died in NZ primary schools because of the imposition of national standards and the narrowing of the curriculum. Yet drama as a pedagogy has a strong and progressive history. In universities, in initial teacher education, at the moment arts have little place or status.”

“If we want a thriving participatory democracy, the arts in schools are vital. When we chuck them away as we have done in this country, it’s a risk to democracy. I’m not the only person who said that. The arts are a way for us to humanise a world in which politics dehumanises who we are.”

“We can’t afford to lose that. That’s what the conference has been about on one level.

“Applied drama is about the pedagogy of hope, and the conference expressed the power and commitment to continue to bring about hope and possibility through drama.”

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