Professor Peter O'Connor teaches theatre in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, dementia wards and disaster zones. He talks about the power of story at the Going West book festival next month.
1 You recently worked with teenage offenders at Korowai Manaaki youth justice residencein South Auckland. How did that go?
I went in and asked this bunch of kids what they'd like to make a play about and they said, "Love." I said, "So what might be the storyline?" One kid goes, "Maybe two kids fall in love but they're in different gangs and they're not allowed to be together so the girl kills herself." Another kid went, "And maybe the boyfriend kills himself too." I said this play's already been done - it's called Romeo and Juliet and they said, "We want to make that one."
2 What did the 14 to 17-year-olds learn in the process of making the play?
There's a scene where Romeo and Juliet's eyes meet across the room and they fall in love at first sight. These kids wanted to know if that was possible so we spent ages trying to work out how you know when you're in love. Some had already fathered children. They decided that Juliet's dad, despite being so mean, must have loved her when she was first born so they decided to recreate that moment in dance. At the end of the play they lifted Juliet up into the air and then did this amazing haka. It was powerful theatre. You can teach work skills in prisons but the arts help us make sense of the big questions inlife.
3 What do you think of the National Party's new bootcamp for young offenders?
It's not new - they talked this up nine years ago. The tragedy is that marching around saluting and being tough isn't a solution. It's just about how to punish poor kids for being poor. I've been working in prisons long enough to know that some people do need to be locked up to stop them hurting others. But we need to think about how we want them to come out. Prisons dehumanise people. The arts help people remember they're human.
4 You taught applied theatre to Palestinian teachers last year. What did they want to learn?
Palestine is the world's largest prison. It's really hard for little ones there to play. Palestinian teachers want their children to feel safe and have the chance to be children. Palestinian children are brought up to hate Israeli children and vice versa so how do you teach empathy? The best way is through the arts.
5 You've addressed family violence and abuse with more than 60,000 intermediate school children in your Everyday Theatre programme. How does that work?
We get kids to play a game with a fictional family where a young boy is getting bashed by his dad. His mum pretends she doesn't know. Friends don't know what to do. In an average week our four actor-teachers work with around 500 kids and and lots of children seek help as a result. It sounds corny but we know we've saved lives in the 14 years we've been doing this in decile 1 to 3 schools.
6 What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family. Dad was the police sergeant in Ponsonby and we lived above the station at Three Lamps. I could read from age 4. Dad was in the Labour Party and he'd get me to come downstairs to the station and read the newspaper to Norm Kirk and Hugh Watt. When I was 9 Dad was paralysed by a stroke so we moved to a state house on the Shore. We had bugger all money. Mum often went hungry and I ended up in health camp to fatten up, but it was a rich childhood full of adventure and play.
7 You've published several books this year. What's A Pedagogy of Surprise about?
It's about how the joy and wonder have been taken out of teaching. Teachers now spend most of their time planning and testing and ticking boxes. When I was a boy the nuns used to take us on nature study walks. We found treasures which became ways for us to discover things about the world. We covered the curriculum but in different ways than "Here are the five facts you need to know about a rock". Teachers need to be able to take risks, get things wrong on occasion and start things without knowing where they will end up. It's not just schools that have become like that. Things only matter if they can be counted.
8 Can you measure creativity?
You can. The University of Auckland's Creative Thinking Project is making the first real attempt to measure the relationship between how creative a school is and how well the kids are learning. We've collected data from 1000 Auckland kids so far. The aim is to get a national picture of how creative New Zealand schools are and compare them to other countries to shift the debate away from just literacy and numeracy. It's a ground-breaking piece of research.
9 What's wrong with our education system?
We're too focused on building skills for the future but a lot of our kids can't see a future. What they really need is help to make sense of their lives now and how to imagine the world differently. Sadly, the focus on literacy and numeracy means teachers don't have the time to teach this way any more. I consider myself an arts activist. Teachers know the Government reforms are wrong and the research backs them up. They need every advocate they can get.
10 Why do you spend so much time teaching applied theatre in China and Singapore?
The biggest revolution in arts education is happening there. They've worked out that for economic success you don't just need compliant workers, you need creative people who can think outside the square. There's been huge investment in the past five to 10 years. I was asked if I had the capacity to train 10,000 teachers in applied theatre in six months. China has whole provinces where the arts are now compulsory in schools and they start the day with arts. They've worked out it's the edge and we're running in the opposite direction.
11 What's your new book Playing With Possibilities about?
Part of it is about the importance of play for adults. At what age do we stop skipping? Research shows really successful workplaces are where people laugh a lot. Despite all the promise of technology, the world has become more factory-like. We've become a society that celebrates individual achievement ahead of public good. Children are told constantly from the age of 5 whether they meet standards. If they don't achieve they're not a valuable human being. We have the second-highest rate of youth suicide in the world and we lock up young people more than anywhere else in the world except the US.
12 How did you use theatre to help 5 and 6-year-old Christchurch children after the earthquakes?
I taught a group of children on their first day back at school while 20 teachers watched. I asked them to help a little girl who wakes up one morning and sees her cloth of dreams is torn. They suggested we loan her our dreams until the cloth was fixed. So they drew their dreams on a big blank cloth. One girl who lost family in the quake drew herself flying on a unicorn over The Land of Everything That's Good. Then we thought about how to fix the cloth. One boy suggested magic thread so they wrote a list of ingredients to mix in a cloud bowl. There were: three bales of belief; 17 giggles you have with your mum at bedtime; and one little girl said, "A teaspoon of light from the darkest tunnel." She stood on her tiptoes, leaned over the imaginary bowl and said, "You sprinkle it - like this. See, the light goes through everything." The teachers standing behind us were moved to tears. So I created the Teaspoon of Light Theatre Company and we spent three years working in Christchurch schools.
• 'The Power of Story', Peter O'Connor and Gus Simonovic, September 10 and 11, Titirangi War Memorial Hall. goingwestfest.co.nz