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Making friends and breaking boundaries

Photo by Jonathan Lyon, We Make Happy.
Prof Peter O’Connor and Kelly Tunui during That’s What Friends Are rehearsal - photo supplied.
We take a closer look at one of the just-announced winners of this year’s Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2019.


Earlier this year, Hobson Street Theatre Company, an organisation dedicated to breaking barriers and sharing the voices of those who have experienced homelessness, toured an interactive play across New Zealand. The company challenged audiences to participate in kōrero about togetherness, friendship, and living without a home in New Zealand. Tonight, the company’s award-winning play ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ was recognised in Parliament during the Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2019 when it received the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Community Arts Award for 2019.

This inclusive, passionate and inspiring theatre company has been together since 2010. During this time, they have presented 10 shows in an array of venues from the Auckland City Mission Drop-in Centre to the iconic BATS Theatre in Wellington. The shows are original, self-devised pieces that offer the unique voice of a sometimes marginalised section of society and allow an important discussion around homelessness in New Zealand. 

“The work of this company is a fine example of the power of the arts in our communities to connect us, inspire communication and offer a voice.”

Stephen Wainwright, Chief Executive of Creative New Zealand, spoke of the platform that the Hobson Street Theatre Company provides, “What I loved about this theatre project is the way it fostered understanding and conversations between the actors and audience members.” 

“The work of this company is a fine example of the power of the arts in our communities to connect us, inspire communication and offer a voice.”

That’s What Friends Are was developed in partnership with The University of Auckland and directed by Professor Peter O’Connor. During its tour to Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin Fringe Festivals, the performance was supported by a local community choir in each city. 

Photo by Jonathan Lyon, We Make Happy.

The Auckland Street Choir, a community choir where many members are homeless or recently housed, joined the Hobson Street Theatre Company for their Auckland performances, helping them to win the Spirit of the Fringe Award.

We spoke to Professor O’Connor about the success of the show, during which he explained the significance of the award, “It recognises the unique capacity for theatre to make a difference with some of the most vulnerable in society and to open dialogue between people who rarely find opportunities to speak to each other. The interactive performance meant the audience and performers got to meet each other on the stage in a unique way.”

“A member of our audience approached me after the first show. A recent Aucklander from Korea, she said that when the large Māori man’s hands reached for hers and led her to the back of the stage and together they painted our backdrop of the old City Mission, something inside her melted away. The boundaries, the barriers she had put in place no longer made sense, she said. She was simply with another human being, painting. She told of how liberating those moments were. She spoke of how important it was to make something beautiful with someone she initially feared.”

Peter spoke about the company’s unique performance, telling us that in their play the cast “Sang together, songs of redemption, of hope. We laughed a lot. We didn’t tell stories of the street but rather of the importance of human connection.”

In a moving ceremony tonight, the cast triumphantly received their award. We asked Peter how it felt watching them.  

We brutalise who we are, build the walls that separate ourselves from those in need because dehumanising is a coping strategy for facing the ugliness of poverty and despair.

“As I watched these new friends of mine receive the award, I understood again the power of the arts to change a city, a nation. We brutalise who we are, build the walls that separate ourselves from those in need because dehumanising is a coping strategy for facing the ugliness of poverty and despair. The arts, however, remind us of our core humanity. The great power of the arts is that in creating beauty, it shakes us into seeing ourselves and our world differently, better. Perhaps our policymakers might rethink our homeless people and see them not as a problem, but as a possibility.”

Prof Peter O’Connor and Kelly Tunui during That’s What Friends Are For rehearsal - photo supplied.

Peter always has a carousel of aspirational ideas in his mind, so we were curious about what he was up to next.

“I’m heading to Los Angeles in November to work with the Skid Row Trust to create a multimedia performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I’ll be working with people from one of the largest communities of homeless people in the world where 8000 people live in a 50 block area. The project will involve local artists and community workers and builds on the work I did with the Hobson Street Company. I am so proud that the University of Auckland sees value in the arts as a way of making a positive difference with difficult social issues. “

Hobson Street Theatre Company is just one of the many inspiring winners at tonight’s Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards. The awards celebrate the achievement of individuals and organisations that provide opportunities for people with limited access to engage with the arts as artists and audience members. They also recognise the achievements of an artist with a disability, sensory impairment or lived experience of mental illness. 

Below is the full list of the 2019 winners:

  • Robyn Hunt - awarded the Arts Access Accolade
    For her invaluable contribution to Arts Access Aotearoa as an award-winning communicator and accessibility expert and former Human Rights Commissioner.

  • Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre - awarded the Arts Access Holdsworth Creative Space Award 2019
    For the impact of its programmes delivering music therapy to people with emotional, intellectual and physical challenges; its expansion into Northland and the Hawke’s Bay; and its clearly articulated vision and policies. 

  • Ruth Ratcliffe - awarded the Arts Access Corrections Māui Tikitiki a Taranga Award 2019
    For her leadership and long-standing Forum Theatre programme at Otago Corrections Facility, inspiring positive change in the prisoner participants and building bridges with the wider community.

  • Hobson Street Theatre Company for its project That’s What Friends Are For - awarded the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Community Arts Award 2019
    For an outstanding project that provided a platform for people who have experienced homelessness to tell their stories and foster understanding and conversations with the public.  

  • Royal New Zealand Ballet - awarded the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Arts For All Award 2019
    For its leadership and commitment to building new audiences by making ballet accessible to diverse audiences. This includes blind and low vision patrons, Deaf people, children in low-decile schools, and prisoners.

  • Yaniv Janson, Raglan - awarded the Arts Access PAK’n’SAVE Artistic Achievement Award 2019
    For his outstanding artistic achievements in both New Zealand and internationally, along with his commitment to using art to engage people in social and environmental issues.

  • Arrin Clark, kaitiaki of tikanga, Northland Region Corrections Facility - awarded the Arts Access Corrections Whai Tikanga Award 2019
    For transforming the site into a Māori therapeutic community focused on rehabilitation and integrating tikanga across everything so the men are empowered to reconnect with their culture, gain a sense of identity and make positive change. 

Highly commended certificates were also given to:

  • Te Ara Korowai Wellbeing Centre

  • Everybody Cool Lives Here

  • Annah Mac, Otago Corrections Facility

  • Nic Scotland

  • Gisborne International Music Competition in partnership with Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and Jolt

  • Te Whare Toi o Ngāruawāhia – Twin Rivers Arts Centre

  • Circa Theatre

  • Lusi Faiva

  • Rue-Jade Morgan

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

11 Sep 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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