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The Beauty in the Tiny: March Masterclasses with Professor Peter O’Connor

In early March, Professor Peter O’Connor was invited to deliver two Masterclasses on Applied Theatre programmes he had crafted and facilitated - Everyday Theatre and A Teaspoon of Light. Everyday Theatre is a wonderfully original interactive programme that blends theatre, drama conventions, and video game design together, creating a safe platform for young people to discuss family relationships and abuse. A Teaspoon of Light is a workshop with roots in Process Drama. It was created in response to the earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand and facilitated with schoolchildren who returned to schools just a couple of days after the earthquake. The workshop begins with a story about a girl, who wakes up to find her cloth of dreams torn, and it takes the participants through a series of drama activities to help the girl with her torn cloth of dreams.

Each Masterclass was attended by current and previous Diploma in Applied Drama and Psychology students, as well as various community partners from organisations such as Beyond Social Services, Babes and Metta School. The buffet of perspectives translated into a rich array of questions raised, answered and discussed. To paraphrase what Peter said at the end of the week: we worked hard, laughed hard and cried hard together.

Peter ran the classes in a beautifully fluid manner, where he would take us through the foundation of the workshops, run some of the drama activities with us as the participants, and explain the reasons behind things he said as a facilitator or the structure of the activity. One of the most brilliant takeaways from the Masterclasses was the ability to ask any questions we had as Peter took us through the thought processes, and as he shared anecdotes of real-life responses when he conducted them. The best kind of learning occurred - we were given a rounded understanding of his workshop structure, gleaned practical tips on creating and delivering drama workshops on our own, and were made to reflect on our own work motivations and expectations.

At the end of the Everyday Theatre workshop, Peter extended a difficult question to us that left the room in a very somber mood. Could we really help T, the character in the performance who had been abused by his father and ignored by his mother? That led to a series of other questions tumbling through our heads - How much could we help? What kind of impact could we make, as Applied Theatre practitioners, as teachers, as community workers? How sustainable could our impact be? There were, and aren’t any ‘correct’ answers to those questions. They are, simply, important questions to consider, in our line of work. However, one particular activity that Peter subsequently facilitated struck a crystal chord in me, and left such a great impact that my mind keeps meandering back to it.

As a follow-up to the heavy question he had asked us about helping T, Peter dedicated a section of the Masterclass to a drama workshop on Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, which he used as a platform for us to examine our roles as ‘helpers’ in our work within the community. We had just finished a Hotseating activity, where Peter was in role as a prospective Fairy Godmother being interviewed by us for a position in Cinderella’s household.

Peter asked us to get into pairs and to pick the role of either Cinderella or Godmother, then gathered the Godmothers to one side. I was Cinderella in the activity, and Peter told us to think about the first moment of rest she had after another day full of being bossed around, cleaning and cooking and washing. I thought about how Cinderella had just finished clearing coals still glinting red with potential pain, and had lungs roughed up by the soot, black clouds of misery floating and engulfing, her body exhausted. He asked us to freeze into an image that we believe would depict the moment Cinderella stops and thinks about her parents and her current miserable situation.

Next, the fairy godmothers were asked to observe the images and step in, as the first time they see Cinderella as the newly appointed fairy godmother, and to freeze. Now as a pair, Peter instructed us to add one small movement to the joint image. We then took turns to demonstrate our image and movement. As I watched the others in the room, goosebumps began spreading like wildfire on my skin and my eyes burned with tears: A fairy godmother lifts Cinderella's chin and smiles directly, eyes unwaveringly trained on her - I see you, child. A fairy godmother guides Cinderella to lean her head on her - rest on me. A fairy godmother taps Cinderella and arranges her face of grief into a smile - you'll taste kindness here. The room shares a long silence as the images sink in slowly, and the energy is electrifying. “Sometimes the smallest gesture is the most powerful,” Peter says quietly.

We had been discussing the weight of our work as Applied Theatre practitioners and community workers, and what we had to offer, as well as what we could really realistically do for grim situations. We talked about irreversible pain suffered by innocent children. We wondered aloud about our desire to help, to erase, to change. And although I still tussle with all these issues, that particular activity I shared above made me realise that tiny moments count. Tiny moments are powerful, because they have the ability to ignite memories and sensations in you, whether you’re in role as Cinderella or watching. For a few seconds, you know that beauty exists in this world. Even if the actual success of the Fairy Godmother’s helpfulness is debatable, there is an incredibly moving beauty in the act of her reaching out to comfort, in her desire to help another who is hurting.

I feel incredibly privileged to have attended the full week of Masterclasses. The workshops Peter has crafted with his team are sharp and smart. He facilitates with amazing clarity and is armed with deft experience, hence building with us worlds that are rich and imaginative and immensely welcoming. Most of all, I am very grateful to have been reminded of the power of tiny moments - in our work, in our lives. Whether they provoke or answer discussions, heal pain or demonstrate love, the fact that tiny moments can be birthed out of the work we do is already an enormous fuel for inspiration.

Written by Teng Zi Ying, Diploma in Applied Drama and Psychology Alumnus, Class of 2013