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Unique Visitor: A Melbourne Playbacker in Hong Kong

Mike'schinesname

Two Australian theatre practitioners, a Japanese teacher and a Chinese Human Resources Manager walk into a bar. No joke.

A few hours later I walk out with a Chinese name. My new name translates roughly as ‘Unique Visitor’. I’m a guest speaker at TEFO’s Drama Theatre and Education Conference in Hong Kong and it’s the second night of the conference. Tonight, we four merry travellers have participated in a workshop led by Sean Shun-pui Kwan.

In it he shared one of the many ways he incorporates theatre exercises into his corporate workshops. The conference has been full of great keynotes, panels and workshops like this one and we’re inspired to continue the conversation over a beer.

On the first day I joined Mr Kwan, Jonathan Neelands and Yong-wen Peng to speak in a plenary session on corporate learning and development. In my presentation I spoke about Melbourne Playback Theatre’s work supporting organisational culture programs with our performances and training.

I made grand statements like; ‘Theatre is a change agent and community builder’, ‘Storytelling helps people understand and shape organisational culture’ and ‘Playback theatre is transformative’.

Like most of the applied theatre practitioners, teachers, social workers and corporate facilitators at the conference, I’m interested in the pro-social benefits of theatre. This is our shared interest and despite the diversity of practical application, diverse cultures and varied experience, it connects us. Just as theatre helps connect the people we work with.

Jokes that start with three characters of different nationalities walking into bars strike me as culturally insensitive and inappropriate. Sometimes they are downright racist. They are a form of storytelling that people use to make sense of cultural differences. But because they use stereotype and make fun of those differences I think they often serve to divide us. At the bar tonight, we spend a lot of time sharing stories and learning about our cultural differences.

We grew up with different families in different countries at different times. But each of us has a personal story that make us unique. And through hearing each other’s stories we also discover similarities.

Qian’s English name is Michelle. In her first English lesson the teacher offered her a choice of two names, Michelle or Stephanie, after characters from an American TV show. ‘Was that Full House?!’ ‘Yes!’ A bad 80’s sitcom we both loved as kids isn’t the only similarity we find tonight, but it’s a funny one!

In my presentation at the conference I cited this Harvard Business Review article and its list of mechanisms that business leaders can use to shape organisational culture.

Our playback theatre performances and the theatre-infused experiential workshops that we deliver contribute to most of the informal mechanisms listed. These techniques build connections between people, just as the workshops at the TEFO conference bridged massive language and cultural barriers to build relationships.

But there’s also a lot to be said for ad hoc social gatherings like this drink at the pub.

Mike McEvoy delivered his presentation ‘Theatre Leading Organisational Change’ at the TEFO Conference in Hong Kong on 1st May 2015.

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Hong Kong Perspectives

By Karen Berger

It seems a cliché that travel broadens the mind, but studies have shown that a journey really can make us wiser. In an article for The Guardian, Jonah Lehrer, stated that ‘seasoned travellers are alive to ambiguity, more willing to realise that there are different (and equally valid) ways of interpreting the world’.

The sense of perspective given by travelling can lead to better problem solving.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong to run a two day Playback Masterclass (particularly its applications to corporate training) with Andrew Gray as part of the Hong Kong TEFO Conference on Drama Education. Being at this conference not only gave me new perspectives, but also opened my mind to subjects I’d never even thought of before. The following are brief notes on some of the things that stood out for me over the 5 days I was in Hong Kong.

In our Masterclass we played a ‘get to know you game’ where the participants stand in a circle, and one person steps forward and states something that is true about themselves. Others for whom that is true will also step forward.

Attempting to liven things up a bit, I stepped forward saying, ‘I vote left wing.’ Andrew immediately stepped forward and there was rather confused discussion among the participants.

Masterclass2

I was surprised to realise ‘vote’ and ‘left wing’ were being explained. No one else stepped forward. At the end of the second day of the workshop, a lively participant from Ghangzhou in mainland China told a ‘moment’ about her experience of my revelation. Once she understood what I meant, she initially struggled with deep regret that she had never experienced voting, but then she thought, ‘Whatever! I should just get on with my life.’ I have never been made so aware of a right that I don’t properly value, so much do I take it for granted…

 

Carmel O’Sullivan, Director of the Arts Education Research Group at Trinity College, Dublin, spoke about how it’s her problem if colleagues have trouble describing what it is she does, and her responsibility to explain it to them. Her ten year research project running weekly drama groups with autistic children has been assessed by Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Unit to gauge its impact. It’s the kind of qualitative and quantative research our own Melbourne Playback’s Artistic Director, Mike McEvoy would love to demonstrate the value of our work with various corporate organisations.

 

At the end of Mike’s plenary session on ‘Corporate Learning and Development’, an audience member asked the speakers if they had any qualms using their theatre expertise in the aid of business.

 

Mike related that at his interview to join Melbourne Playback he was asked his attitude to doing gigs for big business. Seated in the audience, Andrew Gray smirked – he’d been the one to ask the question. I listened with interest, having not heard that question asked of any Playbacker. Mike had responded by saying that he felt that as an artist, his role as an agent for positive change in any setting was a privileged one. Also on the panel was Jonothan Neelands, Professor of Creative Education at the Warwick Business School. In response to the question, he asserted that we need to broaden our definition of business: a freelance artist or a person selling food on the street are actually business people. Both business and art can be good or bad. There should be no value judgement on ‘business’ as such.

london olympics opening ceremony

In his keynote address, Neelands spoke with great passion about the recent Warwick Commission Report on the Future of Cultural Value of which he was a Director of Study.

This study used irrefutable statistics to argue for the strong relationship between creativity and economic growth

and the need to change England’s poor arts education standards for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

A powerful image of the relationship between the arts and economy for him was a scene from the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony where the UK health care system was proudly displayed – the sports stadium filled with performers playing doctors and nurses surrounding a beautiful giant baby. Having started watching the opening ceremony with his fingers over his eyes (the cringe factor could be high!) he ended up feeling proud – the ceremony seemed to him a defining moment of national identity.

Neelands finished his speech by talking about what he felt might be a defining moment for Hong Kong’s identity – the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. He highlighted the neat areas for students to study with post it notes from demonstrating teachers offering tutoring and their phone numbers; the wishes for Hong Kong’s future printed prettily and decorated with yellow ribbons; the overall politeness and care symbolised by busy thoroughfares taken over by people carrying delicate umbrellas.

hong-kong-umbrella

I had had a visceral taste of what it might have been like to be part of the Occupy Central Protest two days before during a conference workshop run by four young people from a Hong Kong NGO, entitled ‘The Process of Empowerment between Calm and Passion: Exploring Our Position in Civil Disobedience Movement through Process Drama’. In a shortened form, participants were taken through a workshop they had run to help potential protestors clarify their intentions and the possible ramifications of their participation, including on their family and friends. I found the opportunity to play a member of the rally (with other workshop participants playing the roles of police, media, etc) and to play a relative of someone about to join the march, a surprisingly powerful and direct way of experiencing many dimensions of this experience that was so important to many Hong Kong residents.

 

The impact of politics on people’s daily lives was also brought movingly to the fore during the conference’s final session: a Playback performance from the local Encounter Playback Theatre. The final story told and enacted by the team was from a man from mainland China who had been very moved by a performance on the first night of the conference, PsychoSEE, which skillfully staged a theatrical intersection between the Occupy Central Movement, Antigone, and a personal story about powerlessness in the face of rape. This performance had brought up very strong memories for the storyteller of Tiananmen Square and the interdiction on commemorating that event in China now. Witnessing his tears while telling his story and the moving playing back by Encounter Theatre provided me with a deeply personal perspective on an important world event from someone who was sharing his story in a public forum. That’s something Playback can do wherever it is seen – like travel it can allow us to gain the kind of wide perspective so important for creativity and problem solving. We can go on a journey from the comfort of our theatre seat.

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