Joeli Thacker is a member of Hobson Street Theatre Company in Auckland, where all its actors have experienced homelessness. Joeli joined the theatre company in 2017 and became its Outreach Coordinator in 2022.
This role, which extends beyond the city centre to other outreach groups in west and south Auckland, includes teaching drama.
He’s now keen to add writing, directing and producing to his skills. He’s also writing his first play, which he hopes to co-direct.
Joeli is also an assistant facilitator at the city drop-in at the Auckland City Mission premises, where people can try drama workshops before committing to anything long-term.
In this Q&A interview, Joeli answers questions put to him by Arts Access Aotearoa.
1. How does your background affect how you work as a tutor?
I’m a heck of a lot more aware – or I try to be – of the space I’m sharing and the people I’m in that space with. In terms of my role here, my background is certainly a good place to have come from and to have come out the other side of the tunnel.
It helps me understand that everyone is dealing with their own unique challenges, and so I’m able to give people space to express themselves and contribute through performance.
I feel that some of the biggest steps I’ve taken in my own personal development have been because of the exposure I’ve had to acting through Hobson Street Theatre Company, and the process of giving and receiving at different emotional levels.
This becomes a thing you want to share with others and provide a space where they can explore these things in a safe, accepting environment. We can spend so long repressing our emotions because it’s not safe to show them in our disrupted lives and spaces. We forget it’s not healthy to do so.
I decided to become a tutor and not just a participant. It seemed to be a natural progression for me to gain more leadership skills and encourage people to engage with their creative side. Sally and Bronwyn also encouraged me to extend myself.
2. What are some key skills you need working with vulnerable people?
Clear communication and really listening are vital. I find that by listening and trying to be fully present, I can make a huge difference to someone’s desire to participate.
Just giving people the space to join in at their own speed is also important. Each time we introduce an exercise we explain why we’re doing it.
I’ve found that warm-up games centred around teamwork and fun are great.
Having drama games that require folks to make eye contact with one another in a safe space is valuable. For the community I work with, eye contact is generally about dominating. In theatre games, eye contact is about giving and receiving. It doesn’t work if you’re not making eye contact with someone you’re throwing something to.
This teaches participants to use eye contact in a way that’s not threatening. The more we do these exercises, the less uncomfortable it gets for them. It becomes a skill they can use outside the classes.
Games that have a lot of fun and laughter in them are also great. It’s amazing what a smile and laughter does to a person's demeanour. If we’re asking folks to open themselves up to ideas that can be quite abstract, it’s important to have their trust so they can allow themselves to be vulnerable.
3. What do you most enjoy about being a drama tutor?
I was very fortunate to become a member of Hobson Street Theatre Company at a time when I needed something that would allow me to explore the part of me that really needed to be exposed to the arts. It’s been cathartic to touch some raw nerves. It’s healing if you can do that without falling apart.
Over the years, my focus has changed. I’m more interested in how I can give back to the community in terms of people having access to the arts as a way to build a creative response to the challenges within our communities.
That is vastly different to what I had in mind when I took up acting five-and-a-half years ago. I look forward to seeing folks when they arrive, and then seeing them relaxed and satisfied at the end of the sessions.
Maybe it relaxes them because they’ve had the opportunity to be around other people and to be silly without being judged. Sometimes we do something like an exercise several times. Some participants have limited understanding and then one day the penny drops. It’s really satisfying for them and for me.
This interview is part of a series about the role of arts tutors in creative spaces around New Zealand. For more information about Hobson Street Theatre Company and other creative spaces in Auckland, visit the creative spaces directory.
Also read Insights into art tutors at creative spaces.