Theatre gives voice to homeless community
12 September 2019
With two Hobson Street Theatre Company shows under his belt, including the award-winning That’s What Friends Are For, Joeli Thacker is well on his way to starting a new career as an actor.
Joeli, like most of company’s members, has experienced homelessness. Recently, however, he had paid roles in several advertisements and a couple of Netflix shows that were filmed in Auckland.
“I’ve just got myself a new agent to try to get some speaking roles,” he says.
Joeli is also looking forward to travelling to Rotterdam with the company in March next year to take part in the International Community Arts Festival: “It will be a heck of an experience.”
He’s one of a core group of Hobson Street Theatre Company actors who devised the award-winning That’s What Friends Are For, in partnership with The University of Auckland. It won the Spirit of the Fringe Award at the 2019 Auckland Fringe Festival. It also featured in the 2019 New Zealand Fringe Festival in Wellington and the Dunedin Fringe Festival.
It followed the company’s 2018 production, The Race, described as an “unapologetic piece of theatre looking head-on at how racism affects those experiencing homelessness in Aotearoa today”.
Joeli says that after The Race, which won the Best Directed Chaos Award at the 2018 Auckland Fringe Festival, the group was ready for something a bit more light-hearted.
“The Race was quite heavy in terms of the topic, and when we talked about what we wanted to do next I put my hand up and said let’s do something about friendship.”
Challenging the audience to make friends with the cast
For the first time, the company employed an outside director, Professor Peter O’Connor, to help them put the production together. The result was That’s What Friends Are For, a 50-minute highly interactive show that challenged the audience to make friends with the cast. The performance in each city was supported by a local community choir, including the Auckland Street Choir, a community choir where many members are homeless or recently housed.
The success of That’s What Friends Are For and the work of the Hobson Street Theatre Company was recognised at Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2019 on 11 September when the company received the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Community Arts Award 2019 for a recent collaborative, inclusive arts project.
In their comments the judging panel said: “This project has the wow factor, giving a voice to the homeless community through theatre. By providing a platform for people who have experienced homelessness to tell their stories, this project is a powerful tool to foster understanding and conversations with the public. An invitation to perform on the world stage in 2020 is the icing on the cake of a movement that is having a huge impact.”
The Hobson Street Theatre Company is a professional theatre company in which most of the actors have experienced homelessness.
It began in 2010 as a weekly drama activity for people who use the services of the Auckland City Mission. Since then, it has developed into a fully professional theatre company. It’s won several awards, received rave reviews and toured nationally as part of the New Zealand Fringe. Any profits from the company’s productions are shared equally between the actors.
Inspired by ideas from cast members
The company’s 10 shows have all been inspired by ideas from cast members and have provided them with a chance to present their stories to the wider world. By encouraging kōrero around homelessness they are able to show that “homeless doesn’t mean hopeless”, says Amelia Yiakmis, the company’s producer.
The shows have been performed in a wide range of venues – from the Auckland City Mission’s drop-in centre to BATS Theatre in Wellington.
Amelia says there’s usually a core group of five to six actors involved with the company at any one time. “People tend to come and go as their circumstances change. We’ve probably had 40 to 50 people involved since we started.”
For some people, attending the weekly drama classes and taking part in the company’s productions has been a stepping stone to fulltime employment. For others, like Joeli, it has helped them find roles in television commercials and films.
For almost all the participants, it’s helped boost their self-esteem.
“We have seen people’s literacy skills develop as we do work with scripts, including Shakespeare,” Amelia says. “It also helps build confidence and self-belief by providing a trusted space where they can go every week and just get up and practise.”