17 Mar 2019

Peter O'Connor: connecting to grief through creativity

From Standing Room Only, 12:35 pm on 17 March 2019

After a national trauma, creative arts offer us a "bridge towards possibility" both individually and collectively, says Auckland University professor Peter O'Connor, who teaches theatre in schools, prisons, psychiatric hospitals and disaster zones.

"To really connect to the grief, the arts are a way of expressing not just how we think and feel, but they are a way for us to [actually] think and feel, as well."

Ash Boraman-Ritchie paints a message outside Al Huda Mosque in Dunedin.

Ash Boraman-Ritchie paints a message outside Al Huda Mosque in Dunedin. Photo: RNZ / Tim Brown

Last Friday, hundreds of Christchurch children spent hours locked down in their classrooms, as a gunman killed 50 people and wounded others at two mosques – and the teachers with them were the unsung heroes of the day, he tells Lynn Freeman.

All New Zealand kids understand on some level that their environment is now forever changed, O'Connor says, but while they need a return to routine and normality, they also need to make sense of the new world around them – and getting creative can be a vehicle for this.

O'Connor hopes teachers around the country are finding time and space for their students to paint, draw, dance, scribble poetry, dance and move in order to help them process that their world has shifted (again, in the case of Christchurch children who lived through the earthquakes).

Professor Peter O'Connor

Professor Peter O'Connor Photo: Education Central

He has worked with teachers around the world, including some extraordinary people teaching Palestinian kids on the Syrian border.

"[Those teachers] work to create beauty in their classrooms. And the beauty they create is an act of defiance, it's an act of hope, it's an act of possibility.

"Every time we make something beautiful – either as individuals or as communities – we act in defiance, we reject the hate."

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, O'Connor joined a group of 1000 people singing together in the Auckland Town Hall – and was reminded of the unifying power of music.

"We had to find a way to sing in harmony, to listen to others' voices, to understand how we could rise and send that sound out of the building.

"Music trains us to listen and sing in harmony, and that's what we need to do – to hear the diversity of voices and meld them together so what we make is beautiful."

More from Peter O'Connor on RNZ:

  • Peter O'Connor - the arts in healing
  • Teaching in a war zone
  • Applied Theatre for victims of trauma