Education development officer Zoe Hogan works with Sydney's Asylum Seekers Centre. By Debra Adelaide.

Teaching artist Zoe Hogan

Someone throws a scarf over their shoulders and lunges forward, transforming into a superhero. Someone else takes the scarf and suddenly they are a martial artist wielding a nunchaku. For another person this plain pink scarf becomes a baseball bat. For another it is a book. For another, a soccer ball.

We are in a small meeting room upstairs in an old terrace house, in the final session of a literacy through drama workshop series conducted by Zoe Hogan, the education development officer at the Sydney Theatre Company. The participants today come from China and India, but they could potentially come from all over the world, to join workshops, classes, discussion groups, or to have a meal, do their washing, or just hang out at Sydney’s Asylum Seekers Centre.

Situated in a quiet backstreet of Newtown, the graffiti-clad exterior of the centre belies the inside. As if by optical illusion it expands to accommodate learning and meeting rooms, offices and storerooms, a large kitchen and dining hall. The room where the drama workshop takes place is cramped and basic, but it contains all that is needed to make the session work: openness, imagination and a profound sense of fun.

Zoe Hogan is as modest as this room, reluctantly agreeing with me that what she does is extraordinary. She understands the challenges for adults learning to speak another language, especially those who have been in crisis and transplanted to a foreign country. Nothing can be forced. Everything she does in the class seems to come effortlessly, although I know from speaking with her that it’s the result of years of education, great commitment to the idea of drama as a learning tool, and, above all, compassion for those in need. This approach involves what is known as “process drama”, the aim of which is not to act scripts or perform stories but to build confidence among people from diverse backgrounds, to engage them socially, all of which encourages the development of language skills.

Hogan started working at the Sydney Theatre Company three years ago. A period spent facilitating a drama program for refugee women in Leeds put the theory of her studies into practice, showing her how empowering drama is in creating confidence, the basis of all learning. Working with women from Eritrea and Ethiopia, she saw firsthand the way role-play and storytelling could nurture self-expression in people with traumatic backgrounds.

Returning to Australia, Hogan worked for the Starlight Children’s Foundation in hospitals, and after she arrived at the STC eventually pitched the idea of extending the company’s school drama program into alternative learning environments for people with specific needs. The Asylum Seekers Centre program started in 2016 and has just finished its fifth program.

Yet for all this, Hogan remains resolute that she is no one special. For a start, she does not even regard herself as a teacher. “Teacher implies that you’re holding all the knowledge, which is not the case at all,” she insists. The term “teaching artist” better expresses her more collaborative and equitable approach to learning.

Besides this, she explains, her classes only work because of the context: “Drama is a useful way of self-expression, but to be truly supportive needs to be where other services are available … Drama is just a part of the picture”. Other support is needed and, crucially, participants “can try things out and fail … and make social connections and friends, not only with others seeking asylum but with volunteers and others”.

Failure is a big part of Hogan’s approach. She learnt this, she says, from a professor at the University of Leeds, where she did her master’s. She maintained that, when working with disadvantaged participants, demonstrating your own failure or lack of knowledge is part of gaining the group’s trust. “One of the best things you can do at the start of a workshop with a new group is to deliberately fail, or make fun of yourself, because that’s an easy way to put the class on an even footing.”

What is it that fuels Hogan’s passion for this work? Not a “natural activist”, in the sense of protest marching or petition signing, she nevertheless is outraged at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and understands that the best way to make a difference is to concentrate on what you are good at. In Timor-Leste, where she lived for a year, she encountered aid workers with specific skills such as engineering or midwifery. It struck her that her expertise could also offer practical outcomes. “Doing drama is more useful than knocking your head against the brick wall of government policies that don’t change anything.”

Hogan has written her first full-length play, Greater Sunrise, which is set in Timor-Leste. It just opened in Sydney at Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre. Inevitably, fear, nerves and apprehension accompany all this. As in the drama workshop, establishing trust and fostering confidence is essential.

In the workshop, we play games, using eye contact and repeating our names. We find that universal human emotions require no language skills to interpret. Words exchanged in all languages represented in the room mean everyone has the opportunity to learn. Narrative play introduces English words almost by accident. People search for translations on their phones if they struggle. A shared language – today’s happens to be Mandarin – means someone can step in and explain now and then.

No one feels they are meant to learn anything, but everyone takes something away. For me, it’s being reintroduced to the joy of play, seeing firsthand the transformative power of learning that Hogan offers in this atmosphere of openness and generosity. It is also realising that an ordinary scarf can be a ball or a book, or whatever you want it to be.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 14, 2018 as "Drama theories".

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