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Exploring perspectives on death

16 DECEMBER 2010

Exploring perspectives on death

Wellington theatre maker and director Leo Gene Peters has been working with staff, patients and families using hospice services to create a performance piece based on their stories.

The work was presented for the first time to delegates at a Hospice New Zealand conference at Te Papa in November. Public performances are planned for early next year.

Leo, who graduated with a Master of Theatre Arts (Directing) Degree from Toi Whakaari and Victoria University in 2004, became involved in the hospice project following the successful season of Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants at BATS Theatre.

His theatre company, A Slightly Isolated Dog, was looking at ways to make live performance more vital.

“We want to make events, not just a night out at the theatre – something that is a bit more immediate than just entertainment (but still entertaining).

“We approached Hospice New Zealand, and they said they were interested in people talking about death. If we’re not so afraid of the subject, that helps them do their jobs. They are keen to get the word out that hospices are not just places you go to die.

As Leo puts it, “everyone is alive until they’re not”.

He started working on the project in the middle of this year, meeting initially with hospice staff before being introduced to patients and their families.

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“There was understandable reticence at first. Some of the counsellors were protective of their patients, which was fair enough. Hospice staff have an amazing capacity for listening, which you often don’t get with other people. By the end of the process, they were very warm, and an hour would stretch really quickly.”

Leo said time was a big challenge in the project because of the need to build relationships.

“The subject is huge and everybody’s perspective is so different. If you can get the relationship right, people really invite you in to their world. One of the guys we interviewed was in his seventies, had been diagnosed with cancer 15 years ago, receiving treatment all those years, and was coming to the end of his life. He was such an amazing man with a beautiful perspective.”

Leo describes the format of the show, based on snippets of conversations with the names of the people changed, as rough and immediate.

“We didn’t want it to look slick, so we didn’t have any lighting cues, even though we were in the fully-equipped Soundings Theatre at Te Papa. We wanted it to look very close to the people, played in a really rough style with just a few chairs and a lot of towels and sheets.

“It’s very conversational -- a bit like being in your lounge and someone starts telling a story, then they start moving chairs around to get the scene, then they start playing the scene.”

More than 250 Hospice delegates saw the show at Te Papa.

“Several of the nurses and staff we worked with came up to us afterwards with lovely praise,” said Leo.

“I guess we want people not to be so afraid of death. We look at things that are difficult and sad, but also the things that are quite funny and quite beautiful.

“Right now we are all dying. But when you put a day on it, or three months, death becomes pretty immediate and scary. No-one escapes. If we can sit with that, it stretches our compassion and our perspective on things.”

The project has received funding from Hospice New Zealand and the Wellington City Council.

Hospice New Zealand ( supports member hospices in their work caring for people who are dying – by focusing on education, standards, quality, support resources, advocacy and raising awareness.


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