The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Homeless and Artists Working Together  Streetwise Opera
Homeless and Artists Working Together  Streetwise Opera
Workshop offered for artists and people who are working as a workshop leader (at Yokohama Nigiwai-za, September 3, 2009)
Streetwise Opera workshop
Streetwise Opera workshop
Photo: Tadashi Okouchi
Next, I would like to ask you about your personal background. I have heard that before you launched SWO in 2002, you were working as an art journalist in the daytime and working as a support worker for the homeless center at night.
Yes. Actually when I was young I wanted to be a doctor, but I failed the exam to get into medical school. I happened to find a college in the Yellow Pages for retaking the university exams in the music and arts, and that is how I got into art school. I found music suited me better than medicine. After university I spent a year working in Paris as a singer for a year. I even worked at Euro Disneyland near Paris for a few months as a singer. But I wasn’t good enough to have a brilliant career as a singer.
 So after I returned to London I needed a job and started working for the advertising department of a publishing company that published music magazines. And after a while I naturally wanted to get a better job. As I was looking for another job I phoned up my flat mate one day and asked him to fax my curricula vitae to my office for me, but for some reason that fax ended up on the desk of the editor of Opera Now on the top floor of our building and the editor came down with my CV in hand and asked if I was interested in applying to be the assistant editor. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true (laughs).
 For a while I was living in different cities, in Paris or London and I became interested in the homeless. They always looked so lonely. But after a while one of my flat mates said I was always talking about homelessness but I never did anything. So I volunteered to work at a center near Victoria Station at night once a week. That was around 1996. Eventually I went to night school to get training as a support worker, outside of my day job. So I ended up having two professions. I was a journalist in the daytime and a support worker for the homeless at night.
 However, after a while I wanted to do something more than writing reviews of operas. I wanted to do something that would be more of a contribution to society. It was around that time that some politician made a comment that the homeless are the ones that people coming out of the opera house have to step over. And that became a big issue at the homeless center. So I was talking to the people at the center and I said, “Let’s do an opera and raise money for the center.” That led to the idea of starting SWO. I wanted to show that we could turn the tables on the politicians and have homeless do an opera. So in 2000 I managed to get some funding to do an opera version of The Little Prince for children with homeless people. The result was that the show was very well received and we had people lining up on the street to see it. With that success I was able to start SWO in 2002 by myself. Now we have six people working for the company fulltime and two temporary staff and we work with 30 freelance workshop leaders.

The people who lead your SWO workshops are all professional musicians like opera singers or pianists. Why do you choose top artists to work with the homeless?
One of the problems with [programs for] the homeless is that they always get low quality stuff. For example they get clothes donations of second-hand clothes, and for meals they may get sandwiches that are past the sell-by date. So why not give them the best opera singer in the UK to work with for a change? That makes them feel special and is really inspiring. And it is only by having artists lead our workshops that we are able to create music on the spot. So, when I choose our workshop leaders I want the best musicians I can find. I don’t choose them on the basis of their skill in leading a workshop. They just have to have basic social skills and need to outgoing and enjoy working with people. But that’s about it.

I have heard that your workshop leaders go through a nine-week training period before that start working for your program.
Rather than nine weeks, it is more accurate to say that they go through nine training sessions. For the first two sessions we just have them watch and understand the overall structure. After that we have them run just one of the exercises of the workshop, like having them lead the “chair game” (where participants rush to sit in the empty chair that the person who is it is heading for) or the “Night Fever” game (where everyone makes a circle and one chosen person stands in the middle and strikes a pose like John Travolta’s famous pose from Saturday Night Fever and all the others have to immediately copy that pose). Then they gradually increase the number of sections they are able to lead, until by the end of the ninth session they are capable of leading the entire workshop. The effectiveness of these games has already been proven, so if you have the tool box can put all the parts together and get the overall flow of the workshop, it is not really so difficult to lead one. The difficult part is actually learning how to keep the right amount of distance. At first I didn’t know how to do that and I did things like telling people my cell phone number. But that is not really fair. Because I can’t become friends with all of them. And these are people who have serious emotional problems, so it can actually have a reverse effect if I act friendly with them in the wrong way. It took me about five years to learn and now I am able to keep a professional borderline with them.
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