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Dr Elspeth Tilley is a graduate of the University of Queensland, with bachelors, honours and doctoral degrees in drama and literature. Her multidisciplinary doctoral study on Australian culturally embedded racism in theatre, fiction, poetry, cinema and media texts, published as the monograph 'White Vanishing' in 2012, has become recognised as an important text in the turn to anti-colonial reconsideration of postcolonial cultures' dominant creative storytelling tropes. Described as "magisterial" and “a powerful piece of anti-colonialism” by reviewers, it uses critical race and critical whiteness studies tools to deconstruct the role of white Australia's 'lost in the bush' myth in the cultural and material dispossession of Indigenous Australians.
Elspeth also has extensive applied theatre experience including formal training in improvisation, youth theatre, writing for theatre, and acting. She has worked professionally as a stage and screen actor, and as a journalist and public relations consultant, the latter role leading to her first academic job in communication in 2000.
After more than a decade teaching, researching and publishing in communication, particularly public relations ethics, feminist theories of communication, and communication for social change, Dr Tilley returned to teaching theatre and creative activism at Massey University Wellington in 2014. She now primarily publishes on performance and creative activism, enjoys directing regular student theatre both scripted and devised, and specialises in developing pedagogy, research and applied projects that combine her two areas of expertise - the arts and communication - to find the synergies and opportunities for creative communication to address key problems in our world. These have included producing Climate Change Theatre Action Aotearoa twice, founding the Create1World youth creative activism conference, and collaborating with community partners on Te Hā Tangata, New Zealand's first human library on homelessness.
In terms of creative research, Elspeth's short plays are all examples of creative communication, using theatre to address social and political issues such as climate change and gender stereotypes. Her plays have been performed internationally, including in Rome (in Italian translation), Paris, Shanghai, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Manila, Dubai, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and more. ‘Waiting for Go,’ a dark comedy about car culture, premiered in the Sydney Short N Sweet Festival, going on to be selected as a winner of the British Theatre Challenge 2017 international playwriting competition and voted Runner Up at Pint Sized Plays New Zealand 2017. 'Flotsam', a look at privilege and climate change in the Pacific and 'The Penguins', an absurdist take on the end of the Anthropocene, were Climate Change Theatre Action official selections in 2015 and 2017, having 10 and 23 international performances respectively. 'Bunnies and Wolves', a dystopian satire of privatisation in the health sector, premiered at Sydney Short N Sweet 2018, and will be published in the 'Stage It' anthology of short plays by Centers for the Arts, Bonita Springs, Florida, USA, in 2018. 'How It Goes', a Brechtian-inspired metadramatic satire of Australia's 'white vanishing' obsession, was commissioned for, and premiered during, Australian artist Amy Spiers' 'Miranda Must Go' decolonial creative activism campaign in 2017.
Dr Tilley's research is both critical and creative, with a central interest in the relationships between cultural texts and social change. She researches across theatre, performance, literature, media and public communication as cultural texts. Her critical research looks at ethics and social justice, exploring how race, gender and inequality are represented, embedded and challenged in the stories communities and organisations tell. She also researches creative activism pedagogy. Her creative research takes these insights and applies them to playwriting, performance making, community-based storytelling and other applied creative activism. Elspeth has won awards for both her critical research and her playwriting.
creative activism, creativity, theatre, creative communication, social justice, social change, critical race studies, critical whiteness studies, playwriting, political theatre, creative activism pedagogy
21st Century Citizenship
Field of research codes
Communication and Media Studies (200100): Cultural Studies (200200):
Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (190404):
Languages, Communication And Culture (200000): Literary Studies (200500):
Performing Arts and Creative Writing (190400):
Postcolonial Studies (200211):
Studies In Creative Arts And Writing (190000)
critical race studies
Project Title: Ruapehu Safety Communication Project - Leleiga Taito - Bursary payment
Date Range: 2015 - 2015
Funding Body: Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Ltd
Project Title: Pathway to Smokefree New Zealand 2025
Date Range: 2013 - 2014
Funding Body: Ministry of Health
Project Title: Health literacy and communicating immunisation information to decision-makers
Date Range: 2008 - 2010
Funding Body: Health Research Council of New Zealand
Project Title: Literacy & Employment
Date Range: 2004 - 2007
Funding Body: Foundation for Research, Science & Technology
Associate Professor Tilley teaches in the Bachelor of Communication, Massey's innovative cross-college communication degree, as well as at postgraduate (BC Honours, Master of Communication, Master of Arts, and PhD) levels. She has taught into both paradigms of the Bachelor of Communication (business and humanities) and so brings a unique understanding of the overall value of combining creativity and critical thinking with communication planning and strategy to develop well-rounded, flexible communication graduates.
Dr Tilley has published pedagogical research on teaching creative activism and has a particular interest in delivering social and emotional pedagogies that embed knowledge acquisition within skills such as teamwork, empathy and an ethics of care.
Dr Tilley enjoys supervising transdisciplinary research that starts from a social issue or challenge, then builds flexible and novel research responses from a range of appropriate disciplines, including creative disciplines. She has interests in theatre, playwriting and other forms of creative activism for social change, and encourages researchers who are keen to both produce and analyse such work, to get in touch.
Current Doctoral Supervision
Completed Doctoral Supervision