With an impressive resume and colourful history, Dr. William Peterson’s professional body of work is as colorful and rich as his personal life story. Born and raised in America, he has worked and lived in various parts of the world but eventually landed here in Adelaide where he discovered his newfound “home away from home” while working as a Drama Arts professor at the Flinders University.
Hey Paolo: How did you start in the field of Drama Arts?
It just started with some acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco which used to do crazy Stanislavski training and it was badly taught at that time.
I also lived in England for a year in the early 80s and among many things, I’d also decided to try applying and auditioning at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). As we all know, every other famous person in the UK acting circles has gone to RADA. It was ridiculous to think I’d ever get in — I actually didn’t get in.
When I moved back to San Francisco, my friends and I started a theatre company and we started recruiting people. We did an all-male production of the lonesco absurdist play “The Bald Soprano.” It ran for weeks and I got us reviewed. We also got ourselves a non-profit status as an organization. I discovered that I was enjoying it — it was so fun. That made me think: this is pretty great. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we get paid to do this everyday?
I got Masters training in acting (M.A., Dramatic Arts, San Diego State University) and eventually received my Ph.D. (Ph.D., Dramatic Arts, University of Texas at Austin).
Hey Paolo: How did you build a career in Asia?
In 1991, not a lot of people from the West knew much about Singapore. But the National University of Singapore wanted to hire someone from overseas and I was one of probably just a few applicants at that time. I got the job and spent three years living there.
I looked at the university’s curriculum and there was no Asian content and it was very Western-focused at that time. I asked: “We’re not teaching any Asian content. If you don’t want to teach it and you don’t mind some white guy teaching it, I’ll do it.”
I would travel outside Singapore during the weekends and I’d go to nearby Asian destinations such as Sumatra, Bali, Thailand, Malaysia, etc. where I’d work almost like an ethnographer taking photos, writing notes, and meeting people. I wasn’t trained to do that kind of research but I just started doing it. Eventually, I became educated in traditional Southeast Asian art forms especially in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, etc. I’ve personally experienced all of them as a spectator while most of the time in the West, they are usually taught by people who have never personally seen them.
From Singapore, I moved to New Zealand for three years and went back to the US.
I also started doing my research in the Philippines back in 2001. It was at the University of the Philippines (UP) and connected with the People’s Educational Theater Association (PETA) where I met many cool people. I initially started writing about PETA and activism. But I thought, there’s nothing anymore new to write about. I came back to the Philippines a few years later to look at how the traditional Christian-rooted religious Senakulo ceremonies work, specifically the Moriones festival in Marinduque, Philippines.
Hey Paolo: Why move to South Australia?
The longer I stay here, the more I say: maybe I’ll just continue staying.
Aside from being headhunted to work here in South Australia, I also come here for the international festivals. Their festivals here are really interesting, challenging, wacky, and eccentric — and I like that. In some ways they’re my lifeline to a more progressive global theatre culture.
When I first started coming here in 2008, Adelaide wasn’t as green and pretty as it is now. It was all brown, flat, sad, and nothing like the present.
I love living in a neighborhood where I know the people who live here. If I see my neighbours on the street, sometimes I end up talking to them for up to 15 minutes like I used to do when I was a kid growing up in Minessotta.
Adelaide has really made me feel very much at home.
Hey Paolo: Why do you love living here in Adelaide?
The most important factor for me is feeling that I’m at home. I didn’t feel that when I was living in Melbourne. I had a great, urban, cosmopolitan, fabulous lifestyle there, but I didn’t feel connected to the place. The built landscape and environment were beautiful, but it didn’t speak to me.
Adelaide is charming and handsome, especially the big old 19th century commercial buildings. I also had that sense that this is going to be a friendly place especially since I live alone.
And the connection to the land/country, it’s very powerful here. Plus the wineries and cellar doors here, like the Barossa, are wonderful.
Hey Paolo: How do you innovate now as a drama professor in light of the pandemic?
My attitude from the very beginning is always to be honest in acknowledging the pain, discomfort, and confusion with what’s happening around us.
I always tell people that we’ll all get through this emotionally well and healthy. We’ll just survive. How do we do that? A little bit of laughter even if we’re screwing up.
I teach students who are from different cohorts including: dancers, visual artists, fashion majors, costumers, acting majors, film students, and education teachers.
Flinders was one of the first universities to move to online classes.
Even in a city like Adelaide, there will always be people who will have problems accessing the internet. We don’t have equal access to high-speed internet. We definitely can’t compete with the rest of the world if we don’t have proper internet bandwith.
Hey Paolo: Do you think there’s a creative brain drain happening in South Australia now?
We’re trying to get more and more students to work across different art forms and to deepen their collaborative relationships with filmmakers, dancers, digital media artists, etc. To create work that they can make from here.
I totally understand that some kids have to go to bigger centers. But if you are somebody who wants to develop an artistic practice particularly across art forms, Adelaide is a great city to do it. The potential here is absolutely huge, particularly now that this is becoming a center for digital media.
The city definitely has a strong commitment to the arts.
My hope is that, those who can stay, I want them to feel they can stay here.
Hey Paolo: Recommendations for…
Creative Spot: The Arts/State Theatre has a great vibe especially when things are happening there.
Dining Spot: Ding Hao at Chinatown. It’s the real deal. Good and unpretentious.
Hangout Spot: I think the most powerful place is the Flinders Rangers for me.