Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley staff profile picture

Contact details +64 (04) 801 5799  ext. 63565

Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley PhD, BA(Hons)

Associate Professor in English (Expressive Arts)

School of English and Media Studies

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.   

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Contact details

  • Ph: 0800 MASSEY ext 63565
    Location: 36, Block 7
    Campus: Wellington


  • Doctor of Philosophy - University of Queensland (2007)
  • Bachelor of Arts (Honours) - University of Queensland (1996)

Prizes and Awards

  • Best Play, Pint Sized Plays New Zealand 2019, for Fabio the Great, written by Elspeth Tilley, directed by Greg Dorn and performed by Chris McKenzie, Nathan Cook & Rosie Fea. - Remarkable Theatre (2019)
  • Winner, British Theatre Challenge 2019, for 'Fabio the Great' - Sky Blue Theatre, London (2019)
  • Special Jury Prize - Outstanding Curated Play. Stage-It 3 International Playwriting Competition, Florida, USA. For Te Hā Tangata, by V. Swenson, M. Dewes, S. Pickering & E. Tilley. - Centers for the Arts, Bonita Springs, Florida (2019)
  • Finalist – Fratti-Newman Political Play Contest, New York 2019, for World - Mario Fratti & Fred Newman Political Play Contest, Castillo Theatre, New York (2019)
  • Equal First Place – Playwrights’ Association of New Zealand Long Play Award 2019, for 'World' - Playwrights' Association of New Zealand (2019)
  • Massey University College of Humanities & Social Sciences Sustained Excellence Award for Teaching, 2019 - College of Humanities & Social Sciences (2019)
  • 2019: Top 80, Sydney Short + Sweet Festival, Te Hā Tangata: The Play - Various (2019)
  • 2018: Winner, Westcliffe Colorado Centers for the Arts Playwriting Competition, 'Fabio the Great' 2018: Playwrights Association of New Zealand Outstanding Achievement Award 2018: Winner, British Theatre Challenge 2018, 'Bunnies and Wolves' 2018: Top 80 Finalist, Sydney Short + Sweet Festival, 'Bunnies and Wolves' 2018: Top 10 ranking, King's Shorts, Canada, 'Bunnies and Wolves' - Various (2018)
  • 2017: Winner, British Theatre Challenge 2017, ‘Waiting for Go’ 2017: Runner Up, Pint Sized Plays New Zealand, ‘Waiting for Go’ 2017: Selected Playwright, Climate Change Theatre Action, ‘The Penguins’ 2017: Top 80 finalist, Short+Sweet Festival Sydney, ‘Waiting for Go’ (and People’s Choice 2nd place Wk5) 2017: Wildcard selection, Short+Sweet Festival Dubai, ‘Waiting for Go’ 2017: Shortlisted, Short+Sweet Auckland, ‘The Smiths’ 2016: Top 20 finalist, Short+Sweet Festival Canberra, ‘Waiting for Go’ 2016: Top 20 finalist, Short+Sweet Festival Manila, ‘Waiting for Go’ 2015: Acknowledged in New Zealand Parliament for contribution to Pacific Issues, for 'Flotsam', about climate change impact in the Pacific 2015: Selected Playwright, Climate Change Theatre Action (10 international performances of Flotsam, including off-Broadway) 2013: Emerald Literati Network Highly Commended Award for Excellence, for Tilley, E., Fredricks, S., & Hornett, A. (2012). Kinship, culture and ethics in organisations: Exploring implications for internal communication. Journal of Communication Management, 16(2), 162-184. “One of the most impressive pieces of work the team has seen throughout 2012”. - Multiple (2012)

Research Expertise

Research Interests

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

Area of Expertise

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)



creative activism




social change



critical whiteness

critical race studies


Research Projects

Summary of Research Projects

Position Current Completed
Project Leader 0 6
Project Leader 0 1
Team Member 0 4

Completed Projects

Project Title: Ruapehu Safety Communication Project - Leleiga Taito - Bursary payment

Funded by GNS Science, this collaboration between Massey's School of English & Media Studies and Joint Centre for Disaster Research supports postgraduate student research into mountain safety communication. Using a combination of qualitative and creative research approaches, the project aims to both better understand mountain users' attitudes towards lahar, avalanche and other warnings, and produce communication outputs that will reach mountain users (including young skiers and snowboarders in particular) in their own language and idioms.
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Date Range: 2015 - 2015

Funding Body: Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Ltd

Project Team:

Project Title: Pathway to Smokefree New Zealand 2025

This pioneering cross-disciplinary research project, funded by the Ministry of Health under the Smokefree Innovation Fund, used a participant-driven, empowerment-focussed communication model to ask young people (aged up to 25 years) to design and implement smokefree health communication for their peers. Outputs included a 30 minute documentary film, made by Massey students and distributed to highschools nation-wide. Massey staff from media studies, communication, health and design were involved, led by Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Pre and post testing indicated a statistically significant change in the target audience's attitudes towards quitting smoking and the tobacco industry over the life of the campaign, including more young smokers wanting to quit and more young people generally perceiving the tobacco industry as implicated in young people's smoking choices.
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Date Range: 2013 - 2014

Funding Body: Ministry of Health

Project Team:

Project Title: Health literacy and communicating immunisation information to decision-makers

This pilot study investigated the impact that illustrations have on delivering immunisation information to immunisation decisions-makers who are of differing health literacy levels.  It had six objectives: (a) to develop illustrative tools that form the intervention of the study; (b) to describe factors that influence immunisation decision making processes of decision-makers with differing levels of functional health literacy; (c) to determine if recall of immunisation information was improved by the illustrations; (d) to determine if the illustrations improved comprehension of immunisation information; (e) to report on the outcomes in relation to immunisation uptake at six weeks and three months; (f) to evaluate the illustrations and suggest recommendations for modifications. This pilot intervention study included qualitative interviews, quantitative assessment, and focus groups. Enhanced immunisation information recall, comprehension and improved immunisation rates were predicted benefits of this study, alongside illustrative models available for use nationally.
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Date Range: 2008 - 2010

Funding Body: Health Research Council of New Zealand

Project Team:

Project Title: Literacy & Employment

Researchers from the Adult Literacy and Communication Research (ALCR) Group at the School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, Massey University, in partnership with the Wanganui District Library, undertook a major longitudinal research project funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, focusing on adult literacy and employment in Whanganui and Districts. Through a series of interlinked research projects we aimed to achieve the following four objectives: 1. To establish adult literacy needs of both employed and unemployed in Whanganui and Districts region. 2. To identify the social, attitudinal and economic barriers to adult literacy, numeracy and analytical thinking skills of employed and unemployed in Whanganui and Districts. 3. To evaluate how effectively adult literacy programmes secure employment outcomes. 4. To examine adult literacy learning processes and their relationship to employment. The Whanganui project group added their own further objectives, specific to gaining tangible benefits for Whanganui. These included: 1. Achieving positive, tangible and practical outcomes for the Whanganui community, with a well-researched plan of action for medium-long term 2005-2015 to address identified issues relating to literacy 2. Establishing a database of meaningful, relevant information relating to the links between literacy and employment in Whanganui and identify links to other social issues e.g. crime, health, and housing; and providing benchmarks to measure future progress 3. Developing collaboration between agencies within the Whanganui region, to strengthen the community and social infrastructure for future work and projects 4. Building the research capacity within Whanganui.
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Date Range: 2004 - 2007

Funding Body: Foundation for Research, Science & Technology

Project Team:

Research Outputs

Teaching and Supervision

Teaching Statement

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.

Courses Coordinated

Graduate Supervision Statement

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

Supervisor of:

  • Ammar Al-Maani - PhD
    Postcolonial Arab Theatre of Trauma and Resistance
  • Angie Enoka - PhD 
    Under the gaze: A study of the portrayal by the New Zealand print media of Pacific Island workers in the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme, 2007 - 2012
  • Julia Ludbrook – PhD
    Doubling Over: Film to Theatre Adaptation

CoSupervisor of:

  • Helen Pearse-Otene - PhD 
    Waiho hoki au i raro nei - Leave me here below: Unearthing the wisdom of Hine nui te Po through the art of survival narratives
  • Prudha Raja – PhD
    Gendered emotions: Animal imagery in the act of cursing in select Shakespearean plays
  • April-Rose Geers – PhD
    Digital Activism: Campaigning for Poets of Conscience

Completed Doctoral Supervision

Supervisor of:

  • 2017 - Sara McBride - PhD 
    The Canterbury Tales: Learnings from the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence in New Zealand to inform better public communication design
  • 2013 - Aien Hasan Mohd Hasan- PhD 
    Towards achieving global standards: The role of public relations in processes and outcomes of corporate social responsibility initiatives in Malaysia

CoSupervisor of:

  • 2015 - Helen Sissons - PhD
    Whose News? Investigating power relations between journalists and public relations practitioners
  • 2013 - Fiona Shearer- PhD 
    A critical discouse study of an adult literacy organisation's publicity in Aotearoa NewZealand from 1973 to 2009
  • 2012 - Thomas Owen- PhD 
    Patents, Pills, the Press and the Poor: Discourse and Hegemony in News Coverage of Global Access to Medicines Dispute, 1997-2003.

Media and Links


  • 27 Nov 2015 - Newspaper, Online
    Staging a cause
    assey University theatre and arts lecturer Elspeth Tilley has had her play Flotsam accepted as one of the official plays for the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change.
  • 27 Jan 2017 - Newspaper, Online
    Indigenous history should take precedence
    Bendigo Advertiser media story about Amy Spiers' creative activism campaign against white vanishing myths. The campaign commissioned an original play from cultural theorist Elspeth Tilley, author of '
  • 26 May 2016 - Online
    Students take the New Zealand Justice System ...
    Students take the New Zealand Justice System to the stage Just weeks before Cabinet makes a decision about whether or not to raise the age of youth justice, students from Massey University in Welling
  • 26 Apr 2017 - Magazine, Online
    White Australia and Picnic At Hanging Rock
    Picnic At Hanging Rock is one of the most celebrated novels and film adaptations in modern Australian history. But its effects on ancient Aboriginal culture aren’t worth celebrating, writes JOSEPH EAR
  • 22 Sep 2016 - Online
    Sharing the risky business of being creative
    The Imagining Together series brings together experts from different fields to share their diverse experiences of the creative process
  • 21 Oct 2015 - Online
    Theatre to provoke new thinking on climate change
    As world leaders prepare for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris next month, Massey University staff and students in Wellington are staging a series of provocative short plays and
  • 21 Mar 2014 - Newspaper, Online
    Smokefree speaker to visit campus
    A 15-year-old British schoolgirl is coming to inspire Kiwi youth to start their own smokefree movement.
  • 21 Apr 2017 - Newspaper, Online
    Teens tackle social issues
  • 19 Nov 2015 - Online
    Writer’s climate change play goes global
    A short play highlighting a Pacific perspective on climate change is being staged at theatres in the United States as part of a global theatre movement leading up to a major conference in Paris later
  • 18 Mar 2014 - Newspaper, Online
    British schoolgirl smokefree inspiration
    Massey University is bringing British schoolgirl Katie Lou Holland to Palmerston North next week to inspire Kiwi youth to join a worldwide movement.
  • 16 Jun 2016 - Radio, Online
    New play pushes for changes to Youth Court
    A play pushing for the youth court to cover 17 and 18 year olds too, has proved authentic enough for a judge, and persuasive enough for the head of the youth wing of the National Party.
  • 16 Apr 2014 - Online, Magazine
    Young People's Voices in the Smokefree Revolution
    Tobacco Control Update editorial, recounting the success of the Smokefree It's My Life research project
  • 11 Sep 2014 - Radio, Online
    Volcanic Eruption Detection System Mount Ruapehu
    Our Changing World on Radio New Zealand, story about volcanic warning systems including Massey University communication research project.
  • 10 Jun 2016 - Television, Online
    Play examines realities of youth in adult justice
    Youth justice is being put under the spotlight in a new stage show by a group of Massey University students.
  • 08 Jun 2016 - Newspaper, Online
    Massey performance examines youth justice
    Massey University performance examines the disparities in justice for young offenders
  • 08 Jan 2017 - Magazine, Online
    Fine lines in teen justice
    JustSpeak director Dr Katie Bruce writes about youth justice, and the Massey University play JustUs, in Education Today
  • 05 Nov 2013 - Television
    It's My Life on TV1 Breakfast
    Interview on Breakfast about Smokefree It's My Life research project
  • 05 Jul 2016 - Online
    Creativity key to making world a better place
    More than 180 secondary school pupils and teachers from Dargaville to Christchurch gathered at Massey University’s Wellington campus for the first creative activism conference.
  • 04 Nov 2013 - Television
    Smokefree It's My Life on TV3 News
    Interview on TV3 news about Smokefree It's My Life Research Project
  • 01 Nov 2013 - Newspaper, Online
    Campaign to stop youth smoking
    A "for youth, by youth" anti-smoking campaign was launched today in a bid by Massey University to prevent young people from lighting up.
  • 01 Jan 2014 - Radio
    Radio interviews on Newstalk ZB
    Newstalk ZB interviewed multiple members of the smokefree It's My Life research team including Elspeth Tilley in 2015, Janaya Soma in 2014 and Katie Lou Holland in 2013
  • 01 Jan 2013 - Newspaper
    Newspaper coverage of It's My Life
    Multiple news items throughout 2013 and 2014 reported on the Smokefree It's My Life research project including the youth competition, the winners, and the survey results showing smoking change. Newsp

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