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From The Vault - Indigenous theatre Speech – presented 19th November 2004

Indigenous theatre Speech – presented 19th November 2004

My name is Sam Cook, I’m the Executive Producer of Perth based Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Corporation. I would firstly like to acknowledge the people of the Wathaurong Nation - the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we stand. I would also like to acknowledge the presence of Indigenous representatives here today, Kylie Belling and Amanda Hereaka from our sister companies Ilbijerri and Taki Rua.

Yirra Yaakin is a proud member of the BLAKSTAGEalliance, the national Aboriginal theatre network. We are one of five professional Aboriginal theatre companies in Australia, with Kooemba Jdarra in Queensland, Baru Kadal in the Northern Territory, Kurruru out of South Australia and Ilbijerri based here in Victoria.

Collectively we represent the authentic Indigenous theatre experience. Collectively we are the present day face of the Aboriginal theatre Industry.

I’m here today welcoming the opportunity to talk to some of the key players in the Australian and New Zealand theatre community, indeed my captive audience for the moment. In being asked to speak on the theme of community and audience it became apparent that the assumption of the Aboriginal theatre community as only operating at a grass roots level, continues to support the myth that our productions, process and outcomes are solely that.

As the Aboriginal theatre community, we develop our work on the FUBU principle. FOR US BY US. In essence, self determination and Authenticity, with Aboriginal people in all stages of development is the direction we head. For us, critique is a community process. It ensures that our Uncles and Aunties, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, babies, grandmothers and grandfathers – our MOB - has a voice. Developing new work in the community of origin alongside protocols and respect, ensure that the back end of any play is interwoven with a matrix of cultural value and our 1% percenters. The public outcome, where we share our expression with the world is then assured its authenticity as we build a true historical record of our past and present. These community processes enable the Aboriginal theatre industry to maintain our cultural authority. Embedded in sophisticated IP developed for centuries, we know its worth and the value of this black gold to the mainstream industry.

We are not only producing theatre, we are collectively mapping out our Industry – and writing the Aboriginal theatre movement into Australian history. And we are doing so in local, national and International Indigenous collaboration, context and alliance. We are growing our Aboriginal theatre community, developing new models of theatre practise and a new language for the theatre Industry.

We are enabling our accepted streams of social historical retelling, education and tradition to continue to stand strong. We are also bringing our mob in from the fringes, the artists not black enough, their stories not traditional enough and their concepts down right challenging to have a voice alongside the known face of Aboriginal theatre. Through the CLUB SAVAGE movement we have a voice for our artists who want to create not educate and we make no excuse for this.

As the Aboriginal theatre community, we also have a strong commitment to work against the disparity between industries. We live with the knowledge that the glass ceiling is placed unfairly low on our Aboriginal artists and companies, yet we only grow stronger in resolve and determination. We support the crossover of our artists to be recognised as artists in the hope that one day colourblind casting may just be the norm, instead of artists playing the roles that have them drunk, mysteriously traditional, raped or stolen.

We do not benchmark our artistic creation by Western Classics, Shakespeare is as foreign to our Aboriginal communities as I would suggest it is to the Australian cultural landscape. When we talk classic we speak the names of Uncle Jack, Uncle Kevin, Uncle Jimmy. We have our own Shaking Spear our strong diverse Indigenous cultures from time immemorial, sophisticated in tradition, spiritual connectivity and most importantly, a living breathing contemporary voice.

And here’s where we see our difference. We are developing our theatre from the ground up – we are bottom to top artistic creators, placing great emphasis on the process, with the script and outcome the result of significant time, effort and energy into a cultural and community laden foundation. From the ground up, we understand the importance of the process to interweave authenticity into the final outcome.

As we understand it, mainstream process largely works from the top down and if it doesn’t its equally marginalised or gets the Community theatre brand. Top down is often after significant pursuit of academic excellence, of an individual journey mastering the technical, the philosophical and theorising over western classics. Professional theatre is the qualified approach. Nothing wrong with that, but through our process and our journey, our qualification is drawn – and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

We acknowledge the difference in the Aboriginal theatre approach in comparison to mainstream theatre conventions – As the Aboriginal theatre Industry we need and know the worth of every possible aspect of our whole community so that we can continue to tell our stories. Seldom do we take the road of individual pursuit. However we know that essentially both Aboriginal and mainstream theatre will all end up at the same point – the public outcome, the World Premiere Season and the acquittal.

My predecessor David Milroy once said, “who needs Aboriginal playwrights and theatre companies when everyone else is writing and producing it for us?” I would suggest that Australian theatre needs us because the Aboriginal theatre Industry is the cultural wave of the future. Why? Simply because we do not confine ourselves to Western conventions, we will adapt and interpret your techniques to fit our cause. So while we purposely bastardise conventional theatre practice, we lead the way as innovators and effectors of social change.

So when do we receive acknowledgement as a professional theatre industry – when do we grow from this perception that we are less than professional? When the word “community” is used to define us, why does it play off as patronising? Why are Indigenous creators considered to have “made it” when we “cross over” into mainstream only to have an anonymous journey through our Aboriginal theatre productions?

Could it be that by not acknowledging professional Aboriginal theatre that this creates a self serving justification for mainstream “professional” theatre to continue to pass off work as Indigenous despite lack of Indigenous control and ownership over the process, scripts or outcomes?

This disparity is a reality, but as the faces of the Australian theatre identity lets all become effectors of change.

* Acknowledge our industry

* accept our diversity

* support our self-determination & authenticity

* make no assumptions to our capability – we have long outgrown our niche roots.

* know we are serious contenders within the fabric of the Australian arts industry and are taking our voice to the world.


When we are ready to collaborate – WE will let YOU know.

Don’t fear us for taking this stand to demand back what is rightfully ours, we are not angry, bitter or reactive. Respect and embrace our position – only then will you truly have an Aboriginal theatre experience.


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