SOS: Save our Sector • Save our Stories • Save our Stages
Having spent nearly eight years with the Western Australia-based Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, and five and a half of those years as the CEO, the primary focus of this conversation is from a company perspective. It is important to note that the standpoint I represent sits outside the east coast Indigenous Australian perspective, a perspective often unrecorded.
I can speak from direct experience and ‘tell it like it is’. Starting as CEO, I was given a gift of a book entitled ‘Procedures’, which was entirely blank save for the first page which had a hand-written note of two words – ‘Good Luck’. My journey began. I was also the company’s first Executive Producer, an amalgamation of the artistic direction and general management, so I am in the rare position of a 360-degree experience base. These years were marked by implementing structure, forging global pathways and creating award-winning outcomes, all within horrendous venue conditions, ever increasing hoop-jumping, governance difficulties and one of the most macro-managed, systemically-biased regimes known as the Australian arts industry.
I further qualify my perspective by stating that I have consciously chosen a career entirely in the BLAKarts. Within this space, much of my time has been spent attempting to articulate what we feel but have yet to define through our voice and on our terms. The BLAKarts for me are a way forward which recognises cultural authority, understands its own protocols and navigates through the landscape. I have measured my engagement with the non-Indigenous sector because I am an advocate of mutual exchange and quite often there is no genuine or sincere offer of this. So, in framing this paper, first and foremost it is about a BLAKway forward. One that can be integrated into the wider fabric of the Australian identity and have common points of entry, but one that is not assimilated or siloed or marginalised or exploited.
My Indigenous view of Indigenous theatre in Australia
Whilst there is an anthropological tendency to view traditional Indigenous performing culture as primarily song and dance, there is little recording of the various forms of traditional Indigenous theatre in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society. It is my belief that this is a clear marker for the origins of marginalisation and separation of Indigenous theatre, which has little relevance to the Indigenous perspective but is one steeped in ethnography.
Mask theatre, physical theatre, circus and comedy were very much a part of traditional expression. The campfire, Junba, Corroborree and Bora Grounds, amongst others, served as the stages for significant re-enactments, storytelling and mimicry, often representing spirit and animal forms, generally concluding with a moral or rationale behind various lore and belief. Performance was, and remains, a necessary part of cultural maintenance, wellbeing and survival. The Indigenous view is one of holism and connection, where there is a broader understanding of what constitutes theatre, rather than separation and division into the ‘box’ psyche of the Western world.
Viewing ‘contemporary’ Indigenous theatre only from a Western standpoint fails to take into account the deliberate and purposeful adaptation of this form, as it has been incorporated into the cycle of living culture. It also denies the timeline of ‘contemporary’ Indigenous theatre in being far more rooted in a cultural continuum and traditional Indigenous practise. This is a misleading notion that has been widely written about by non-Indigenous academics whose timelines generally begin in the late 1960s.
So in its broadest context, Aboriginal theatre in Australia is derived from ancient Indigenous culture and tradition. Performance and storytelling is a necessary and critical part of cultural survival, and it can be argued that the Aboriginal theatre industry is a time immemorial artform, which consequently enables comprehension of a bottom-to-top methodology of Indigenous theatre, one that has deeply embedded Indigenous praxis, pedagogy, custom, ritual and technique. It is time to write our own history.
History of Aboriginal theatre in Western Australia
In the little that has been written about Aboriginal theatre there is a tendency to omit the broader national contributions, save for one or two examples. Research is often undertaken and focused around New South Wales, Victoria and, to a lesser extent, Queensland. Knowledge limitations, whiteness and unconscious bias play a role in the back-end of much of these works. While it is not disputed that these attempts are somewhat important in documenting aspects of Aboriginal theatre, the prevalent ‘eastcoastcentric’ view of the sector ignores the truth that Black theatre in its many forms was happening on a more significant national level than what was recorded, yielding key outcomes and milestones that continue to influence the sector.
In my home state of Western Australia, perhaps the best-known example of pre-contact traditional Aboriginal theatre can be found in the Kundu Masks of the Nyangumarta people from the Pilbara. Masks were representations of both animals and spirits and were used in public performance around the campfire at night. At the conclusion of each performance the masks were abandoned on the ceremonial ground. The largest collection of these masks can now be found at the South Australian Museum.
‘Contemporary’ Aboriginal theatre in Western Australia grew out of a time of political and social struggle. The first recorded community performances were at the Coolbaroo Club (established between 1946 and 1960), which was Perth’s only Aboriginal-run club. Productions were of a largely cabaret form providing entertainment for the local Aboriginal community and its supporters amidst the apartheid regime of the day. In the 1960s and 70s the Black civil rights movement was in full swing and the Black political theatre of Australia was born.
While Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers (1968) and the Nimrod Street Theatre production, Basically Black (1972) are acknowledged nationally as the first of the Black political theatre at this time, in Western Australia the social-historical theatre movement was taking shape. Led by playwright Jack Davis (1917-2000), the trilogy of plays The Dreamers (1973), Kullark (1978]) and No Sugar (1985) were the catalyst for the genre that has dominated Aboriginal theatre industry.
In the 1970s Aboriginal theatre was commonly performed at the then Wellington Street-based Aboriginal Advancement Council and played an important role in the social political struggle of the day. By the 1980s recognition for Aboriginal playwrights and actors had grown and interest came in the form of mainstream audiences and theatre companies who started producing Aboriginal works.
In 1989 Jimmy Chi redefined the musical theatre genre with his production Bran Nue Dae – Australia’s first Aboriginal musical – and again with Corrugation Road (1996). Produced by the non-Indigenous company Black Swan Theatre, both broke box office records.
In 1992, Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre was created and set about defining an Aboriginal-determined pathway for authentic Aboriginal theatre in Western Australia. A decade later, Yirra Yaakin was recognised as Australia’s leading Aboriginal theatre company. It produced a body of works by leading WA Aboriginal artists including Sally Morgan, Lynette Narkle, Geoffrey Narkle, Dallas Winmar, Ningali Lawford, Michelle Torres and David Milroy. Yirra Yaakin also played a role in the development of Australia’s first National Aboriginal theatre alliance, the BLAKSTAGEalliance, which was created in 2002.
In 2003 David Milroy’s play Windmill Baby made history as the first Aboriginal play to win the national Patrick White Award. It subsequently received the 2005 WA Equity Award for best new play, the 2006 Deadly Award and the Kate Challis RAKA award (2007).
2005 saw the birth of the Club Savage Movement, an Indigenous ‘art for Indigenous art’s sake’ expression that remains an underground space for BLAKartists to challenge notions and impositions on their artistic creations.
Western Australia has produced a wealth of talented Aboriginal actors who can be placed into three ‘schools’ of induction. The ‘Jack Davis School’ launched the acting careers of artists such as Ernie Dingo, Lynette Narkle, John Moore and Kelton Pell, whilst ‘Bran Nue Dae’ produced Ningali Lawford, Stephen ‘Baamba ‘Albert and Rohanna Angus. The ‘Yirra Yaakin School’ has produced Derek Nannup, Heath Bergersen, Kyle Morrison, Irma Woods, Cher Williams and Kylie Farmer.
Notable WA Aboriginal theatre artists include Archie Weller, Tasma Walton, Della Morrison, Lanchoo Davy, Isaac Drandage, Melodie Reynolds, Dennis Simmons, Mark Bin Bakar (aka Mary G) and acclaimed lighting designer, Mark Howett.
When I talk about Indigenous theatre infrastructures, I am referring to those which are, for the most part, Indigenous-driven, with an Indigenous governance structure and some degree of funding to enable an annual program to be undertaken. This is my definition of BLAKSTAGEtheatre companies. Across Australia there are currently six established companies in various stages of development.
To the west there is Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Corporation, a Perth-based company in operation since 1993. It has produced over 50 plays, employed over 800 Indigenous arts workers, presented over 3000 workshops and won 20 major awards. In the past five years, it has been involved in 36 international events, toured to five continents, toured work nationally and travelled over 45,000 kilometres within Western Australia, never once crossing the border.
South Australia has Karrikarinya Theatre, a fledgling company focusing on adult theatre. There is also Kurruru Youth Arts, Australia’s only Indigenous youth performing arts company, committed to providing quality performing arts opportunities across South Australia.
Melbourne in Victoria is home to the longest running company, Ilbijerri. Established in 1990, its plays explore a range of complex and controversial issues from a uniquely Indigenous perspective, reaching out and reminding audiences of every person’s need for family, history and heritage. Ilbijerri believes in the power of Indigenous voices and its creative processes support the empowerment of Indigenous artists and communities to tell their stories from their perspective.
New South Wales-based Moogahlin Performing Arts was formed in Redfern in November 2007 by a group of Indigenous theatre artists, educators and community workers in honour of the late Kevin Smith's request and in memory of the founding members of the Black Theatre. Based at the Redfern Community Centre in the heart of the local Indigenous community, Moogahlin aims to create and tell community-based stories, develop a comprehensive youth theatre program and mount large-scale productions.
Located in Brisbane, Queensland, is Kooemba Jdarra, that state’s only full-time professional Indigenous theatre company. The company was incorporated in 1993, the International year of Indigenous People, and maintains a strong commitment to professionalism and excellence in the arts. It has nurtured the development of over 40 Indigenous actors, and developed skills and creative opportunities for over 25 new Indigenous writers, designers and directors.
Until 2008 there was also Baru Kadal, a dance theatre initiative, playing an important role in the Northern Territory, but it was disbanded due to lack of funding, bureaucratic meddling and politics.
You would imagine that these theatre companies would be lauded and celebrated for their combined cultural capital, but the commonality amongst them all is that BLAKSTAGEtheatre companies are in crisis. Not through lack of talent or vision or skills or potential, it is in crisis due to politics, to posturing, to top-down influence, to lack of adequate resourcing, to perceptions, and to systemic and sometimes blatant racism. But more importantly, it is in crisis because there is a complete lack of respect by the wider arts community to fully acknowledge that the sector even exists.