Perceptions of BLAKSTAGEtheatre: a study of a privileged voice
Following research, the few selected academics deemed ‘experts’ of our genre present papers. One theme, ‘How increased mainstream production opportunities have facilitated this expansion of Indigenous theatre practice … and development of the one-person show as the dominant genre for Indigenous theatre practices’ are typical of these musings[FU1] . Those of us who were actually at the frontline and in the trenches of the BLAKSTAGES throw our hands in the air and wonder at these theories, knowing this ‘dominant genre for Indigenous theatre practices’, also known as a one-person show, is in reality a reflection of a lack of resources.
More often than not when there is recognition of the BLAKSTAGE it is increasingly in the form of negative punches thrown in the public domain about the companies and the work that is being produced. Many are ill-informed assumptions, that when taken without context, create a tsunami of venom levelled against the companies themselves, suggesting lack of viability or mediocrity. This then creates reason for further marginalisation, further reduction in funding, further diminishment. Often it comes from funding bodies, often it is perceptions from the mainstream, which serve as impetus to develop BLAK-themed works. Often it is from our own mob.
One of the main voices given a platform for opinion is Rhoda Roberts. With a career in Indigenous arts beginning in the 1980s as an actor, producer, writer and director in the performing arts, Rhoda has worked as a journalist, festival director and producer. Let it be said that she is more than entitled to her own personal opinion.
However, I feel the greater arts sector is mature enough to have more than one spokesperson who is consistently referenced, cited, sourced, and privileged to speak for all of us. If we look at any form of seniority of voice, we should see Noel Tovey, Jack Charles, Gary Foley, Lynette Narkle and Lillian Crombie being given much greater status, yet this is not the case. Their wisdom and wealth of experience is not included in the discourse.
Whilst I share many of Roberts’ views, her continued agenda around mediocrity and endorsement of black theatre by mainstream companies is our point of difference.
In 2006, at the Australian Performing Arts Market, an Indigenous-focused theatre panel was brought together by the Australia Council. Questions around process of selection were raised directly with the staff of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts, but remained unanswered. There was no national dialogue with key BLAKSTAGEtheatre companies that this panel was even going ahead and yet the discussion was clearly talking to our core business. In this panel Rhoda Roberts defined her position to a room full of national and international performing arts presenters and arts workers.
“…I take my hat off to Rachel Swain and David because they have the model. They took that step many, many years ago. They had a product that had been invested. I think it was about five hundred grand had gone into it from Australia Council, then nobody wanted it, nobody wanted to touch it. With further investment that product went onto the touring circuit. I still think everybody wants it and I’m referring to Marrugeku’s Mimi. And it was an extraordinary piece of theatre. It was an extraordinary piece of revitalising a story that could very well had been lost if that old man would’ve passed on, extraordinary, unique Australian product.
So my big push is that we look at unification, we don’t talk about reconciliation because I was never in the marriage, okay? And they’re the issues and come on we’ve got to have debate. Let’s get a big of argy-bargy here.”[FU2] 
Roberts’ position is an interesting one. It suggests that an agenda of mainstreaming and aligning with a collaborative approach to Aboriginal theatre is a recipe for success. It celebrates the role of the non-Indigenous practitioner having been the catalyst of setting benchmarks of good BLAK work. It privileges the non-Indigenous sector to lead the process, to entrust stories to non-Indigenous practitioners so that culture can be preserved.
Whilst Roberts continues to reaffirm her position on the critical need for collaboration, she continues to move toward the most interesting position she raises – mediocrity.
“… I think what we need, as Indigenous arts people, is we want that hand of partnership … and things that we look at that we want to produce, we want to do them in collaboration. We want to work with the finest companies in Australia or New Zealand, wherever it is, we want that collaborative process but at the same time we need you guys to help facilitate that. We can't always be going and doing it, we burn out, we just can't always be doing it.
“… how many of you have seen a great Aboriginal production on the same level of the other theatre – there’s some mediocre theatre out there too – but how much have we seen. And yet if you look at products there have been one or two things that have been fantastic. But they’ve started off from Aboriginal theatre companies or they’ve started off in collaborative works with people like Malthouse and so forth.”[FU3]
Mediocre theatre is what it is and I’m not here to suggest there is not bad BLAK theatre that sits alongside mediocre well-funded whitestage theatre. Within such broad generalisations, Roberts makes assumptions that our benchmarks are those of the whitestage. She also assumes that our stories and audience and critique has to come from white people in order for the work to be meritorious, thus validating her original position of the need for our stories to be told by non-Indigenous people and companies.
Many of Roberts’ sentiments are still considered current when entering into any form of discourse about BLAKSTAGEtheatre. Clearly we have evolved and live in vastly different political and social times. Brave work is being done. Look at the productions of Maitland Schnaars to feel the edge of a new Black theatre style, or the Lightning Brothers’ story of the Wadaman people from the Northern Territory to see how a community process and pedagogy can move a story forward.
I was in attendance at the 2006 Australian Performing Arts Market panel presentation and seized the opportunity to speak when questions were taken from the floor. This is, verbatim, what I had to say;
“I guess the one thing that sort of sticks out with the panel is that some of these conversations are actually probably a bit further back in the past now for where the BLAKSTAGEalliance, the Aboriginal theatre sector of Australia, is strong. It doesn’t benchmark against what MTC or Black Swan or anyone is doing. We benchmark in accordance with our cultural authority and who we are as Indigenous peoples. And the work that we produce is outstanding. It’s not mediocre. We’ve got quality control issues: everyone does. It’s a big thing and we need to kind of evolve to look at some really proactive way of keeping the dialogue moving forward because we are forward-looking people. We’re looking back a lot. We need to go forward as Indigenous people.” [applause][FU4]
I left the ‘applause’ in because when I returned to my place at the back of the room I was congratulated and hugged and acknowledged in an outpouring from the wider arts community in a way I did not expect. It suggested to me that possibly the rest of the performing arts community were open to hearing from those of us working directly in the development and creation of new BLAKSTAGE productions. This continued for the remainder of the Performing Arts Market, many people coming up individually and quietly congratulating rather than publicly acknowledging for fear of retribution through the loss of funding, access, or opportunities, which is very real. [EE5]
This ‘downlow[FU6] ’ congratulations highlights the flaw in calling for real debate. How can real debate occur when a sector is gagged for fear of retribution? When you speak out you pay the price[EE7] , something I knew all about. But in reality, at the time, I was Western Australia-based and figured I had plenty of protection given that most of those who control the sector do not think beyond the imaginary line that encompasses two, or sometimes three, eastern states . So I spoke up and paid the price.
I have not dedicated my career to creating palatable work for white audiences. I’m here to tell Black stories for the benefit of Black people, within the context of a global Black and Indigenous majority.
BLAKSTAGE companies’ relationships with national arts funding: you do the math
National Indigenous funding for BLAKSTAGE theatre has largely sat within the brief of two boards of the Australia Council: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board and the Theatre Board. Some funds are obtained through devolved former ATSIC funding administered by the Indigenous Coordination Centres, lovingly referred to by sectors of the Aboriginal Community as ‘Indigenous Chaos Centres’, but this is not exclusive to the performing arts and is often only enough to subsidise a non-core business area of youth workshops.
In general, a piecemeal annual budget is pulled together through triennial funding for three of the companies, project funding for the others, and for those with the right status, philanthropic sources. Sponsorship has never been a strong line item, despite companies being well-positioned to satisfy any triple-bottom line. Clearly it is hard to compete against a state theatre company’s BLAK-themed production within an annual subscription season.
Currently the combined estimated annual turnover of the BLAKSTAGE companies is approximately $2.7 million. This is inclusive of their earned income and does not represent the arts investment.
This combined sector amount pays to keep the doors open for seven companies and for them to be a portal to tell the stories of over 800 tribal groups across Australia, train our youth, mentor artists, tour works, commission work, undertake creative development, pay our practitioners and administrators and present new works. By comparison, this combined figure is around the amount of two productions by a state theatre company or a down payment on an opera.
Australian theatre landscaped by the Australia Council’s theatre board
“The theatre board's role is to ensure that theatre continues to be a vibrant contemporary artform that connects creatively with Australia's various communities. The theatre board does this by supporting activity that contributes to the development of high quality and diverse contemporary theatre.
“Most forms of live performance are supported by the theatre board, including outdoor performance, text-based theatre, devised work, physical theatre, site-based work, puppetry, visual theatre, performance art, theatre for young people, circus, contemporary performance, youth theatre and cabaret.”
In 2008, implementation of the Australia Council’s “Make It New?” strategy occurred. Its main premise was to strengthen theatre as a vibrant contemporary artform by:
* encouraging a diverse yet networked theatre culture within Australia;
* sustaining a number of key organisations to be hubs in this network; and
* empowering an enabling infrastructure for artistic development.[FU9]
In response to this, a funding round for multi-year companies was deliberated on in September, 2008 and 28 organisations were supported nationally, receiving a combined investment of over $16.5 million. Not one of them was a BLAKSTAGEtheatre company. Of the seven ‘peers’ forming the theatre board[EE10] , not one of them was a BLAKSTAGE practitioner. Nor was there a representative from the Northern Territory or the ACT.
The current distribution of support for theatre-based companies is as follows: NSW, 8 (over $5 milion); Victoria, 7 (over $4 million); National, 4 (over $1.6 million); WA, 3 (over $1.3 million); SA, 3 (over $2 million); Queensland, 2 (over $1.8 million); Tasmania, 1 ($600,000); NT, 0 ($0); and ACT, 0 ($0).
For this particular meeting, six ‘peers’ on the board and five ‘participating advisors’ resided in the following states: NSW – 4; Victoria – 3 ; Queensland – 2; SA – 1; Tasmania – 1 ; WA – 0; NT – 0; and ACT – 0.
According to the Chair of the theatre board, SA-based Ms Rosalba Clemente:
“This was a pivotal meeting of the Australia Council’s theatre board. The decisions that we made will shape the theatre sector in Australia for the years to come … A number of remarkable things came together in the making of these watershed decisions.”
Clearly it helps if your state is well represented by ‘peers’. Clearly it doesn’t help if ‘your genre is black’. Remarkable indeed.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board [ATSIAB]
BLAKSTAGE companies have been steady recipients of funds from ATSIAB and have had representation at board level. However, of all the boards, ATSIAB has the smallest purse and is in place to fund every artform touched by the Indigenous community as well as advocate for the development of protocols and codes of conduct for working with our cultural cache. This results in community, artists, and artforms being pitted against one another for the smallest piece of the pie.
In 2005 a dialogue was undertaken between ATSIAB and representatives from all but two of the BLAKSTAGE companies. A focus was to be placed on the theatre sector and it was collectively promised more opportunities. With a change of management, this was not achieved, a definite blow to the sector which was gaining strength in unity and momentum behind notions of possibility for the BLAKSTAGEalliance. To date, there has been no further offer of the development of any formal Indigenous theatre strategy, which has hampered the sector’s development and added to the current state of crisis.
The relationship between the BLAKSTAGE theatre community and ATSIAB has become increasingly fraught by perceptions of gatekeeping, nepotism and lack of transparency. Application processes have become more rigorous with the enforcement of the Confirmation of Aboriginality and organisations’ confirmation, alongside support letters from key individuals. Already remote and regional Indigenous Australians are at a disadvantage by often not being in a position to comply with these requirements or solicit support letters from influential individuals. Nationally, every Indigenous person is disadvantaged by the Confirmation of Aboriginality. It is a redundant act of systemic racism. This issue is a discussion in its own right and I would encourage rigorous debate around program design and criteria as they relate to the Indigenous arts sector.
This perception is not helped by ATSIAB’s 2008 ‘making solid ground’ review[FU12] , which will see a reduction of key Indigenous organisations funded by ATSIAB, and those who are recipients receiving a decreasing funding allocation over six years, until they reach a sunset clause and are no longer eligible for assistance. This proposed, and very real, shift in the way a national infrastructure is supported did receive significant response from the national Indigenous arts community against its implementation. It was hastily re-branded as a consequence, a national ‘consultation’ tour was undertaken and its process implemented regardless.
These feelings of gatekeeping and nepotism, whether real or perceived, are perpetuated by individuals’ and communities’ direct experiences with ATSIAB. It is a widespread sentiment and remains the ‘elephant in the room’. The sector suffers from the lack of a ‘safe space’ in which to air grievances or make disclosures. Requests for a safe space have been ignored by the office the Federal Arts Minister, right down the line to the CEO of the Australia Council.