The five myths of BLAKSTAGEtheatre
Within this current environment many myths have surrounded the BLAKSTAGE companies. These flow into a general perception of our work being somehow ‘less than’, our companies being a separatist Western notion of ‘community theatre’ which somehow is ‘less than’, our artists being typecast or somehow ‘less than’. Without hearing from the companies themselves, or empowering more voices in the sector to engage in national discourse, they remain divisive sentiments that in reality continue the BLAXploitation by those who lean on us for our knowledge and wisdom whenever they wish to dip into Black content and themes. With our sector in a subservient space we are offered only token attachment roles, grasp at financial offers that drag us away from core aspirations, and remain benchmarked against, and vulnerable to, a style of theatre I refer to as an ‘Al Jolson’ – white writer, white director, white company, with an all-star Indigenous cast.
Myth 1: Mainstream companies produce better BLAK work
Whitestage companies do well-funded theatre. Most companies who touch Indigenous themes and content are the major performing arts companies, and their budget per show is often on par, if not double, the entire annual company budget of a BLAKSTAGE company. They have the capacity to produce six-handers, whilst a BLAKSTAGE company struggles to produce a three-hander. They can indulge in white translation and adaptation theatre with Indigenous themes, or they can commit to Indigenous writers and sometimes an ‘Indigenous director’.
However, the question of whether they produce better BLAK work is fallacious. How could they? They are not Indigenous and have no concept of the process to which authentic Indigenous productions are developed.. BLAKSTAGE companies make a commitment to Indigenous processes and methodologies – equal to if not more important than the final outcome. So how is mainstream work superior? It is just money. And if it is just money, then call it something else, because it is not black theatre, it is passing off.
Myth 2: BLAKSTAGE companies do not produce enough work
BLAKSTAGEcompanies exist on largely static subsistence funding. They often do not produce annual subscription seasons because they are in survival mode, barely keeping afloat of increased costs and overheads. They produce work and outcomes directly related to these budgets. You get what you pay for which is one or two main stage theatre shows per annum, if we are lucky. Is this enough work? Not really, but it is what you get when you attempt to draw blood from a stone.
Equally, any attempt to produce extant work from back repertoires or the collection of Indigenous theatre classics such as those by Jack Davis, Jack Charles, Kevin Gilbert and Jimmy Chi is a high point of contention with funding bodies. This double standard does not apply to whitestage companies who program translations and adaptations that have no real value to the Australian identity, but seem to be beyond reproach by funding bodies with an obsession for a constant stream of new work.
Personally I heard this loud and clear with the comments levelled at the internationally successful, mutli-award-winning commission and play I produced, written by David Milroy, entitled Windmill Baby. Quite deliberately, and on the back of this play making Australian history as the first Indigenous script ever to win the prestigious Patrick White Award, it was strategically pitched and picked up nationally and internationally for tours and seasons so that we could maximise the reach and delivery of authentic BLAKSTAGEtheatre. As the awards grew and international opportunities for this work increased, we were lambasted and remarks grew in the form of “they should call themselves the Windmill Baby Company because that’s all they do”. [FU1]
What was not understood by those making such comments was that Windmill Baby was an attempt to embed a financially viable lifecycle for the company and the sector, so that we could provide ongoing employment and opportunity to artists and practitioners. In reality, it was an effort to look toward a new approach to stabilising earned income beyond workshops and the borderline cultural tourism gigs that had become our dilemma which were fast becoming artistic and cultural prostitution.
Invariably we were penalised for this and it resulted in declining funding and limited opportunity for other works, which at the time was an ever-growing backlog of three new plays in development. All were unsuccessful in obtaining support from arts funding bodies because it seemed the ‘peers’ were not convinced we were capable of delivery of an annual program of any real scale.
Myth 3: BLAKSTAGE companies are issues-based/community cultural development initiatives
Not so much a myth, this is an elitist prejudice. The truth is that the health sector currently underwrites the BLAKSTAGEtheatre companies in Australia. I can see a direct link to health monies being opened up and available as many of our arts practitioners are now working in this field. Arts funding is so small in comparison, around one-third of what we can receive from the health sector, so we find ourselves in a catch-22. Produce issue-based work to keep afloat so that we can continue to pay artists and do meaningful work with our community, or struggle to produce a main stage production with the ever-diminishing resources available to the BLAKSTAGE sector.
What this does suggest is that the companies are being forced to produce works in accordance with government-influenced agendas. If we don’t comply, we don’t exist.
Myth 4: BLAKSTAGE companies do not aspire to excellence
We certainly do. Who doesn’t want a good review? But we are seeking to develop our own frameworks around excellence so that it relates to our own benchmarks. Indigenous terms of reference and recognition of our contribution are what we are seeking, together with identifying processes and pathways which will feed into the matrix of infrastructure that is needed to undertake necessary steps towards BLAKSTAGE touring circuits, transferable skills networks, joint artist development initiatives and a National BLAKSTAGE Playwrights Conference.
Myth 5: BLAKSTAGEcompanies are a resource agency for all things Indigenous
We are not. But we are called upon to administer, manage, host, refer, act as an agency, offer cultural workshops, arrange a welcome, dial a dij, wheel out an Elder, form a cultural dance group, explain our history, give over our databases, become a label of authenticity, confirm our Aboriginality, explain the history of Aboriginal Australia, explain dot paintings, justify our Blackness, engage in the Blood Quantam debate, take on random study requests, explain explain, lacky lacky, Jacky Jacky.
Governments are often the worst offenders when it comes to leaning on the Black theatre companies. Their staff sometimes hang the ‘we fund you’ noose around our collective necks forceing us to publicly enrich their gala event or policy launch with a token dash of Indigenous culture. We have inherited this, but it does not mean we have to continue to provide these ‘services’.
BLAKSTAGE artsworker reality
As individuals we are burnt out or headed in that direction. Arts administrators and practitioners have an unreal expectation to over-deliver, ultimately ending up being all things to everyone whilst still playing a marginalised role in the greater sector. It is a thankless position; not that we are in this for the kudos and self-congratulation, nor quite evidently, the money. So we leave.
Within some companies, there are unresolved tensions between key roles being held by non-Indigenous staff who have no succession in place. This influence and tension cannot be underestimated as often the result is a white-anting of companies themselves and is evidenced by loss of Indigenous staff. It also serves as a risk to the Indigenous governance mechanisms in place, which are vulnerable to being influenced by these individuals into making decisions and introducing processes that do not reflect the core values of the membership.
Independent practitioners also face significant difficulty within the BLAKSTAGE sector. With companies barely able to develop more than one or two theatre shows annually, there is little that can be offered apart from auspicing and access to infrastructure. This serves to create a disenfranchisement within the sector itself, further creating a perception that the current companies are not viable.
BLAKSTAGE – a way forward
Within this rather bleak picture, there remains hope for positive change and outcomes. It is well overdue, it is needed and it is time. No longer can we afford to languish in the wings and be silent about the inequity, diminishment and prejudices we face as a sector, a culture and a community. This is no longer a concern of a few; the world is watching and the greater Australian national landscape is accountable. We operate within a redundant Western infrastructure at the mercy of funders and governments who set the agenda for our expressions. This not-so-cleverly-disguised form of censorship is simply done by directing support to product which toes the line and maintains the status quo.
The following activities should be undertaken to ensure BLAKstage development:
1. Commission an Inquiry
In a similar way to the research and findings undertaken for the Indigenous visual and dance sector, an enquiry into the facts and figures around the national BLAKSTAGE sector is long overdue. It needs to map career pathways for our talent through Indigenous theatre and film so that we do not look at this as competition but as a model that can provide sustainability through the shared cross-skilling of our pool of artists and administrators. Until that time, we have to rely on testimony from those who have been contributing to the sector and this leaves BLAKSTAGE vulnerable to the process of individualising and eliminating voices from the conversation in a way that makes it difficult for real change and economic stimulus to occur.
2. Rebuild the Alliance
We need to open up the concept of the BLAKSTAGEalliance as a peak body to include all segments of the BLAKSTAGEsector, so that our theatre companies can engage in dialogue, strategy and forward-thinking alongside independent producers, actors, directors, administrators, and arts educators, across performing arts genres. We need to move forward, together.
3. Go offshore
Diversification of our income sources to bypass the fraught macro-managed funding regimes and arts funding mechanisms within Australia should be implemented. We have the potential to build an alternative economy to strengthen our existing companies and create capacity for emerging companies Australia-wide. Equally, the profile of BLAKSTAGEtheatre as the true face of the Australian theatre identity can emerge within a global context and in unity, alongside global Black and Indigenous theatre.
4. Affirm our terms of reference
A consolidation and audit of existing and known BLAKSTAGEtheatre styles, techniques and pedagogy is needed so that we can continue to talk of our process in a way in which defines our points of difference to the whitestages. Equally, this needs to support Indigenous research around our sectoral contribution to address the deficit of Indigenous writings around our genre. This will create the opportunity for the development of codes of conduct that have been pitched as exclusive to Indigenous visual arts, but would have much more credence if it reflected and embraced all creative forms.
5. Resurrect the National BLAK Playwrights Conference
We should build on the history and currency of the global Black playwrights conferences to enable a bi-annual dedicated space to the development of authentic BLAKSTAGEproductions. This can also open the door to a global opportunity within International Black and Indigenous playwrights conferences and seminars that already exist.
6. Mutual partnership with the whitestages
We can further develop the ways in which we will work with the whitestages for the development of the greater vision of Australian theatre on two-way processes, of equity and respect. This relationship is in dire need of being re-set so that there is a clear way forward. This would also enable a re-entry into the national performing arts infrastructures and calendars in a way that reflects a real respect for our sector, so we are seen as a genre of Australian theatre in the true essence of what this means.
The BLAKSTAGE is: Vivien Cleven, Nadine Dowd, Amy Rogers-Clarke, Don Bemrose, Nathan Jarro, Janelle Evans, Therese Collie, Daniel Teizler, Deborah Mailman, Jorde Lenoy, Juliette Hubbard, Allan Lui, Odette Best, George Bostock, Ned Manning, Lorna O’Shane, Fiona Doyle, Sam Watson, Sam Conway, Tessa Rose, Mark Sheppard, Stephen Oliver, Lafe Charlton, Jim Everett, Leah Purcell, Bain Stewart, Wesley Enoch, Marcus Waters, Roxanne McDonald, Anthony Newcastle, Rhonda Purcell, Shiralee Hood, Deborah Mailman, Jimi Bani, Gary Lee, Monty Boori Pryor, Uraine Mastrosavas, Diat Alferink, Sasha Zahra, Zack Fielding, Naomi Hicks, Matthew Johnson, Jessica Gray, Felix Kerry, Bradley Harkin, Natasha Wanganeen, Owen Love, Jermaine Hampton, Tamara Watson, Robert Compton, Jared Thomas.
The BLAKSTAGE is: Noel Tovey, Lillian Crombie, Jack Charles, Gary Foley, David Gulpilil, Ray Kelly, Tammy Anderson, Elliot Maynard, Richard Frankland, Janina Harding, Jadah Pleiter, Jane Harrison, Wayne Blair, Jadah Alberts, Glen Shea, Sally Riley, John Harvey, Jim Everett, Maryanne Sam, Tracey Rigney, Rachel Maza Long, Melody Reynolds, Lanchoo Davy, Isaac Drandich, Liza-Mare Syron, Fred Copperwaite, Eva Johnson, Lily Shearer, Donna Morris, Leroy Parsons, Lisa Flanagan, Rod Smith, Brian Andy, Kylie Belling, Kim Kruger, Greg Fryer, Lisa Maza, Michelle Evans, Celeste Liddle, Deborah Cheetham, Lydia Miller, Andrea James, Pauline Whyman, Kyas Sheriff, Kylie Coolwell, Tammy Clarkson, Michael Leslie, Tony Briggs, John Harding, PJ Rosas, Naretha Williams, Cy Fahey, Lionel Austin, Stephen Page, Margaret Harvey, Ursula Yovich, Kamarra Bel-Wykes, Aaron Pedersen, Cathy Craigie, Ben Graetz, Leon Burchill, Gary Cooper, Pauline McCleod, Bronwyn Bancroft, John Blair, Marlene Cummins, Rhoda Roberts, Tom E Lewis, Mia Stanford, David Page, Murial Spearim.
The BLAKSTAGE is: Anthony Johnson, Dalisa Pigram, Derek Nannup, Kyle Morrison, Amy Hammond, Kyle Rotumah, Shakira Walley, Irma Woods, Kylie Farmer, Nestor Dia, Tanya Mead, Jub Clerc, Sylvia Clarke, Ali Torres, Michelle Torres, Mark Coles-Smith, Ingrid Collard, Jamahl Ryder, Maudie Sketchley, Amy Smith, Eva Mullaley, Richard Walley, Sean Dow, Karla Hart, Sandra Clarke, Ernie Dingo, Sally Morgan, Mark Howett, Maitland Schnaars, Sam Pilot-Kickett, Archie Weller, Baamba Alberts, Rohanna Angus, Jimmy Chi, Neville Khan, Trevor Jamieson, Heath Bergersen, Della Morrison, Dallas Winmar, Lynette Narkle, John Moore, Michael Smith, Ningali Wolf, Jude Kelly, Tyson Martin, Sheldon Covich, Jimmy Edgar, Sam Cook, Clarence Ryan, Dennis Simmons Jr, Shareena Clanton, Renee Simpson, David Milroy, Vanessa Poelina, Joe Edgar, Sermsah Bin Saad, Phillip Walley-Stack, Kelton Pell, David Noombuljarra.
AND the countless other I have not mentioned
AND the countless others who dream of the stages.
AND the countless others who have now passed, our forebears, our ground-breakers, our trailblazers.
These are but some of the voices who each have a stake in a courageous conversation, without fear of retribution and a collective way forward for the BLAKSTAGES, so that we can honour the performing culture that is the foundation of living Indigenous culture and our right to claim a substantial voice in the Australian theatre identity –on our terms!
SAVE OUR STORIES – SAVE OUR STAGES – STRENGTHEN OUR SPIRIT to SAVE OUR SECTOR.