Like many other stranded travellers this morning, the Sydney and Canberra fog delayed my morning flight (6 times in total) so I missed the opening keynote and welcomes. Instead my 2013 Australian Theatre Forum journey began with David Milroy’s keynote.
The most important thing to know about David is that he was fabulously warm and intelligent and nothing I write could possibly capture the real spirit and generosity (and demand) of his words.
David is a Palyku Man and Western Australian (Theatre Boom and FIFO dramaturgs for the future anyone?) and was the first Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre as the ‘last man standing’. He came to the arts late (in his 30’s’s) initially as an actor, where he realised two things.
1. He couldn’t act.
2. The power of theatre.
David was asked to provide a provocation for ATF and it was one framed by David’s own sense of place, both physical and cultural and his journey thus far as an ‘old and submerging playwright’.
David spoke eloquently about and around cultural misrepresentation, meddling and the recurring question of just what exactly is the definition of Aboriginal theatre? Can a non-Aboriginal person write an Aboriginal play? (this applies equally to Torres Strait Islanders but David focused specifically on Aborignality so I’m referring to Aboriginal theatre here)
We all know ‘the winners’ (NB: no one really won in the colonisation of Australia, current and past generations have all been robbed of something deeply precious on both sides IMO) write history, so it’s no surprise that Aboriginal stories have often been told through a white (European) lens in the distant and recent past. David asked “Who is telling our story and why?” and it’s a question that I’m constantly asking myself about all the stories I write and engage with as an audience member. And the who and why of my own Aboriginal history (through my Nana’s father) that I have no access to explore/track down. These severed ties haunt me. The hunger to know and the fear of never knowing and having no avenue to pursue haunt me – these lost stories and all their echoes. All the things I’ll never know but want to know. Who will tell me those stories and how and why? What stories will I tell and why?
David referred to many experiences during his career where Aboriginal actors were on stage like ‘puppet theatre’ with others behind the scenes pulling the strings. And other experiences where individual Aboriginal artists were expected to be the sole cultural advisor and then when things went wrong in the project were left with the fall outs in their communities. In the early days of Yirra Yaakin, funding bodies had trouble working with the company because the company didn’t neatly fit the model of a theatre company. The scope was broader with a strong connection to cultural community (I don’t have first hand experience of Yirra Yaakin, but I expect in a similar way to Big hArt and the long term and deeply layered engagement with community as part of developing any of their projects). The existence of the company and its practise was and still is political.
How can it not be when we live in a world that continues to be so intrinsically racist? When people have to live with closed doors, stereotypes and missed opportunities, the work really couldn’t be anything but political.
David raised all this and more with candour, humour and warmth. People like this being in the world make me want to #maketrouble (It’s a twitter thing). What do I mean by make trouble? They make me believe that together we can shake the ugliness out of these systems and that we can build something better. They make me want to be better. They make it okay to ask all my stupid questions.They make me want to be braver and shout from the rooftops all the simmering rage that sits beneath my rib cage, so that together we can turn this world inside out and build something that does have the strength and room for true colour blind casting. For a spectrum of individuality in culture, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. For stories that can be told and reshaped by all because they’ll be so deeply embedded in cultural understanding, respect and pride that we won’t need quotas or closed doors anymore. I know this is a long way off, of course. It may never happen even in my lifetime, but people like David and Racheal (who commanded attention in the Q and A following David) make me believe that it is possible. They make my heart sing with joy.
As a side note, I was personally fascinated that Yirra Yaakin started as a youth theatre company initially before growing and reframing itself. Young people are so much at the heart of everything I think and do as the both the building blocks for the future and the responsibility of our present.
I believe in and completely support the need for Aboriginal peopleto tell Aboriginal stories. For Aboriginal writers, performers and directors to reshape the narratives of Aboriginality and what that means in a traditional and contemporary world. I believe that quotas (for gender, ethnicity and culture) are not the whole answer, but I do believe they are somewhere we need to start to wade through this muck and filth (racism, stolen stories etc). We need to put in place these structures and fight for them so that eventually variety can become the norm to the point that we won’t need the structures (quotas) to support it anymore because everyone will automatically demand it because it will be mainstream for a good actor to play anyone and for good writers to write anything.
On another side note – for those that don’t know – this week is Reconciliation Week, and it does matter. It should matter to all of us. Not as one week where we give ourselves permission to care, but rather as one week that symbolises and builds the commitment we all need to make to strive towards reconciliation with the land and with each other. It shouldn’t be a token government effort, but an opportunity for all of us to pause a moment and take stock of how far we’ve come and how much further we all have to go and to recommit ourselves to the fight.
Going back to David’s keynote.
What is the definition of Aboriginal Theatre?
There is no one definition. But it’s not enough to tick the boxes. It’s not enough to rely on protocols (although they should of course be part of the conversation), we need to seek and consistently build meaningful collaboration.
Not everything written about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is correct. And not everything should have been written down in the first place.
A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. – David Milroy
A well meaning writer can cause a lot of trouble by not working collaboratively. There is no such thing as a ‘generic Aboriginal’. Individuals are tied to community and country and they will be the ones to cop it if something goes wrong. It’s also kind of creepy to have generic characters who aren’t connected to country (to place). Why are they even there?
The Q and A post David was engaging, lively and passionate. Filled to overflowing with dozens of people more knowledgeable and talented that I can ever hope to be. People who are changing the landscape with the power of their words and their work. I was doing too much listening and not enough note taking, but this most of all stayed with me:
An actor should be able to play anything. That is an actor. A good actor has a range. And a cultural range as well. Get away from putting on white middle class theatre.
We have a racist industry, whether its by accident or complicit. It’s there. This is stifling all of us! – (I missed the name of the speaker but I think it was Fred someone? If anyone can enlighten me, please do so I can find/follow and love his work online)
In the end we should all be able to play everyone. But we have to break the racism and the white monopoly on Aboriginal stories. It might take fifty years. It might take a hundred. And in the meantime white people need to sit down and shut up and listen to the people who are saying “We have been oppressed and this is our story.”
Meaningful collaboration is essential when dealing with our (Aboriginal and shared) history. Is it really so hard to sit down and listen? To ask questions? To be brave?
Lets have some respect for the population that has struggled to have its stories heard. – David Milroy
Thank you David. And everyone like you. You’re making the world a better place for me and mine to live in. I hope I do it justice. Keep demanding that I do.
PS – to the person who interrupted Candy Bowers. You suck. Never interrupt Candy Bowers. She is the epitome of what it means to be a powerful woman. A place shaker. A trouble maker. One of my favourite people to admire from afar. Shhh, you interrupting person, you.
Also, for a more in depth and less subjective account of David’s keynote, visit Jane Howard here.
Jane and August Supple are both blogging from ATF2013 and can be relied upon for all the good stuff. I just get lost in figuring out my sense of place and who I might want to become. I like things a little messy. A little personal. Stay with me too if you like.