….and now a bonfire #ATF2013

Yesterday David Milroy’s session was titled ‘The Burning Question‘  and he spoke about the need for a ‘fire in the belly’. This morning’s session at the Australia Theatre Forum had plenty of oxygen, fuel and the all important ignition source. That the fire keeps burning until it brings space for new growth is my greatest hope.

The morning started with an address from Tony Grybowski, the new CEO of the Australia Council.

(…) Aboriginal people have been here telling stories and creating culture for 50,00 years. The Australia Council has been supporting art and culture for 40 years. I’ve been in the job for ten days. It really puts things in perspective. – Tony Grybowski

Tony had a background as a professional musician (playing the tuba) before falling into arts administration and making it now to the ‘top job’

I’ve got 15 minutes and I’ve got notes here. Feel free to ask a question. – Tony Grybowski

Being new to the job Tony was of course putting his ‘stamp’ on what he hopes to achieve and how he sees the role of the Australia Council moving into the future. Speaking from the bottom, these wider policies and structures feel very far away but the way they shape the culture at the bottom really does matter so I was interested in what Tony had to say (and how he said it).

The usual desire for Australia Council to be a flexible, transparent and vibrant arts organisation was trotted out and the twitterverse exploded with comments asking for and refuting the definition of vibrant. No one bothered to touch flexibility and the likelihood of that in a highly bureaucratic organisation – but perhaps we’ll all be surprised. Everyone talks about reducing bureaucracy and being flexible but does anyone actually do it and what does it even mean in practice?

(NB – if you want to read the Australia Council Bill that was passed in lower house – find it here)

Challenge us, entertain us and enrich us. – Tony Grybowski (on theatre and what it’s for)

There were some excellent questions and answers but nothing particularly of note that I want to add right now. Really just keep watching Oz Co to see what (if anything) new eventuates under Tony’s leadership.

Following Tony, The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma took to the stage (in pyjamas) to provoke and provoke they did. Pavol Liska controlled much of the conversation, inviting a random delegate to the stage and interviewing her (Claudia from Casula Powerhouse) with initially some almost hilarious results:

CC: Sometimes I make theatre.

PL: What do you mean sometimes? (….) Do you like public speaking?

CC: Usually but not now

Pavol and Kelly were impressive provocateurs and the conversation quickly became an open dialogue with the audience. I’m writing this on the fly but tonight I intend to storify the twitter stream from this particular session as the best way to experience it. Come back after 10pm tonight.

For those who were already following along on Twitter or keeping track via Jane Howard’s blog, you would have heard about the #walkout in the latter half of this session.

I’m just one tiny voice and the least qualified and knowledgeable of the many voices and listeners in this space so I have no hope of explaining the why and the what and the how. I will storify the #walkout stream for you as well tonight and you can make of it what you will but here is my subjective and flawed summary:

Candy Bowers the beautiful, powerful warrior that she is spoke straight from the heart TO THE HEART OF IT in our country. The reality is that not all people in this country can be their true selves. Not all people in this country can be safe. Candy specifically spoke on the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with particular attention to the NT intervention, but also referenced the reality of our first peoples across Australia (and IMO, there are other powerful connections that can be drawn)

Candy’s words came from Pavol questioning if our theatre is too weak. If it really changes anything at all? An audience member (didn’t catch his name) responded by saying ‘It’s because in this country we’re safe. No one is at risk of being killed for the art they make‘.

Candy Bowers: SOME people are safe in this country. We have ten year old boys taking their own lives. (….) Right now there is unacknowledged Apartheid in this country.

Candy spoke deeply, articulately and from a heart full of hunger (for better, for more, for answers, for champions, for allies, for everyone to wake the FUCK UP and see racism for what it is in this country today).

CB: I spend all of my time empowering young people to not see themselves as dumb or stupid but what am I preparing them for? (….) I would give up everything for those children to become the poets and visionaries they are.

 (in answer to Pavol asking ‘Would you give up art to change it/make it better?)

Pavol asked if anyone disagreed with Candy’s words.

No one did.



Someone called Leon spoke up in defense of the NT intervention, justifying it (and his words) by saying he works in ‘Indigenous Communities’ and has seen what it’s like. I can’t remember his exact words but the sense I had from them is “Aboriginal people need us to come and fix them with education (a white lens institutional education was implied). Candy positioned the fear of controlling alcohol, drugs and pedophilia against the reality of all these things happening in Canberra right now (and no one doing anything about it) and called Leon out:

I’ve spoken to you before Leon and you’re a racist – Candy Bowers

I couldn’t tell you if  Leon said anything further or what anyone else said in response but a figure stood up and exited the room quickly and quietly. Other people called out comments I can’t remember and then the microphone passed to Lee Lewis (Griffin’s AD) who asked how we could keep talking when Wesley Enoch (Queensland Theatre Co. AD)  had left the room. Lee articulated how important that symbol was, how his leaving said something important.  Another audience member pointed out that Wesley was on the next panel and perhaps he was going to prepare. Pavol, still at the microphone said “As he walked past me, he caught my eye and shook his head” and Kelly added “and he mouthed, I can’t

So I don’t think he was taking a phonecall – Pavol Liska

What are we choosing staying in this conversation? Lee Lewis (before handing the microphone over and following Wesley by leaving the room)

And so people chose. Some walked out and some left.

Nicole Smith on twitter said

I get the walk outs on principle but you can’t further the conversation if you’re not here. Come back, we need your voices! #atf2013

I walked out.

I walked out to live my values. To stand by the song in my heart. And because I didn’t want to sit in an audience sobbing. I was not offended. I was not trying to prove anything. I was not trying to jump on the bandwagon. I was choosing the space and the people I wanted to be with in that moment. So I left. I walked out of the session. Hugged someone I knew and then sat on the stairs and sobbed my little heart out for all the deep scars in our stories that I have no words for.

I’m sorry I can’t explain it. I’m sorry this blog post does no justice to the great, proud and leading voices that were in the room. I’m sorry that my voice and my actions are so small.


I’m sitting now in the foyer writing this, I’d planned to go t0 the afternoon session

“Kyle: What is Aboriginal Theatre? Isaac: Whatever we say it is.”

But on approaching the door, volunteers turned the white away with the words ‘This session is now only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’.

And my thoughts winged their way back to this morning and the last question asked of Tony Grybowski from the Australia Council by Jason Tamaroo. He challenged the Australian Council Policy that requires Aboriginal people to prove their Aboriginality with a certificate….

So I wait here today. I wait to hear what answers the closed doors may bring back to us.

I wait with hope. And with faith that there are great minds and cultural leaders behind those doors asking the questions I don’t know how to ask and teasing out the answers we all hunger for. I wait knowing that my desire to ‘help’ is something I need to manage, not force on others and make them accept.

And I write. With my own small voice.

To tell you, this matters to me.

Reconciliation, not as a Government token, but as a living celebration of culture and the potential for us to create something beautiful together. To evolve into something none of us seem to have the power to imagine.

I’m doing a terrible job of most things. There is so much I don’t know. So much I’m not good at. But please, please keep making me cry. Keep holding all of us but especially me accountable. Keep demanding that we do better. I want that, for the blue eyed little boy waiting for me back in South Australia. He and EVERY ten year old Australian deserve that we get this shit right.


Other Blogs touching on the #walkout:

“Official” ATF Bloggers

Augusta Supple

Jane Howard

Other bloggers

Candy Bowers

Morgan Little


19 responses to “….and now a bonfire #ATF2013

  1. I am loving your blog Alysha – keep it coming. you made me cry.


  2. Thanks so much for this, clear and articulate, so far as I can see you are the only person to have bothered to do this for those of us absentees. I may of course be looking in the wrong places, but nothing like this in the feed and nothing from the conference bloggers. Well done, thanks again.


    • Thanks for the feedback Clint. Glad you found it useful. I know being a regional artist myself how frustrating it can be when things keep happening so far away and you want some way of staying in the loop.


  3. Fantastic info, well put. Cheers for it.


  4. There’s a show out there ‘Binjarreb Pinjarra’ – a comedy about a massacre. It’s been doing the rounds unrecognised for years. A bunch of blackfellas and whitefellas doing a show about something that happened in 1837 (in fact it was probably happening all over Australia) and how white colonial historians portrayed it. The show is also about race relations today and it’s the ONLY time I’ve seen reconciliation theatre in Australia. I’ve seen it twice, to a mixed race audience and both times the audience were moved to tears and gave the show a standing ovation. Theatre has to give us the space to share the pain and the laughter, to recognise that we have a common history. Theatre can help provide the waypoints, the common experiences of shared emotion that can help this divided nation reconcile with dignity and humility.


    • I haven’t seen the show, but heard a lot about it. Country Arts SA is actually touring it through our regional venues at present (It will be in my homeplace the Riverland tomorrow at 10.30am in fact!). I’m sorry I’ll miss seeing it in the Riverland but I hope to catch it elsewhere as it goes. My understanding is that the show is quite old (over 20 years) – what have people been making since then?

      Not the same but one of my favourite example’s of connection was Trevor Jamieson teaching a room full of delegates to sing ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in Pitjantjatjara last year at Kumuwuki/Big Wave (the 2012 National Regional Arts Conference for those playing at home). Something in the combination of language, in childhood nostalgia, in shared adult learning and in such a beautiful man just completely hit home for me.


  5. Thanks for your blog, great to have some insight in to the discussions from afar.


  6. Thanks for the summary. It was obviously a moment of import for both you and others. I am still a little unclear as to the walkouts though. Yours I understand, you made it poignantly clear in your words, but Lee and Wesley I am still a bit confused by. Were they leaving because they didn’t want to have the conversation or because the conversation was too difficult? I followed this on twitter yesterday as it unfolded but still can’t quite get my head around it. Perhaps someone out there has recorded the whole thing so we who were not there can gain some insight.


    • I can only answer imperfectly from the context I come from and the listening I did.

      Lee and Wesley and every other individual person are the only people who can explain why they themselves left so you’d have to ask them directly but more broadly:

      People left because the space wasn’t safe. Because they don’t have to choose to be dis-empowered by sitting and listening to people who can’t check their own priviledge. They left to show solidarity. They left to show respect for Wesley as a cultural leader. They left because we need to crack open new spaces and systems to have the conversation within. They left because the layers of hurt are bigger than we can all bear sometimes and it’s okay to have feelings and need to leave a space so you can breathe again. They left to hug the people they love. They left because sometimes the conversation just isn’t working and using your precious energy to try and make it work isn’t the best use of that energy and it’s better to walk away and channel it somewhere else. They left to protect themselves from further hurt.

      I don’t think the conversation was too difficult or they didn’t want to have it. I think it wasn’t a conversation and you can’t make a non-conversation into a conversation. I don’t know really.

      Links to podcasts are apparently going to be posted on the ATF website here, which may or may not give more clarity: http://australiantheatreforum.com.au/media-room1


  7. Thanks very much for the heartfull account Alysha, as others have said, it’s really important for those of us not there. It must have been hard to write x


  8. Tom Gutteridge

    I know this is way after the event but I am aware that the mythology around #walkout has apparently endured and it is inaccurate. I was at the session and here is my experience of it from the moment Pavol asked if anyone in the room supported the Intervention:
    Leon Ewing put his hand up. He was given the microphone. He said that he had been working in Indigenous Communities for years as a music therapist with children and that from his experience the sequestration of incomes had allowed more children to get fed and get to school and had reduced violence. Candy cut him off, said that he was supporting the oppression of Indigenous people and then (as accurately quoted) ‘I know you Leon Ewing and you’re a racist’. Leon attempted to respond but was clearly floundering when Wesley got up and left the session. There was confusion for a few minutes. Pavol tried to keep things going but it got pretty incoherent for a few minutes, Lee Lewis said her piece and various people waked out. I was very shaken by the fact that this really savage exchange had occurred but it had somehow been left unresolved. Leon had been called a racist. Other people were ascribing motives to Wesley without any possible way of knowing why he walked out. Eventually I left, and went and found Wesley and asked him. I will leave it to him if he wants to explain his (perfectly understandable) reason but it was NOT because he couldn’t stand to be in the same room as Leon or was disgusted by what he had said.
    I understand that there are issues like this which generate intense emotion but I was shaken that there was no room for any discussion at all. I admire Candy Bowers as an artist but I do not think she was in the right here. I don’t agree with Alysha’s characterisation of the position Leon put on the Intervention. He only spoke of his experience not of the policy as a whole. To call someone a racist for disagreeing with you – especially when the facilitator, Pavol actively asked if someone wanted to put a different position – is unfair. Maybe it is understandable in the heat of the moment. When we are angry we often say things we might later regret, but given the extremely public nature of the event I think an equally public clarification or even apology should have been made before the end of the Forum.


    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for adding further clarity.

      It’s probably not directly articulated in my blog post itself, but this blog (all of it, not just this post) is entirely and deliberately subjective (and thus flawed). I’m not trying to be objective because I’m exploring my own perceptions, ideas, worries etc through the experiences I engage with so there is always bound to be information missing, so it’s great when people from other perspectives can add comment on situations like this for those playing at home.

      I did mention in response to an earlier comment that I wasn’t making comment on why Wesley did or didn’t leave the room and that my personal belief was that people didn’t leave because they couldn’t stand to be in the same room as Leon or were disgusted by what he said. I witnessed a variety of reasons people left, some attributed to Wesley walking out (perceived solidarity) and most actually completely irrelevant to Wesley. In terms of Pavol and Kelly’s reading of Wesley as he walked out, at the time (and still now) I question if they deliberately fed misinformation to the crowd to stoke the fire as that seemed to be part of their provocation. I didn’t ask them, so I guess I’ll never know (unless someone else did).

      I personally experienced a whole range of layers and responses and for me Leon’s comments and Candy’s response to them were a catalyst for further thought and a symbol for existing feelings/ideas I’m struggling to articulate. I’m indulgent and lyrical in the way I write which can certainly mythologise and romanticise anything I write on.

      It’s worth noting (again, for those playing at home), that Candy implied she had spoken at length with Leon on similar issues before (prior to ATF) and that her statement wasn’t in a vacuum and purely in response to Leon’s comments then and there. Ie. I disagree with the characterisation that Candy was calling Leon a racist because he disagreed with her. My reading of the situation is that she was calling him a racist because she was and had experienced him as a racist. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure I know what defines a racist (for me) though – it’s such a loaded and symbolic term that I think it’s evolved to mean more things than any of us really know how to deal with/articulate (I mean generally, not ATF specifically). Or so it seems to me.

      In terms of the mythology of the #walkout, it’s been further burdened I think by ATF censoring the podcast of the session – so the only records we have are twitter streams and blog fragments and no one who was there can listen again, and no one who wasn’t there can listen for themselves. Memory and retellings are always flawed, not least because our thoughts change and therefore the lens we see the situation through changes. I’m sure I’ll read this blog back to myself in a year’s time, five year’s time, ten year’s time and experience the situation very differently.

      There’s probably a play in that.


      • Tom Gutteridge

        You are quite right about the inevitable subjective veil that falls over any event like this (or any event full stop I suppose) once it’s over. I would just say that calling someone a racist – even if this is based on prior experience – is not going to open up discussion.


      • Agreed. Whether someone is or isn’t, being called a racist closes down most discussions. So does, I would think, people feeling unsafe as a result of racism (or perceived racism). Perhaps what’s most interesting to me from the whole situation is thinking about how we find new ways and new spaces to have conversations. New tools to manage them. New expectations and agreements on what the outcomes might or should be. And how to tell when a discussion is indeed over.

        Like Augusta Supple said in her blog response to this same session “How can we claim to want to make art that changes the world when we’re not practiced/equipped to handle a social crisis in a room?” (which you can find here, for those playing at home: http://augustasupple.com/2013/06/australian-theatre-forum-2013-thursday-before-lunch-pt-1/)

        Personal note – I am and remain a big fan of Candy for a variety of reasons and quite independently in this particular situation found the lens Leon was using to articulate his position problematic (and offensive), but I’m not a fan of saying ‘you are racist’ TO someone, as this positions the PERSON (rather than their behaviour/thinking) as something permanent and problematic. Rather like with children – the behaviour is what’s ‘naughty’ (racist) not the child (person). I’m still turning this over and over in my head to dig below it all to something. If I ever get there, I’ll share.


  9. Tom Gutteridge

    And I should say that I don’t think Leon is!


  10. Pingback: Get a REAL job #artslife | creating art in the desert

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