22 08 08 - Deadly Dialogues - Rachel Maza
*Speakers: Jeremy Ambrum (J), Rhianna Patrick (R), Rachael Maza (RM)
J: Well I might as well introduce myself, I’m Jeremy Ambrum, Program Manager for Indigenous Engagement. I would like to acknowledge country and pay my respects to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, respects to our elders, past, present and online. Thank you, we acknowledge the first Australians, custodians of this land for thousands of years, always was, always will be.
Thank you for coming to our Deadly Dialogues. This is the On Stage edition, it’s connected to our On Stage exhibit which closes on the 14th. We’d like to showcase our first nations performing artists throughout history. So welcome to our Deadly Dialogues event, I’m going to introduce our people that make it deadly. Mrs Rhianna Patrick. She’s actually currently working on Hi, I’m Eddie which is the life of Uncle Eddie himself, it’s podcasting, the Black Bias which is presented by Indigenous X series on your favourite streaming channels and The Briefing Thursdays and Fridays which is connected through the Southern Cross Australia through Listeners’ Daily Podcast and she’s been in journalism and telling stories for about 20 something years now and quite good at it so we’re proud to have her here hosting these dialogues for the last two events and here for tonight. Our special guest, Auntie Rachael, which I might leave Rhianna to introduce. Thank you very much, enjoy the show.
R: Thanks Jeremy. I too just as a Torres Strait Islander wanted to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered and pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri elders and any present who are also in the room. I recognise their continuing connection to the place here as I have no bloodline to here and I’m normally on working on country which is Yaggera, Jagera and Ugarapul peoples of which is now called Ipswich in southeast Queensland.
Rachael, do you want to acknowledge country and also where you’re from?
RM: Yeah, absolutely, just also pay my respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri of this country that we’re on and what it might be like for them, these whole mob came along with their big white house and claimed – made it the capital of Australia. Cracks me up what they’ve had – having to navigate that weight but yeah so what an honour it is to be on this country. My mob, ‘though I was born on Kulin country, Melbourne or now called Nam – actually probably the other way ‘round, first called Nam, now called Melbourne and – but my family’s Yidinji up just below Cairns and Miriam Mer, the Komet tribe of the most easterly island of the Torres Strait called Mer. My mother is Dutch so mixed marriage. I am a mother of one son, one boy who’s now taken his first year out in the industry also as an actor so third generation of actor, poor thing.
R: When I was thinking about this introduction from Rachael oh there’s so many things that you’ve done, acting, directing, working in the theatre, now Artistic Director for Ilbijerri Theatre Company, indigenous theatre company in Melbourne, you were in A Country Practice which I was so excited about as well as many other TV series as well and we’re going to dig into that. But when I was looking at this context of theatre in this sort of I guess western understanding and when we talk about theatre they think – we think about the ancient Greeks and that it goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. But when I was wanting to put this into context for tonight, indigenous theatre-telling and storytelling and theatre-making and performance, it goes further back than the Greeks like a long way back than the Greeks.
But I guess that was one of the things, is that the context that we find ourselves in now is how we utilise and have adapted to what we have around us and this I guess more contemporary view of indigenous theatre-making and storytelling. I guess it’s also continuing this way of not only telling stories but also passing on history and that places like Ilbijerri are doing that work in also keeping that history alive and passing that history on to the next generation. I guess I’ve never known at what stage you decided to – that you wanted to be on stage, that you wanted to be an actor. I mean do you remember that moment?
RM: I remember putting it off for as long as I could, I was like there is no way I’m doing what he – my father so I grew up in the world of theatre so my father amongst others was – Bob Maza was – he’s no longer with us – he established the first blackfella – modern blackfella theatre companies so Nindethana in Melbourne in 1971 and then a couple of years later we all up and moved from Melbourne to Sydney and they had invited him – ‘cause they were like oh well you’ve already set up a company and that Australia Council funding, they were like – they weren’t going to fund the mob up in Sydney ‘cause they had – there was no experience so because he had that little bit of experience they were like you come up. So anyway moved to Sydney and we were involved in the setting up of National Black Theatre Company.
So that was basically the foundation of black theatre, modern black theatre in this country, was literally we are now celebrating 50 years of black theatre. Ilbijerri came in the next wave so in the late ‘80s was the establishment of Bangarra, Yirra Yaakin, Boomalli Arts. Anyway there was a whole lot of organisations that happened in that later period including Ilbijerri Theatre. You go well what happens at these times? But there’s usually some core – some pivotal event that happens and so in that late ‘80s it was the whole lot of playwrights’ conferences were happening so there was these gatherings of fellas from all over the country converging in these spaces and what happens when blackfellas get together? Particularly yeah, just acknowledging how important those opportunities were when we all get together, that energy that happens and that sharing ideas, sharing – yeah and also the conversations that were happening back at that time and the – going away back to the time before, the dialogues that were happening internationally with other first nations mobs was also a big part of these kind of magic gearshifts that were happening.
R: Your dad was travelling too at that time, wasn’t he? Interacting with these other indigenous groups elsewhere around the world.
RM: Yeah so the world that I grew up in, going back to your question, was very much the birth of black theatre and theatre as a political tool so there was no separation, theatre was literally a voice by which we could – let’s talk about the protests that are happening up on the – with the [Letinabalco] 7:47 friggin’ land mine – land claim that was happening up there. So the street theatre developed before National Black Theatre and it was literally the theatre as a way of getting people on board, educating Australians as in non-first nations Australians, getting blackfellas on board so theatre was a way in which we got ourselves together and talking and educated and getting us all roused up and all that so in my being – in my mind there’s never been a separation. Theatre is our voice, it is a platform by which we can speak and be political and - unedited, we don’t have to be filtered through - this is our completely self-determined spaces and that continues to be the – what sits at the heart of what I get out of bed for and the theatre that I make.
So when – sorry, now back to your question, so I didn’t want to do theatre only because it was like – and I think we all do that, hey? You want to find your thing like what is my thing? I felt like I didn’t know what my thing was ‘cause everything had been about the theatre and the politics but – anyway so I put it off, put it off for as long as I could and then it was like maybe I will do – so yeah, it wasn’t until 23 so quite a bit later when I was like oh okay. I was working in a high school, a community-based high school on William Street. I don’t know if everyone knows that main road down from the Coca-Cola sign there in King’s Cross, there was a little community, East – what was it called? Anyway community-based high school and it was for - all blackfellas and yes so I was volunteering there and then they put me on a wage or whatever doing – teaching maths and whatnot, the only subject I did in good in school with.
Anyway I’m talking to one auntie there and I was like oh yeah, I’m thinking I might do acting and she was just like you should go check this place out. I’ve just been studying up in Bundjalung country up in Lismore and they had their course up there that does dance and singing and acting and I was like oh that’s – ‘cause I was like I don’t know which area I should go. There’s a course that does it all, little mini Fame school up on Bundjalung country. So yeah, it was that woman – time, Auntie Christine telling me about that course, that was the point. The other catalyst was telling my friend at high school, I was thinking oh yeah, I’ve been maybe thinking I might do acting and she went ha, ha, ha, she laughed in my face. I was like – so that made me all the more determined. So yeah, it was always there, I just put it off for as long as I could ‘cause I just was determined that I’d find my own thing but it was – just did the full circle and came straight back, yeah.
R: At what point did you recognise, I guess, the power of storytelling?
RM: Well I guess that goes way back, that world I grew up in like I think about that so National Black Theatre, 1972 ‘cause we’d just moved up, we’d done – like I was involved in – anyway Jack Charles Up and Fighting was one of [Nindinala’s] 11:20 first productions with Jack Charles and it was a series of sketch-based kind of skits. I don’t remember that work at all but a lot of that – lot of those sketch-based works actually inspired Basically Black which would be National Black Theatre’s – one of their first productions. So 1972 right at the end of the year there, they did that show where The Nimrod used to be up the hill where the Griffin Theatre is now, that tiny little funny-shaped theatre. Did that play there and their conversation was straight away where do we need to take this theatre? Who needs this theatre the most? We want to take it to communities and for some reason, I don’t know how, they got it in their head Yarrabah so that was it. Got a bus, we all jumped in the bus. That I remember so we were this – me and my sis, two littlies on this crazy bus trip from Sydney all the way up to Yarrabah on the smell of an oily rag.
So yeah and that was playing in halls and – I think they were charging something like 20c tickets like it was - ‘cause it was about making it accessible to mob all the way up, sleeping on ‘frickin - outside and like there was none of that equity hotels and per diems. It was ha, ha, you were lucky if you even got paid [unclear] 12:37 got food. In fact one of the stories that Mum tells – well ‘cause Mum reckon – she goes I don’t know why but she ended up having to be the one having to divvy out the money and then there was none. But the trip was – so drove everyone crazy – so it was - basically in that show was my dad, Bob Maza, passed away long time ago now, Zac Martin, Eileen Corpus, goes by another name now – does anyone know? Louise Corpus or something, anyway – and Bindi Williams and did I say Gary Foley? Oh there must have been five of them.
Anyway so this crazy trip with these peoples, get up there, do this show, goes off like no-one makes any money, right? Not 20c tickets or free if you can’t afford it. Gary Foley comes up, storms up to my mum and he goes I’m not going back in that bus, give me the money for a flight. She was just like oh here’s money for train, he had to catch a train back. But there’s no doubt that there was – those – then seeing the production of The Cake Man which actually my sister was in playing the little boy and – yeah, it was just -
R: Is it true that she beat you for that role?
RM: Not only did she beat me, she was asked to audition that I didn’t even get asked and in fact actually truth be known, that’s why I put off acting as long as possible because I definitely, right? Oh she’s the one with the talent so I was like proper, I was like that’s it, I didn’t think I could do it.
R: Obviously still really fresh.
RM: Yeah, that’s still raw.
R: Happy I asked.
RM: But she was so – Liesel – and there she is now – I’m [Najung] 14:39 there but she’s always been so confident and extroverted and all that stuff and I was like – anyways.
R: But was it seeing the way that the Yarrabah community reacted to this play, was that when you knew wow, this is what a story can do and this is the journey that a story can take -
RM: Yeah, there’s no doubt, yeah and ‘cause it was comedy too so everyone’s laughing their heads off like it was no doubt. There’s that thing and even now like when we’re taking work out to communities like that experience ‘cause you don’t have that normal polite rubbish when people go to the theatre and it’s all nicey nice like they’ll tell you if they like it and they’ll tell you if they hate it like real, it’s real. That’s – you want, that’s what you want, yeah so yeah, definitely those experiences were absolutely cemented in the heart of. That’s what this is all about and it’s for those audiences.
R: There’s something about that, isn’t there, when you go and you see a production and you see with a predominantly nonindigenous audience and it’s really different to when you see it with an indigenous audience and all those sorts of in jokes that the indigenous audience gets and it’s a totally different energy, isn’t it?
RM: Mm-hmm, oh my god, yeah, yeah and there’s actually nothing wrong with that too like I’m thinking about those shows where you know where the blackfellas are sitting and you can feel that half of the audience going was that funny? Can I laugh at that too? Yeah, it was just like literally they’re laughing, ha, ha, ha, it’s awesome, I think it’s great. You can feel that – and here’s the crazy thing, hey? ‘Cause like for years and years like the era that I grew up in in terms of starting out in acting, it was all white roles – sorry all productions written by whitefellas, white directors, that whole shebang and you’ll be playing this token black role written like super-badly and you're – so frustrating.
Oh I’ve lost my track, I was just talking about black and white audiences, how did I get to – what tangent did I go on? Oh my god. Oh far out, I was making a really good point too. Oh damn it, sorry, I lost my train of thought.
R: Do you want me to come back? If you remember just -
RM: Yeah, I’ll dive back into it when I remember.
R: We’ll follow along. In terms of those early influences of those people that told stories most would think that it’s your dad but your dad was always off working so who was it in the family that you grew up I guess learning that ability to tell a good story and the way that you tell a good story?
RM: Yeah, I mean without a doubt it would be the influences of being in the – seeing the black theatre productions and the touring and all that stuff, that was probably the main influence in terms of this amazing thing called theatre and the power of theatre and then of course all the television and film that followed. But I mean yeah, Dad was often not around and then Mum and Dad separated when I was about 15 or 14 or something so without a doubt I can see – I can strongly see both influences on – I mean I guess that applies to everyone, hey? But certainly my mum was – is a huge influence on me in terms of her staunchness like she was absolutely – like she’s a white woman, Dutch, and yeah, was adamant that whatever – however we navigated life we were to question everything and not to conform to nothing. So for instance going to school, everyone’s got their school unforms, we’re not allowed to have school uniforms ‘cause it was like no, that’s for soldiers, you're not soldiers so it was like I just wanted a uniform, I just want to look like everyone else.
Yeah so it was just – but that was an example of just that whole - you question everything and oh my god, I value that now, question everything and that whole society wants you to fit in and the whole way schools are structured, it is all about conforming to even the way of learning which is about not thinking and not questioning like yeah so it’s – we don’t breed very healthy humans in this western society, it’s not geared towards whole healthy beings within a healthy community. So we’re kind of – yeah, anyway, yeah so that whole questioning everything. We were all brought up vegetarian as well so we’re the only vegetarians every time we’d gone anywhere. Yeah so definitely I can see how both sides have been hugely – Dad in terms of the orator, the entertainer, the song man, the charmer, entertainer extraordinaire and then my mum’s staunch – so one of my first early, early primary school - went to a fancy dress and all that – getting all excited about what to wear for that fancy dress.
My little friend, she’s already worked out what she’s wearing. She’s like I’m going as a fairy and I’m like oh fairy like she had the little stick with the star pink and the little pink tutu thing and she was all like pretty fairy thing and I was like oh fairy. What do I go as? Mum puts me in a little sandwich board with a big black fist painted up on it saying power to the people and I’ve got a little red dress underneath with all the protest badges, land rights badges on the side and I’m holding a banner. So she’s holding a friggin’ little pink glittery star and I’m holding a friggin’ banner with a sandwich board. I go to my first dress – fancy dress formal as a friggin’ black activist. I’m like yeah, that’s my mum. It was – I was the only one, let me tell you. Lots of other fairies.
R: At what point – I mean you said you came to sort of making that decision about doing acting a lot later in a way but at what point did you go I really should go to WAAPA?
RM: Well that Auntie Christine now that said go to Lismore first so I was – it was, I wasn’t confident that it was my thing yet and so I was like sitting on the fence line. Went and did this course in Lismore which was the [gamblest] 21:29 course ever but it was what I needed, it was that – got to dip my toe in the water, try it out and built my confidence and it was there that one of the lecturers basically said oh you probably should go and do a proper course now so hence went to do the three-year WAAPA course. I was really keen to go as far away from anywhere else like from the east, I was like okay, I’m going to go somewhere where no-one knows – ‘cause my whole life it had been oh you’re Bob Maza’s daughter so was feeling the shadow. Once again why I wanted to carve out my own pathway but I’ll do it over here. But -
R: On the other side of the country.
RM: On the other – I thought on the other side of the country but the first thing that head of acting, Geoff Gibbs, comes up and he goes oh Bob Maza’s daughter, it was like [unclear] 22:15. Anyway I was fine, it was fine. Anyway just jumping forward, though, my first acting job was at A Country Practice now you mention it, with – and Dad was in it so he played my uncle so it was actually the first time I got to work with him, actor to actor.
R: Oh wow -
RM: Yeah, that was pretty cool, that was pretty amazing, actually.
R: What do you remember of that time? Was he sort of giving you tips as you were together on that set?
RM: Hell, no, no, no. No, no, I was really like cutting – like I was standing my ground like that three years of training, I was absolutely really – I was really enjoying that I could stand my ground and stand there eye to eye with my – and because Mum and Dad had separated too like I was still a bit dirty on him so that was actually the first time that healing happened too, working together but working together as peer to peer and - yeah so that was – and then the yarns that we could then have ‘cause we hadn’t talked to him for some time. Yeah so it was pretty amazing to build that relationship as a - I felt like a bigshot adult, yeah.
R: Yeah well talk me through that first big gig, paid obviously, I hope.
RM: Oh well that first scene was having to kiss Peter Phelps -
R: Hello -
RM: I know, I was like um what? Couldn’t you just program that later in the schedule? Straight up – yeah -
R: For the younger people in the audience Peter Phelps -
RM: Is this what acting is? Oh my god.
R: - bit of a big deal at the time, little bit dishy.
RM: Yeah, it was a good kiss.
R: Do you have that on your LinkedIn so that you can be endorsed, I kissed Peter Phelps?
RM: Yeah, no. No, I was really – I was not up for doing all that kind of stuff. It’s hard as an actor ‘cause you definitely need to know – you need to choose what roles and how far you’re prepared to go like nudity or sex or all that stuff, it was like oh no, thank you, I’ll stick with the political stuff. Yeah.
R: But how did you get your head around that then? Of basically being – jumping into this situation that you had to do first off?
RM: Well when you first start, when I first started, I guess I was – well I was hugely naïve just like putting it right out there. I literally had stars in my eyes. I thought I’ve had the full classical training like any other actor walking out that door so I should be able to play any role like any other actor and I very quickly realised that’s not the case ‘cause when – in my time yeah, I very quickly got put into the Aboriginal – and other basket, actually ‘cause I’d go along to auditions so it would be blackfellas – oh and the Asians and the everythings, Africans and yeah, it was like oh god so they’ve obviously got a – we want someone slightly different for this role so I was go – it was still those days.
There weren’t many black roles and there certainly weren’t any black writers working in say television or directors or DOPs like that’s – all of that has happened in the last couple of decades so I’m talking three decades ago and there literally was nothing. So all of that early television – can’t even think of the other – there was a couple of lawyery shows, anyway a whole lot of – it was all the same experience. I mean God, I mean actually it was better than how it was for Dad like that generation where there was literally nothing and the only roles for blackfellas were playing goomies and criminals and I mean what was – Auntie Justine Saunders, her – she said to me one day, ‘cause we were on a show together and she was like oh yeah, talking about her experience and how frustrated ‘cause she’s mega famous and was the first black woman ever and Number 96 –
RM: - and all sorts of stuff, yeah, I was like oh and I totally looked up to her and all that. I was like oh you know and she said yeah, yeah, I got to that point where I was sick of playing roles where I got raped and didn’t have any lines. I was just like oh okay, I’ll stop complaining now, oh my gosh. At least I had a few lines and I could keep my clothes on. But yeah, really, really, really frustrating ‘cause the roles are always badly written, stereotypical, two-dimensional, small, yeah, it was really – and in fact it was ‘cause of all that that I ended up going I'm sick of acting and made the decision to move to directing, just felt just that whole frustration. I mean don’t get me wrong, there was definitely a couple of good roles. I mean even in that Country Practice I was playing a lawyer so it was – there was definitely - and obviously I’m generalising because Dad was cast as the lawyer in Bellbird back in 1967, something like that, ’68.
Yeah so he was playing – and that was radical as, here’s this smooth, suave in a suit black lawyer, turns up to some country town so that was really quite progressive but hilariously they got heaps of complaint mail, not because they’d never seen a black man being a lawyer before but because the black man had a white girlfriend so that was – that's what people complained about. That would never happen, that’s how highly offensive – yeah which was like oh we actually based that on his story, my Dutch mum. Anyway.
R: Well I was thinking about – ‘cause you were talking about how for your dad’s generation it was very much really about trying to break the door down to be even able to walk through it but at the time you get thing like Basically Black on the ABC which then takes another 40 years until you see another Aboriginal comedy show on an Australian television network. You watch it with the perspective of today and you think oh I can only imagine what it was like watching that at the time. But that’s – it’s still cutting edge, it’s still highly relevant and you’re just not sure if you should be laughing -
RM: It’s pretty wrong, yes, pretty wrong too. There’s some stuff in there, you’re like yeah, you couldn’t get away with that like Gary Foley playing a Japanese warrior. Jesus – oh no, Bindi Williams plays that role. I am Samurai warrior, I’m like ey, ey, ey, like to but absolutely in your face political – mind you, you talk to anyone who knows Gary Foley, he’ll talk about how that was the washed out version.
R: Yeah because there was a lot of nonindigenous people working on that program, right?
RM: That’s right and the whole idea was that it was going to be a series so that was just going to be the first of many. But – and anyway so they ended up watering it right down, just putting in the lighter stuff, the not so political in-your-face stuff. Only did the one series. So yeah, that whole process was compromised. But it was definitely – I mean one of the things that – we are in a very particular turning point which we’ve been in for quite a while but doesn’t matter where like I just said, theatre only just started 50 years ago, 51 years ago and like Basically Black, the Nimrod Theatre, basically Ken Walter directed it, white barrister lad, John Bell was head of Nimrod at that time and they basically created this space for blackfellas to get on stage so that the role that certain whitefellas in the community played, it really kind of – being an ally, making and creating spaces and opportunities for blackfellas.
The problem is they kind of – that metaphor, they opened that door but then they don’t – never let go of the handle -
R: Or keys.
RM: Or the key, yeah or they’re still got their – yeah. So – and we’re still having to now navigate the same space where actually it’s like there’s still a lot of these – I’d like to say old guard but it’s still very prevalent where we haven’t as a nation made the distinction of what does truly self-determination look like in practice. So yes, we understand, we’re starting to kind of have that dialogue in regards to recognition and the Voice to Parliament and all this and treaty even and the truth-telling that’s happening down at Victoria so – and yet – and certainly going back to the arts bubble, we don’t seem to understand it at all. We’re still fighting for this space of that might look like an - indigenous work or Aboriginal work but it’s not, there’s white writers on it and there’s white directors on it and we’re not – that distinction is so important. It has everything to do with the cultural and creative integrity and authenticity of that work. So who is in control of the crafting of the work is going to imbue that with their in-built biases. I mean it's just how we roll as we all have our inbuilt biases.
So we have 200 years of our stories and our narratives being created by the coloniser, that there’s a very unhealthy dynamic in that as a first nations person. We are at a time where it absolutely cannot continue, we’re demanding that space. For us to go forward as a nation self-determination at its core has to be embedded and built up from the ground up in how we move forward. Black people have to be self-determined in their own affairs, it’s a really simple concept and it’s not rocket science, everybody wants that. You want – everybody wants authority over their lives.
So in terms of this situation with first nations fellas in Australia, indigenous people of this country so we've had 200 years of other people telling our narratives. Needless to say there’s a lot of false narratives out there and so there’s a whole lot of backtracking that needs to happen and that’s why it’s so important now more than ever that we go that step forward and all those fellas let go of the door handle and get out. The door’s open, we’re already open now, we’re in the room so you can let go and step away.
It's – like I said it’s a distinction that we’re not making, there is still this blurry line – anyway I totally went off your question -
R: No, no well it’s perfectly fine because I do want to dig into this a little bit later but I think it leads on from my next question of just talking about your career and I guess – I remember when Radiance came out -
RM: That’s where I started, yeah.
R: Yeah and I remember very much people talking about you because you’d been in Cosi the year before and the film version of that and then Radiance came out and I remember feeling as a younger person – not going to give a lot away – that – I remember feeling really excited by that, of seeing this film that was directed by an indigenous woman, that had three indigenous female characters in there and thinking hoo, it’s going to change, it’s all going to change but we’ll come back to that. But I guess what was it like working on Radiance which really is – it’s a part of history now?
RM: It’s also actually typical of this tension that literally what we’re talking about. It was a white writer, Louis Nowra, who wrote the stage play, who had had – who had come out of a relationship with Auntie Justine so he’s an expert on all things black. He was being commissioned – he had been commissioned by Rhoda and Lydia and the story goes that that work was developed in absolute handholding pro – a long process of development with Lydia and Rhoda guiding Louis on writing those characters. They would feed back, it would get written and it was this integrated role and this is only a conversation I was having recently and just really being really aware of that distinction, that in their mind they commissioned him to write their story, the story that they wanted to write.
Yet how – as we know history acknowledges and credits that – whoever gets their name on the poster so Louis Nowra walks away with all this credit as the writer of this piece which absolutely they were an integral part of it. So it’s that real – anyway that’s a whole ‘nother tangent I can go off on but it’s like how do we honour the story-holders when our western system is completely biased towards the western written word versus the oral word? So the stories that were spoken and shared from Lydia and Rhoda, that gets no credit, all credit gets put to the person who said oh what was that you said? Oh how would you say it? Yeah? Yeah? He gets the credit. So the pen is mightier than the word and who does that bias? Who gets left out of that? ‘Course, oral history, people who speak – whose history and knowledge is passed down orally. So there’s already a kind of – anyway I wasn’t going to go down that path and there you went.
R: But it is always about the credit, isn’t it? It’s always about whose name is there and sometimes those two worlds don’t necessarily match up in terms of oral history and I guess the acknowledgment of how oral history works and the credit given there versus whose same is actually on it, who wrote it.
RM: Exactly, exactly. So – but what that does I guess make the point too is that that work was very much informed by their voices so yes, on paper it’s written by a whitefella but actually I think why that work has been so successful and was so good was because of their role within that. So they commissioned the first work, they were in the first stage play which I was in with Lydia and Rhoda at Belvoir Street Theatre.
R: So Rhoda Roberts and Auntie Lydia Miller.
RM: Yeah and myself were in the – I can’t even remember what year now, ’96? No, that was the film, must have been a couple of years before that. Oh shut up, it was my first year out of acting school so ’93. A stage play with those two awesome women. I was like absolutely blown out in awe, just couldn’t believe how amazing that experience was to work with those two. Then a few years later the film would happen and I was lucky to be cast in that but playing a different character than I’d played on the stage production but yeah, it was absolutely iconic and once again putting it in historical context and I didn’t - you don’t appreciate it when it’s at the time but if I reflect on the frustration of the playing all these shithouse badly written roles for the last decade – oh I exaggerate, for three years. Anyway since – for years I’ve been playing, there you go. Radiance came along and it was like oh here’s a big juicy role, it’s black, it's powerful story. It was incredibly – I – once again I didn’t appreciate actually the significance, the historical significance of it because that work was technically the third black film, directed by a black person production, the first and fact – sorry, I’ve now forgotten which order they went in but Brian Syron’s Jindalee Lady and – which I never saw and Tracey Moffatt’s Bedevil which was the three-part phenomenal – we were only just speaking earlier -
R: You can’t even put it in -
RM: It’s still cutting edge.
R: Yeah and what – I don’t even know how to describe that film, you just have to see it and ITV, SBS on Demand, it’s there, just quietly.
RM: So here was Radiance, this extraordinary kick-arse film which got two weeks in the cinema and only a few cinemas around the country but yet it’s gone on to live on well on beyond that ‘cause of - plays at least once a year on TV every year, it comes on NAIDOC Week and whatnot and you can stream it and all that stuff so it was just like - the film then has reached a much wider audience since. It really at the time felt like right, it’s happening, here we go Australia. Nothing, still waiting for my second film. Anyway – but Deb did well, that was the main thing.
Yeah, I mean to see where the industry has come since then is just mindbogglingly – I just – like just blows my mind what’s on TV all the time now, watching Wayne Blair’s incredible direction there in Total Recall. There’s – all the shows that are on, Misty Road on Saturday nights and it's just – anyway the calibre of work that’s being created and the number of black directors that are in those studios and those filmsets and DOPs and everything now like it’s a new world, it is – but it didn’t happen by itself. It was the – my dad’s generation, Wal Saunders, Lester Bostock, whole lot of people who established the film unit at AFTRS, years of fighting and negotiating and lobbying to get an indigenous-focused training stream within AFTRS, the national Australian Film Television and Radio Schools, the Indigenous Unit at Australian Film Commission was established, the Australian Film Commission started the short film initiatives so some suddenly – and they were like very well funded, very well mentored and supported so there was this here we go, there’s your little stepping stones, dush, dush, dush.
Then they had the 20-minute series, at the same time there was the Indigenous Unit at ABC kicking off, the – and at SBS. So there was this – from training straight through to work, work opportunities, this incredible feedline that happened and every one of these amazing filmmakers and TV directors and stuff that we’ve got out there, we’re all a part of that, all a part of that program, it doesn’t happen by itself, it takes lobbying, all those fellas that lobbied for that and then all the investment and planning that needs to go into those things to ensure that they stay, that you can’t have those one-offs. This is a long-term thing and it pays off and we’re seeing it now where every time you’re flicking on that TV.
R: Oh we just had what, the first indigenous vampire series, Firebite from Warwick Thornton, we’ve had the first indigenous sci-fi film, I guess, if Ivan Sen’s Loveland is – that was many years in development. We’re going into these spaces that we haven’t been seeing before but I guess if we go back to theatre now I mean you sort of just mentioned that you’d stepped away from acting because those roles weren’t there when you wanted them to be there and after Radiance they weren’t really there and you went on to do a bit more TV but then you were also very much starting to be in this theatre world as well and find this love of directing where you very clearly before said that you liked bossing other people around. I think that was basically it. So I wonder where are we with indigenous theatre in this country and who are those spaces like Ilbijerri that are doing this work?
RM: Yeah so theatre has struggled and continues to be where film was 20 years ago like we actually still exist in a – I mean at least there’s a little bit of crossover with actors but pretty much the worlds are separate worlds, very different skills in terms of directing and DOPs and stuff, you’re not – a film director is never a theatre director or vice versa, not unless they’ve literally got trained in both areas or whatever. So theatre is really struggling. There was a time where there was about five or six theatre companies, there are now three and that’s Ilbijerri in Melbourne, Yirra Yaakin in Perth and then more recently now about 13 years old is Moogahlin in Sydney.
There was [Comijara] 45:38 in Brisbane, gone. Oh and there have been other ones that have come and gone over the years. In Sydney there was [Ant] 45:52 – oh I can’t list them all. Obviously there was Jack Davis’ company back in the day. Anyway there’s been companies that have come and gone but yeah, it’s very bleak, actually, but there are – there is – and I’ve been at Ilbijerri for 14 years and even we’re celebrating our 30th last year, actually but when I started it was only stepping out of being an actor and an independent artist that I – in a company, it was like a first time I actually got to step and look out and see what was going on around me. It was like oh my god, I didn’t realise it was so bad. There is only one set designer, blackfella set designer in this country working in theatre and that’s Jacob Nash and he’s done all those projects with Bangarra and has started branching out working with other theatres but that’s it, that’s it.
There’s one lighting or maybe two now so Matt Howatt – Mark – Jesus – Mark Howatt and Chloe Ogilvie are the only people working in lighting so anyway it’s actually really tough, it’s really hard. There is – and what’s hard about that is the ecology so it’s not like there’s a pool of artists that are – that you can choose from and often because of that only one, Jacob, it’s like often you’re still working with a whole lot of whitefellas, creatives. God bless them, they’re fantastic but in terms of being self-determined there’s that constant – and we all know it, hey?
When you’re working with these other cultures there’s always an element of education like you’re always having to explain yourself or educate the others and obviously some are better than others and all that sort of stuff but it’s exhausting, it takes – yeah, it takes energy, it takes resources and the thing that I keep – that sits at the heart of why hasn’t things improved like why – and why are there still white directors thinking it’s still okay to do – to work in our space and what – and it's ‘cause we as a country haven’t made the distinction and we don’t understand why that distinction is so important and at its heart – anyway – is that – sorry, I feel like I’m always like oh everybody already knows this but we musn’t know it and maybe my theory’s not right or – anyway but we all come with an inherent – society has its kind of belief systems and the main dominant narratives and belief systems, the collective subconscious of Australia has a viewpoint on who black people are and what happened, the history of this country.
There’s a whole stream of inbuilt biases that people don’t realise that they have so that become – and as I said earlier too that’s a really big problem when you’re telling someone else’s story, if you’re not aware of your biases and your prejudices. All the best intentions in the world and an example of that is what are the types of stories we tell? So as a - human nature I think is that we tend – we want – we’re defined by our stories, yeah? We’re defined by the stories of our history so we will tell the stories of – like it’s fascinating to watch how masterful storytellers are, to be able to turn Gallipoli into a hero story when actually we were a biggest bunch of losers like it’s extraordinary the artfulness and the skill of how we can shift a narrative because fundamentally we want to be – we are informed by the stories we tell about ourself and the stories of those that have gone before us, our heroes. So we build our identity on the stories that have been created.
There’s this incredibly – I was sitting on a toilet in Richmond and there was – someone had stuck out this quote and stuck it on the back of the toilet. I was doing a development or whatever. Anyway and I’m like – anyway this black American woman called Grace Lee Boggs, and I’m going to paraphrase it ‘cause – I should bloody memorise it, you’d think I could memorise it being an actor but anyway, history is not what happened in the past, it’s the stories we tell about the past. How we tell those stories has everything to do with how we more forward so that we, we as storytellers are in the process of making – of making history, the history that defines who we are and how we move forward like blew my mind.
I was just suddenly in that moment on that toilet, it was just like that’s exactly what we do, that’s what we are in terms of story-makers and narrative-makers. We are all defined by story, every day we are – and we are all story-makers. When we’re yarning we’re retelling a story. It’s slightly different from the way you told it last time, you’re in the action, you’re in the activity of making story and evolving it and adapting it. Yeah so -
R: So how do you push forward then? How do you push forward through that -
RM: Well this is why – yeah, once we understand the importance of this concept called self-determination, the importance of those whose story it is have the authority and the creative control over the telling of that story, when we all understand why that’s important, because someone else cannot tell your story. We have a 200-year history of being negatively stereotyped and victimised and blah, blah, blah and this under – all these kind of unspoken subconscious narratives of how we’re all the dying race and there aren’t really any blackfellas left and lower IQ and whatever these really negative bullshit myths are, we have a job as blackfellas of redressing those narratives. So I am in the business of re-righting the narrative, of re-righting the history and right - I mean by r-i-g-h-t like making it right because it’s wrong. What people understand of us is wrong and hence when we – and we all know it, eh?
Every time that it comes up this whole – we’re still arguing over what should be taught in schools and the sort of language we should be using and oh my god, I was walking up that Mt Ainslie on Saturday – Sunday – anyway, whatever day, just the other day and there’s that really weathered plaque that tells the story of the – it’s the only one that told the Aboriginal story that this was the lands of the Ngunnawal and you have to read like that ‘cause it’s so faded out. It talks about – goddammit – how when the settlers came it disrupted their life of the Ngunnawal and society became fragmented, they brought their sheep and their disease – sorry, the colonisers.
There was no mention of – it was – the language of it - they’re still using that kind of language and this is the capital of Australia, is still doing that to the Aboriginal people of this land, it was just – it was a really kind of moment – I was ready to rip that thing off. What? I just expected it to be a bit more on top of it. Anyway it was just that dreadful reminder of how much work still we have to do and how deeply, deeply problematic that is. Just to be a little bit more optimistic. There’s – something happened right now, there is something happening right now in this country with the whole change of government and this – putting it right on the front of the table. The first thing he said was giving a voice to Parliament and whatnot like there’s definitely some positive shit happening at the moment, I guess, let’s just see how it all goes but yeah so how we move forward is that we as a country step up to the plate and acknowledge the importance of first peoples – of the first peoples of this country being self-determined in their affairs. I think it’s that simple.
R: But is it also understanding what that means?
RM: Oh that’s what I'm saying, that’s exactly, it was like we don’t understand that distinction yet.
R: I think is it more than just understanding and listening? We hear this thing of -
RM: Well that’s why I keep saying it’s got to be about knowing your own bias like knowing your whiteness and your privilege and that means – yeah, it’s complex because we’re talking about like going and seeing a psychotherapist and looking at – analysing yourself like everyone’s got to do the homework like we’re – yeah. Yeah, it’s complex ‘cause obviously you can say it ‘til the cows come home but it’s like yeah, the penny’s not dropping. You saw that when you walked up Mt Ainslie.
R: So on that, if it’s about who should be telling those stories when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, is there also a feeling around I guess like what that way forward is? In 2022 should you still be doing that? Telling stories that are not your own?
RM: Oh hell, no, no, no, this is exactly what I'm saying. We need to get to the stage where - I mean it’s – so you – well there’s a – ‘cause within the arts the history of kind of western arts has – is built on this kind of idea that the artist is a conduit and I just – like I stood there and I read about that person’s story or I sat and ate their food or I’m being stupid but anyway I just absorbed them and then I now can tell their story because they’re in me and I’m just a neutral vessel.
So the western arts is built on this idea that artists are just vessels and there’s absolutely no – and even that comes from a white privilege like you can only say that because you have no idea that there is – that you’re not the centre of the universe like there are a whole - there are complete other worlds of belief systems and value systems that actually sideline yours like – so that when you’re – yeah, if – I mean – and I’m now going to kind of digress about where this gets really complex too, is – and what you’re kind of sort of leading to – sorry but I’m reading into it is that – this applies to blackfellas too so I am not an authority to tell a Ngunnawal story, it’s not my story to tell.
The absolute rule – same rules apply to me as Joe Blow next door and this is – and actually this is really exciting, it’s actually exciting that we’re getting to this stage ‘cause it wasn’t that long ago it was like all blackfellas were blackfellas fighting the same cause, we got the same enemy and we’re all on the same bandwagon. It’s easy to reflect back and romanticise about oh wasn’t that wonderful that all that time that we all were one? But what we need to – but in the same breath we’re acknowledging and celebrating that actually we’ve now moved to this next stage which is really kind of embedding what does that actually mean to be a blackfella? It has everything to do with who you are in relation to your land and your culture obviously which is the thing that binds your land, you and your people.
So your place in a major network is basically what being a blackfella is. So what – with the disruption of colonisation and with the impact that it’s had on blackfellas, stolen generation and blah, blah, blah, blah, there’s a whole spectrum of blackfellas in terms of their experience and knowledge of who they are and where their land is and their culture and their language. And if you were to put that on a spectrum, the fellas down one end who grew up on country, know their language, know their totems and their culture and the networks and they know exactly how they fit in with their family thing and down the other end you got someone who knows nothing, they just – they’ve only just been told and they’re right at the beginning of their journey and there’s the rest of us that are just everywhere in between.
With that disruption means – it has meant that people don’t understand the protocols and that’s really – it’s just really simple. It’s just like not understanding the laws, the rules of the house kind of thing, you don’t know that you’re not allowed to stand on the kitchen table or whatever, whatever your rules are but similarly if you don’t know that – how – what those protocols mean and basically in its simplest form being a blackfella and knowing the protocols basically means that you know that you don’t have the authority to do dick shit about anything, even your own mob. Like there is a whole protocol which means that all the – ‘cause every family has their head of the family and there’s so many families within a mob so there’s a whole network of protocol that has to be gone through when telling story and it takes time.
But yeah, going back to who has the right to tell someone else’s story, even telling your own story has a whole lot of protocol and this is a problem, this can be a problem. You’ll have someone from their mob who goes off and they want to go off and tell their story but they haven’t consulted with any of their own family because they’re like no, I'm going to do what I want and it’s a problem. You’ll find they’ll have problems and there’s going to be a whole lot of backlash so it’s – the protocol – the understanding of the concept is actually really simple but then how it actually plays out, it’s not – yeah, it’s not complicated, it just takes a long time. It’s that you bring – basically every time you move forward you bring your mob with you. So that concept’s actually really simple in practice but it’s not how this society, the society outside cultural protocol works.
It always used to crack me up too when I was looking over at whitefellas who can go off and just do any old play, I was like oh wouldn’t that be easy? Just go and do whatever you want, don’t have to ask anyone, tell any old story you want. God, that looks easy but I was like I don’t want to do that so yeah, it’s – definitely takes longer but it – anyway it really is the only way, it’s the only way you do it and it’s the only way you’re going to get it right if that’s what you want to do.
R: I’m going to open the floor very soon to questions so if you have a question get it ready. I guess, Rachael, I wanted to end on really what does the future look like for indigenous theatre like what do you think it should – what is the vision that you have for it going forward?
RM: It’s so – I find that question actually catches me off guard because it’s like oh yeah, I don’t really think about that ‘cause in this industry you’re so like – you’re just doing the do, you’re just in the middle of it, in the thick of it but I do need to start thinking about it ‘cause I'm part of – I’ve just been included on the - Minister Tony Burke’s first nations little advisory group in the lead-up to this cultural policy, arts and cultural policy that the government’s putting back on the table ‘cause the last government pulled off the table. Like the fact that we have a federal government that doesn’t have an arts and cultural policy for decades now is just like absolutely shocking so it’s really critical that first nations are centred in this cultural and arts policy so it’s really quite a privilege to be a part of this but no pressure, I'm stressed out as. So yes, I have been thinking about what that means and it’s really embedding these core values of being self-determined as first peoples’ storytellers.
Yeah, there’s – the example that I gave about the film industry, I want to see a similar investment for the theatre sector. There’s a whole – there were various training schools around, there’s still a couple that are going. The one over at WAAPA and [ACPA] 4:12 is still going but even then theatre is actually a really small component of that cause. So there’s really – I mean Eora’s gone, I mean Tranby’s gone and there weren’t really many anyway so there’s a real lack of training ground for our mob. Yeah and how we address this massive gap in all the other creative fields. I mean they’re such specialist fields, set designer, lighting design and sound design but – anyway I’m really keen to see some just really genuine, strategic long-term investment in the sector. Yeah and I feel like – obviously I’m still - ‘cause it’s such big overarching kind of work, it’s like how do you capture that in a kind of neat and punchy way that politicians can digest? It’s like oh, I'm really not – politics.
Anyway - but I think one of the first things is really understanding those distinctions and why those distinctions are important because it’s when people – like while white companies and white directors and all the best intentions in the world still think that they’re the best person, position to tell our stories then we’ve still got a problem. So there’s a whole lot of work that needs to happen in them understanding how important it is for – to create culturally safe spaces for our mob so whether that’s we take over those spaces, there’s a whole lot of work that needs to happen around the touring of work and how the work and the artists are held when they visit other countries, how they're held by those, the mobs. Most of these venues don’t even have a relationship with their TOs so there’s a whole body of work that needs to happen all over the country but then really it’s like where are the black presenters? Where are those spaces that are – where are the cultural hubs by which our work can be hosted and held around the country?
At the moment we’re entirely reliant on white performing arts spaces, we don't have – we have very, very – I can’t think of anything. Maybe you could sort of say Rhoda when she was at the Opera House but even then that’s a big white monolith. [KIAF] 6:49 sort of, doesn’t really do theatre - a little bit of theatre that’s going on there. Anyway, anyway you get my point – oh Yirramboi Festival, that’s kicking up again, not that it went away but resettled down in Melbourne. That’s all first nations festival so really hoping that one goes well but yeah, it’s how do we make the distinctions that create space but there also needs to be some long-term strategic investment in the sector.
But going back to that point about where we are as a country and this really, really exciting shift with – I talk about those waves, I reckon we’re having another one of those waves where there’s a real want to move forward as a country and how this country – obviously there’s a whole lot of shame and guilt and all that stuff warranted but for us to get to the stage where we celebrate who we are as a country and we celebrate the extraordinary long, rich, unbelievably diverse cultures across this country. Imagine if every school taught the local language of those mobs and everybody who grew up in that little country town or whatever was learning the language off the local mobs and those little kids from those local mobs walked down the street feeling like kingpin? It’s like ‘cause this is my country and that was embraced and celebrated. I mean that’s the country that we all want to see, isn’t it? Isn’t it? So it feels like we’re taking a bit of a small adult step right at this moment in time so that - yeah, that bigger picture stuff informs the little pictures.
R: Might open up to a couple of questions. If you have a question raise your hand, we do have a microphone getting around.
J: Two microphones.
R: Oh down the front. Microphone is coming. One moment, please.
A: Wonderful, thanks, Rhiannon and Rachael, you touched across quite the trajectory. Wonderful to hear Justine’s name being mentioned. I remember meeting her in Hobart I think 2005 when she was doing – was it The Last Taxi Out of Sydney? That was her last theatre play before she got sick.
R: Yeah and I was an undergrad at UTS -
RM: Out of Darwin.
R: Out of Darwin. So she was doing it in Hobart and I was an undergrad at UTS so I’ll get to the Black Theatre Company. You’re talking about Redfern?
R: Yeah so I was sitting with my supervisor in a hotel in Hobart and I saw this woman with the most ravishing drop of pearl hair and I said to my supervisor, [Murray] 10:01 from Queensland, Sonja Link, I said who is that? She said wait ‘til she turns around, she said she’s Aboriginal I can tell and she turned around, it was Justine. I said oh my god, it’s Justine Saunders. She said go and introduce yourself. I said I'm not part of that film sector, I’m part of the literature and she said go and introduce – and she was just the most endearing woman. When you touched on the scenes that they propelled her into which – yeah so – and that began I think for her was it not the Women of the Sun in the 1980s through ABC? Yeah and that totally – she told me totally traumatised her, totally traumatised her.
Now I’ve always wanted to know, Rachael, why weren’t you in Fringe Dwellers or was that not -
RM: I feel like we were too young ‘cause that was a long – that was – yeah.
A: Yeah and we had [Ujuru] 11:01 as the -
RM: Yeah, I certainly wasn't acting then anyway, yeah.
A: Right, yeah. So -
RM: Oh the star-studded cast in that film -
RM: - and everyone’s so young.
RM: Yeah, [Ujuru] and -
A: So – I’m a great admirer of your father’s work as well. So since there weren’t a whole lot of hands jumping up I’m going to hit you with some names and I just want one word, it can be an adverb, adjective, noun, whatever. Okay, let’s go. Jimmy Chi.
RM: Yeah, yeah.
A: One word.
RM: Legend, yeah.
A: Jack Charles.
RM: Oh man, seriously awesome, amazing. Only [unclear] 01:11:43 three words. Yeah, no, I’m a – he’s very dear to me ‘cause I’ve worked very closely with him and in fact one of them early plays I seen was him. Oh playing Bonaparte or something. Anyway he come out, he had these two whitefellas dressed in that frontier soldier unforms and he was full starkers.
RM: On the Opera House stage. I was like okay.
A: Tricia Morton-Thomas.
RM: Yes, my god, obviously we were in Radiance together. Yeah, no, she’s stunningly talented and the first things she said when we met, she goes you know when I decided I wanted to be an actor? ‘Cause I saw you and I knew I could do better.
A: She recently done Triple A? Triple M?
RM: Triple M, yeah.
R: It was quite funny.
RM: Oh yeah, she’s hilarious.
A: Ernie Dingo.
RM: Yeah, yeah. He and Dad were very close and it was him and Dad that went to ABC with this idea for a television show.
A: Which was –
RM: They came in with the scripts and the ABC producers went oh it – that’s a good idea but that main central role should be a white woman. So that main central role was meant to be a black woman, not a Cate Blanchett, just saying.
A: Yes and so Ms Blanchett got it and she also – you spoke about your father in Bellbird as the lawyer with a white woman and so Cate also received postal bagloads of hate mail for having kissed Ernie multiple times and that was only like in the late ‘90s, wasn’t it? Heartlands?
RM: Yes, yeah ‘cause I finished acting school, yeah. That was Aaron Pederson’s first acting role.
A: Right and Deborah Mailman? One word?
RM: She is the most gorgeous, beautiful warm thing and exactly how she is on the screen is how she is in real person so – I mean yous probably all know her like she’s just so warm and generous and – yeah, yeah, amazing, amazing woman and incredibly talented. Her performance in that second series – ‘cause I didn’t watch the first series – of Total Control like she should be smashing out Oscar, I don’t know what awards we give over here – have we got awards? Anyway whatever, whatever awards, she should be getting it.
A: All the awards -
RM: All awards. Yeah, that was the most phenomenal – but obviously Wayne Blair’s directing too, I was like he should be getting awards for that direction, yeah, that was just –
A: Well no, thank you, great admirer of your family’s work and your contribution obviously to Australian theatre and thanks for taking us through the Black Theatre Company. You would be familiar with Boomalli, Auntie [Jeffa] 14:52 and Jeffrey Samuels and Tracey Moffatt when they all just pushed through Glebe and Redfern.
RM: Yeah, another amazing artist is Leah Purcell. That’s actually where I seen her performing, at Boomalli. She was getting up –
RM: - get up and sang. She’d just come down to Sydney for the first time, young thing and she was singing that song of hers, Run, Daisy, Run.
RM: Like bolt, it was like who is this woman? Then now look at her with the Drovers thing there and film, book, TV show like what next? Amazing, she is such an inspiration. How is it she’s looking even better looking and more younger every time? Like -
A: Yeah, I know, I stroked my chin and thought mm, must be that Waka Waka from Cherbourg on her mother’s side perhaps, I don’t know but you’re also an inspiration so I’d just like to say thank you very much and thank you, Rhianna, thank you.
RM: Thank you.
R: Any other questions? Oh down the front here. Hang on, just COVID-safe. There you go, Auntie.
A: I'm just going to make some comments about – thank you for that, it was fabulous and you just covered everything. One thing, Jindalee Lady is on a video somewhere, God knows where but it is ‘cause I’ve seen it and I used to teach at University of Canberra and I used to show my students that.
RM: Oh my god, I want to see it.
A: So –
A: - and I know it’s there and they had it in the library so I was able to draw it out and show students so it’s around.
RM: Yeah well and –
A: National Film and Sound Archives must have a copy, they have to.
RM: ‘Cause I seen a doco ‘cause it was on blood – oh sorry, I can’t remember the name of it but it was actually about the second 1987 – oh no, the first maybe, 1987 Black Playwrights’ Conference and they had – everybody was so young, Lydia and Rhoda were kids practically, I mean they were young adults but everyone, Jack Davis, Dad, Ernie Dingo, [Ujuru] like anyway stunning documentary on that playwrights’ conference but yeah, the extraordinary frickin’ talent in our mobs.
A: Yeah. In terms of these whitefella gatekeepers who are still really gatekeeping our work in literature and writing one of the big issues has been how do you – how do we retrain editors from mainstream publishing houses to understand because all of us who have – are writers as well have had issues with mainstream publishers who want to change phrasing, who want to change titles ‘cause they don’t get it? We’ve actually run in the past through Aboriginal Studies Press, we’ve even run training for mainstream editors to help them understand blackfella way of thinking and talking and we won a few – we got a long way to go and they always – from my teaching experience one of the things I used to say to my white students was so how does it feel to be colonised? They’d say what do you mean? We haven’t been colonised. I’d say you sure you haven’t been mentally colonised? What are you carrying around in your head that you absorbed without critical thinking with your cornflakes at breakfast and in school and whatever -
RM: This is exactly –
A: - that shapes this? So one of the things I used to make my students do was attempt to decolonise their heads before they started on the content of what we were teaching. So my thinking is maybe we need to just say okay, the common ground is we’ve all been colonised, we know it, you fellas don’t know it yet so we’re going to help you understand how to decolonise yourselves because you’ve been hard done by by the past as well. So invite them to come to a decolonisation party in our training sessions so it does work. It upsets people but eventually it works.
RM: Yeah, I’d love to keep talking about this like about what is that – how to bring that awareness. Like I’ve sat in on great talks where Genevieve Grieves for instance talks about whiteness and privilege and how that’s actually where the conversation starts and anyway now I can’t remember how she did it ‘cause it was so profound. But yes, what are these conversations and distinctions that we need to be making that actually where the penny drops? Maybe I need to do a play about it.
A: Well that was going to be my next suggestion, you can – that’s a great subject for a play, it’s great, it’s fantastic.
R: Just making notes who said what.
RM: And take the credit.
R: Yeah, credit, credit.
A: Thank you and I’ll pass the mic on if anyone else has questions.
R: I feel like I’m going to make Jeremy run up the back to you and then I’ll come to you here down the front. Rebecca, one second, please, Rebecca, we’re just making Jeremy run up the back.
A: So when you’re directing a play do you tend to collaborate with the playwrighter from your country or do you like – sorry, what's like your creative process when you’re directing a play? Like do you – is it a very collaborative event or do you take -
RM: I guess the way I work is actually particular to the way in which the work is made so I – this wasn’t intentional but basically almost everything I’ve worked on I’ve also been a part of the development of that work from its seed, from its idea. So – and kind of what – in hindsight when I look back at it I’ll go oh actually what’s amazing about that is I get to be a part of that process and to embed those – that process is done the right way. So yes, I'm always – hence the writer is a big part of that process. There’s definitely a point where that relationship drops off like right halfway through the rehearsal process when you’re ready to go on, the writer’s job is done ‘though there is a whole ‘nother conversation around where – literally that we’re having at the moment with the Australian Writers’ Guild ‘cause as a – the western art – this western art form thing called theatre that privileges the writer over the speaker is all embedded in law in this place called the Australian Writers’ Guild, the AWG and we literally started this conversation literally one week ago about yeah, that – what are they doing that acknowledges – so for instance a writer gets a commission and then they’ll get the 10% royalty so once you’ve had your premiere season, beyond that all the money that comes through the box office, 10% goes to the writer. So when you’ve got a writer working with say an elder to tell this story about whatever, either that elder’s story or that community or that family’s story, that writer traditionally as in white traditionally gets the 10% royalty and this lad here gets nothing.
So we’re like what are you going to do about that? Like what needs to happen to honour that contribution I would argue should deserve a bigger proportion than this one but I don’t want to take away from the skills of the person who knows how to craft and edit like that’s a skill, writing is a skill, okay? I don’t want to take away from that but the moment they’re all given acknowledgment and these fellas are not so actually we’re in this process of working with these lawmakers around how do we redress that so that there is acknowledgement both in the fee and the crediting and the royalty for this for the orator? For the one who speaks the story compared to the one who sits there and writes it.
Then yeah and then there’s all the other layers that we talked about earlier around all the protocols so that say for instance we’re working now with this one elder in Papunya and here’s me, I’m learning too ‘cause I was western-trained, theatre-trained so I’m still learning and getting better and better at it as a company. But I was like it’s his story so he’s the elder like he is the elder elder of these – his mob there and we’re telling his story so I’m like well he doesn’t have to – ‘cause he’s the – I’m thinking hierarchy, he doesn’t have to tell anyone. No good, that’s where I was like oh of course, doot, he’s like oh yeah, no, I’ve just got to go and let the mob of five families, I’ve got to go and sit down and speak with all of them and then I can give you an answer. I was just like oh of course, yeah, yeah, just was like oh my gosh.
The difference is I don’t have to tell him protocol ‘cause he knows the protocol and he’s teaching me obviously whereas yeah, as the producing company we can’t assume people know the protocol. So sometimes I might be working with a younger writer and it’s their story or whatever but it’s like I got to still make sure that you make sure who you’ve spoken to, yeah. Yeah, yeah – well yeah, it’s ‘cause a lot of our mob have been working in the sector for a long time so they got bad habits and they – yeah, yeah. Yeah, we don’t always get it right either, yeah.
R: Rebecca, I think, question? Yeah. No, no, that’s alright, just –
A: I wanted to go back to what you were - first of all thank you for the whole discussion tonight but thank you for bringing I guess to this space that discussion around who’s telling whose stories and why are whitefellas in 2022 still telling blackfella stories? I say this because our little team here at the National Library in Indigenous Engagement, Jeremy, me and the rest of the team, there’s not a day that goes by where we don’t have a request from some whitefella who wants to use something in the collection here to tell a blackfella story or even sometimes what you’re saying, it’s another blackfella who wants to tell a story that isn’t theirs to tell. So there’s not a day that doesn’t go by that we’re not doing some kind of education and telling people why that’s not bloody okay and it’s exhausting.
A: I guess my question to turn this into a question – like I said thank you for bringing that conversation to right here and now ‘cause I think it’s really, really important – I guess my question is about how you maintain and how you’ve maintained in your resilience in that constant barrage of having to constantly push against that tide of the wrong people wanting to tell stories that aren’t theirs to tell, the whitefellas still clutching to those doors?
RM: I mean I have to say working in a black organisation, I’m coming from a safe place so I don’t have to be having – that’s not entirely true, we’ve got – there’s some white staff in the company so there is – every now and then there’s okay, let’s just slow down and stop. Yeah so there’s definitely – it’s definitely ongoing but I have to say at my heart – I don’t know if it’s ‘cause I'm a [saj] 27:50 or I’m my dad’s daughter or something but I am eternally optimistic, I do have a lot of hope, I have a huge amount of hope for this country. I do – here’s another thing that I learnt a long time ago too, is – oh this is actually a lesson I learnt off Pat O’Shane, Auntie Pat, Lydia Miller’s mum so – oh don’t anyone here tell them I said this. Anyway I’m – I’d known Lydia doing the play with her, radio and I’d sat on some panels and – does anyone know Lydia?
She is fierce like – and particularly when she was younger, she was ferocious fierce like to the point – and highly intelligent so I’m like proper simple one so when she starts going I’m like I can’t – I actually can’t even understand what she’s saying, she’s so above me in terms of her superintelligence but then also that aggressive thing so I’m like – leaning like this away from her. I’m not saying anything after you like - and she’s just like – and just cuts the audience down. So like everyone’s just shaking in their cyborgs and I’m just like oh so ferocious. I definitely remember thinking I don’t know if this is a good – I don’t know if this is helping.
Anyway then I go to this other panel a year later or whatever and it’s actually a radio station and that – oh that silly old whitefella, Philip what’s his name? Anyway he’s -
RM: That one, yeah. Anyway there’s a whole people - whole lot of people on the panel, all whitefellas except for Pat O’Shane saying – oh my god, this is like 27 years ago – should whitefellas tell black stories? Can you believe we’re having those stupid conversations? Anyway – still having those stupid conversations? Anyway and she absolutely saying the same thing as her daughter, created the – spoke to the audience that they were – they weren’t the problem, they were part of the solution. She talked to the audience like we know that this is blah, blah, blah and blah, blah, blah and I was just watching her going oh my god so that she was able to speak to an audience’s better side. So all of us deep down – that’s what I – this is what I keep thinking, this – I know there’s kind of like – it always feels like we’re talking about us and them and stuff but it's actually on a really human level.
Everybody understands these really basic principles of being self-determined in your own affairs and – like it’s actually really, really simple. So anyway in this one extraordinary lesson to me was seeing Pat O’Shane be just as staunch as her daughter but speak to the audience in a way that they could – they were invited to be a part of the solution and it was just mindboggling and I’ve taken that into my heart and – in terms of the theatre that I make as well. So I’m not interested in actually berating people and making you wrong. It’s like you might have fucked up but hey, we’re all human and now let’s all be part of the solution.
R: Well on that note -
RM: Thank you.
R: - thank you, Rebecca, and can you please put your hands together for Rachael Maza?
J: And Rhianna Patrick.
J: Thank you, everyone, have a good night, go home.
End of recording
Deborah Cheetham AO discusses creating an opera, Pecan Summer, in her own Language. In conversation with Rhianna Patrick, Deborah discusses the journey she took while crossing cultures and her experience of creating a new work of art. Deadly Dialogues is a new series of in-conversation style events hosted by Rhianna Patrick. Created as an extension of the On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts exhibition – a celebration of performing arts in Australia – Deadly Dialogues is a chance to hear firsthand experiences from First Nations performing artists that have told stories On Stage, through everything from body language to the oldest living languages in the world. With On Stage showcasing musical scores from Pecan Summer by Deborah Cheetham AO, poster for Bangarra’s first full length show Praying Mantis Dreaming and portrait of trailblazer Bob Maza who co-founded the National Black Theatre of Australia, this is a wonderful opportunity to hear from the people behind those objects.