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Hilary Glow and Katya Johanson

Platform Paper 19

Indigenous Performing Arts and Policy

Hilary Glow and Katya Johanson

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In February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations on behalf of the Australian people. Now what? In this Platform Paper, mid-career Indigenous performing artists think about their post-apology future. Indigenous theatre blossomed in the 1990s when it was grasped as a means to expose social issues and advance the goals of Reconciliation. Now that generation of artists questions these motives. For some, history and community are central; others are impatient with ‘your genre is black’ and demand the professional respect they have earned. ‘Indigenous artists’, says director Wesley Enoch, ‘have been asked for decades to work at their slowest, to bring everyone along with them. It’s the equivalent of asking Cathy Freeman to run slowly, so that everyone can keep up with her.’ Glow and Johanson provide a forum for practitioners like Rachael Maza Long, David Milroy, Stephen Page and Rhoda Roberts. Together they call for an end to second-best; and for measures that respond with post-apology confidence to the vision and inspiration that, in the opinion of the Australia Council, ‘remain at the heart of Australia’s culture’.


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About the Author

Dr Hilary Glow and Dr Katya Johanson are researchers and lecturers in arts, cultural policy, history and practice at Deakin University, Melbourne. Hilary Glow is the author of Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda (2007).


Indigenous performing artists face a number of tensions in the relationship between their art and the infrastructure put in place to support it. A tension exists between the necessity to be representative, consultative and responsible to community on the one hand, and to seek high-quality production outcomes on the other 



Response to Hilary Glow and Katya Johanson's Your Genre is Black: Indigenous Arts and Policy.

Andrea James is a graduate of La trobe University and the Victorian College of the Arts, a playright and theatre director, author of Yanagai! Yanagai! (200). At present she is Community Arts Worker at the Koorie Heritage trust, Melbourne and she was a speaker at the public forum held on 10 February 2009.

They call me a mid-career artist, a writer and director of Indigenous descent with a spattering of productions under my belt. But having just absorbed the new Platform Paper and the Australia Council document. 'Love Your Work: training, retaining and connecting artists in theatre', I can't help but feel that as a theatre practitioner with over ten years' experience, I've been put on the scrap heap. Along with a whole host of other, just as experienced and talented, Indigenous theatre-makers: Kylie Belling, Johnny Harding, Jane Harrison, Tammy Anderson-just to name a few.

According to the Australia Council figures, I have about forty opportunities to direct for the mainstage. Out of these, about ten or 15 will go to directors who are making the transition from small-medium to main-stage. About two will be Indigenous-Wesley Enoch and Wayne Blair over the last few years. I cannot recall a single situation where an Indigenous female theatre director has made it into directing a mainstage theatre show. Though there may be one. It is a very tough glass ceiling to crack into.

Writers in particular get a great show up and then disappear. No mainstream companies want to take the risk to produce our new work, except for maybe Belvoir Street and the Melbourne Workers Theatre (which has now lost federal funding and is on the brink of collapse).

This is an appeal to the policy makers and those in our community who have the power to direct policy and resources. The state of Indigenous theatre and the livelihoods of some of our most talented Indigenous theatre-makers are at stake. As is the Australian theatre environment.

Indigenous theatre has laid the groundwork for great change, particularly in the 1980s and '90s. We reflected the political and social changes that happened in our communities and we celebrated them in performance. We have drawn out the issues that all Australians needed to hear. We made them palatable, entertaining and challenging. We moved people to laughter, to tears and sometimes into action. We engendered pride and strength in Aboriginal communities. We put our cousins and brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles on the stage and people were proud of us. And now it seems that the community we so supported has turned its back on us. Black and white alike.

This is a plea. And I don't want to be melodramatic, but unless we put resources into Indigenous performance, the place for our stories, culture and language will diminish. There is no other place where the true spirit of ceremony, performance and language can be expressed. Film just doesn't cut it. Through performance we re-inhabit, and make sacred again, space, ceremony and culture.

Another issue: no land, no ceremony, no culture. Without theatre spaces and venues we can't survive. It's like trying to do important ceremony when there's no land. It's like being put into a home and locked out of the yard. There's Tandanya (the Indigenous visual arts centre in Adelaide), there's Bunjilaka (the Museum of victoria's Indigenous cultural centre) and there's Koorie Heritage Trust-with plans afoot to relocate and incorporate a performance space into a new venue.

At present we lack trained Indigenous people in the industry. Without people trained as theatre-makers, actors, designers, directors, writers and theatre managers we cannot make our art; and Indigenous culture, language, stories will diminish. Australia has only one Indigenous theatre course, in Brisbane. Swinburne has closed down. There are some access policies in WAAPA, vCA and NIDA, and a few Indigenous artists get through.

As Glow and Johanson point out, for too long Indigenous theatre-makers have carried a double function. As well as being expected to knock out fantastic theatre, we had to be community-development workers and statisticians. And that's okay. We all want to work for and with our communities. But it has come at the cost of the quality of our theatre and the presentation of good art and culture. We are artists. It's time to rebalance this, to put the community and social issues aside and focus on art and culture. And I believe this will not come at the expense of the Indigenous Community. To resource and mentor top-quality theatre practitioners makes for good theatre, which makes for good representation and stronger communities. Regardless of whether arts funding and policy has a social, community or artistic agenda, Indigenous artists are, and will forever be, a part of their community-even when we choose to work in mainstream productions or with mainstream companies. It is possible for us to have a leg in both camps and now it is time to nurture the art form, to embrace live performance as a place for new high-quality art and the expression of ceremony and culture.

As Indigenous theatre-makers we need to experiment, we need to fail.

Where is the avant-garde in Indigenous theatre? We see this in the visual arts with Tracey Moffatt and Christian Thompson, but not in the theatre. We need to reflect the current trend, which is away from text-based theatre and towards visual and movement-based forms. This is something that we have done traditionally. But lately there has been a proliferation of text-based work and this really does need to shift. But to develop this we need the training and the experience and the appreciation of non-naturalistic art.

To end my plea on a positive note, I say this to the policy makers: Indigenous artists will continue to make art no matter what. Our will and desire to create and tell stories and work with others are strong. We do this almost despite ourselves. My work for the Koorie Heritage Trust has shown me that there are Indigenous people making art all over the state. It is dynamic and varied and prolific, despite the lack of resources. We need to channel policy, energy and funds into Indigenous art across all art forms.

Here is a wish list and some possible solutions

An Indigenous theatre company and Indigenous theatre training course in each state and with a mixture of urban- and regionally-based companies.
A national mainstage theatre company based in Melbourne that takes good work to the next level, tours
it nationally and internationally and puts practitioners into a mainstage setting so that we do not stay forever in the small-to-medium sector but have a chance to develop our careers and become a theatre elder.

3. Indigenous theatre traineeships and cadetships, like those offered in the community for health workers, lawyers and cultural officers. The Sand-to-Celluloid Series, out of the Australian Film Institute, has produced so many great Indigenous filmmakers and could be a model for the theatre sector.

Mainstream theatre institutions must take responsibility for providing emerging and established Indigenous artists with real opportunities. The few fledging Indigenous theatre companies around Australia are fast disappearing: Ilbijerri, Kooemba Jdarra are gone, Yirra Yaakin has lost funding and can't keep us in active work.

Finally, one model for us all to consider. You don't have to be a theatre or art institution to actively engage in art and theatre in everyday life. Bev Murray's artists-in-residence scheme at the Aboriginal Housing Board, provides a model and deserves acknowledgement. We must act now or the very heart and soul of our culture-that is storytelling and ceremony-will be lost forever.