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Indigenous art: collaboration and innovation

Keith Gallasch talks to Wesley Enoch

Wesley Enoch Wesley Enoch
photo Heidrun Löhr
The work of leading Australian theatre director Wesley Enoch is focused on the Australian Aboriginal culture of which he is a part. His productions range from The Sunshine Club and The Sapphires, rousing entertainments with a socially critical edge, to the sad and angry intensities of Black Medea (see review) and The 7 Stages of Grieving, created with performer Deborah Mailman. Significantly, these creations are Enoch’s own–as writer or co-writer as well as director. The 7 Stages of Grieving and his production of Jane Harrison’s Stolen have played to acclaim around the world

I met with Enoch during the recent Sydney run of his Black Medea at Belvoir Street. Originally staged as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2000 Blueprints season, it has been re-worked for Melbourne’s Malthouse, premiering in Sydney before opening in Melbourne in May.

How do you write?

I like writing with groups of actors. I was talking to Wayne Blair about this, about relationships–that’s where the best work comes from. It’s not about the lone writer working in isolation. And now the actors can argue with me to get the best results in the writing–at the beginning they were much more respectful of the text. They tell me what’s not working and we shift things around.

Did this play originally come out of workshopping and improvisation?

I’m not a great improviser. I prefer to talk through some ideas, get some inspiration, draft some stuff up and then hear it in the actors’ mouths. Improvising is too unstructured for me.

It interests me that a number of key works have emerged from writers and sometimes directors working with performers, shaping their words with them, especially for solo shows–Angela Chaplin and Robyn Archer with Ningali Lawford, Louis Nowra with David Page, Neil Armfield and Reg Cribb with Gulpilil, Scott Rankin with Leah Purcell.

The issue of the authentic voice is very interesting, especially now in verbatim theatre which is playing everywhere, and as we look for the true representation of something as opposed to believing in a fictitious world. While news and current affairs have become so editorialised, creative types are being drawn to the issue of authenticity as a way of connecting to an audience. Is it our response to reality TV?

Why did you employ the Medea story?

It was a starting point. My body of work involves a fascination with women, so the idea of a woman who goes against her maternal urges and can kill a child attracted me. And she’s from another culture. It was something that came up when I worked with Simon Philips on the MTC production of The Tempest with Caliban and Ariel as Aboriginal inhabitants of the island. It’s a way to comment without having to do a capital P political thing–’we poor blackfellas.’ And it goes back to when I was working at Contact Youth Theatre 15 years ago. We did a version of Romeo and Juliet with Aboriginal kids. The basic story can be assumed; the audience know enough about it so that you can twist it and look at form, at issues, parallels...

Your Jason is a miner.

Looking for his golden fleece.

How would you describe your body of work?

It’s over-used, but the concept of story-telling theatre is fascinating for me. An older actor approached me and said "Your actors are storytellers", as if that was somehow different from acting. It’s interesting how people sense storytelling as a dropping of pretence, of the layering on of character.

In Black Medea, your chorus [Justine Saunders] provides the direct storytelling. My favourite moment is when she quietly gives voice to the silent Medea’s anticipation of death.

That’s part of the narrator’s framing of the story where she often says things like, "He’s thinking..." or "You think she’s thinking such and such, but...", as if she’s inside their heads. So at the end she can say "When my time comes..." for Medea. The work is about the integration of all the artforms–acting, story-telling, the sound and the visuals. This will sound awful: the work is not actor-based. Of course it is, but the other elements are just as important, they’re more than background–they come into the foreground. The story-telling can happen through lights and set as well.

Is your collaborative approach part of this integration?

It’s about how working relationships have developed over time with particular actors, for example Deborah Mailman, Rachael Maza, Margaret Harvey, Wayne Blair, Ursula Yovich and Luke Carroll. We feed off each other a lot. For me The Sapphires was a coming together of all these people, and Matt Scott, the lighting designer, and Richard Roberts, the designer. Things start to mature in a different way. This year there are new relationships: it’s my first show with Aaron Pedersen and with the sound designer Jethro Woodward, and my second time this year with the designer, Christina Smith. Rachel Burke, who did the lighting on the original Black Medea, has also done it this time. Our discussions are great–it’s a matter of not pigeon-holing our roles too early in the process. Stage manager Tiffany Noack’s role is a creative one for me: I think this is about our 7th show together. Doing Conversations with the Dead with Wayne Blair came from discussions where he said he wanted to challenge himself, and it grew from there.

What kind of writer are you? Where does the writing fit for a director?

The question, I guess, is what kind of director am I too. I work almost exclusively on new work and I’m not a great fan of the dramaturg. The dramaturg is this country’s way of buying more time by getting another brain in that wouldn’t be needed if you had 8 weeks rehearsal time, or the writer and director could work together on the script for 2 years. Directing for me is a form of writing: you watch, you edit, you make changes and there’s a point where I’m working with a writer when I treat them like they’re dead. I say, "You can make it work on the page all you like, but unless I make it work here on the stage..." My own writing is a natural extension of my relationship with the work on the floor. I’m more of a director than a writer. It’s a matter of time too, most plays take at least a couple of years to write.

In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald you spoke about not having a cultural adviser on Black Medea.

I’ve worked with cultural advisers before but in this show the performers are much more empowered, and there are multiple generations on stage. So we’ll talk. Perhaps it’s a form of arrogance on my part: I know the story I want to tell and I don’t want someone telling me I can’t say it. This goes back to a conference where we were discussing something like domestic violence and I was told it was women’s business and I couldn’t talk about it and I shut up and sat down. It’s a matter of finding the right adviser; the wrong person will toe the line, they’ll be scared of where you can go. They want to stay in the celebratory as opposed the critical mode. To be an artist you have to go into the critical mode.

How important is film culture to Indigenous art? A small group of filmmakers is really making a mark.

The Australia Council’s gotten into a rut about how it supports what I would call contemporary Indigenous work. It’s a multi-artform board with limited funds that has to work right across the whole nation. But the Australian Film Commission has found a way of saying, we’re going to do these initiatives and they’re exclusive. And you have to have done this and this and this to qualify, so that you get really interesting people ‘filtering up’, thanks to Wal Saunders and now Sally Riley [previous and current directors of the AFC Indigenous Film Unit], who’s from a theatre background. The best writers and other talents have been drawn to film and television, especially writers. Meanwhile we’re still caught in the whole ‘genre’ of the first-time writer in Indigenous theatre. The first-time writer is everywhere. The second-time, third-time writer is so rare and someone who has written 5 or 6 plays is rarer.

If a dance company like Chunky Move thinks about its work in terms of dance productions, film, installations, interactivity, then perhaps Indigenous performing arts companies too need to broaden their brief–perhaps take on film projects, given that’s where directors, writers and producers are going.

Do you see a lot of work by other Indigenous artists?

There’s some really interesting, talented artists around but there is not a great volume of talent. And there’s a lack of confidence among Indigenous artists.

Well, on the surface, there seems to be a lot of confidence.

Expectations are so high for a small population of artists that you can get burnt. And you need to be able to take criticism and not as an affront, which stops artists from growing. They are so willing to hit the racism button. Peers might want to engage in discussion about the quality of a performance, but some Aboriginal artists will say "they’re white, they don’t understand." They evade criticism. We’re still in that phase where we’re supposed to look after each other, be soft and gentle...In fact we can be a lot more robust and engaging.

I heard you saying this in the mid 90s.

[LAUGHS] Well I’m still saying it because people haven’t heard it so much. I feel confident about where I am now so I can demand it from others. How else do you have a career unless you think of yourself as an artist. We still engage in a lot of discussion about community values and sometimes that means lowest common denominator. Case in point: talking to the cast of Black Medea about it not being a community show. We did not have a community preview in Sydney, because I did not believe that it was for or about the Aboriginal community. If they want to come, they can come. The Sapphires was a totally different story, that’s the nature of that play. With Black Medea I wanted to say it’s about us as artists wanting to work in a particular way on black-on-black issues. At the end of the show I don’t want to be responsible for people’s feelings–I’m not a counsellor.

What about visual arts?

[For me]…visual arts have always been at the forefront, including contemporary art. The artists don’t go around saying that they’re Aboriginal or Indigenous artists, their work does that–the way Christian Thompson puts a ruff on his neck and picks up a boomerang.

Does Indigenous stand-up comedy have a role to play?

I don’t see enough of it. In the Melbourne Comedy Festival it involved different ways of telling. It’s cheap: a string of 5-6 performers for an hour, with Lou Bennett doing Captain Cook on trial! After the heaviness of Stolen and Conversations... there has been a bit of a switch to let’s get some fun stuff out there, so you get The Sapphires. Bitin’ Back, the farce I’m directing next for Kooemba Jdarra is adapted from her book by Vivian Cleven. It’s about a woman whose footballer son starts wearing a dress: eventually we find out it’s about him getting in touch with his feminine side. It’s set in a small regional town, so what he does has to be hidden and then what does it mean?...It’s a farce but it makes interesting observations about people in small towns.

Aboriginal performers are really at ease with comedy.

It’s part of a charm mechanism as well, what I call ‘the smiley blackfella’–’I’ll charm you into liking me...into giving me what I want...I’ll beguile you with stories.’ It’s an empowering position.

And the performers can gently mock their white audience...Ningali, Purcell, Gulpilil...

In something like The Sapphires, it’s a bit cheesy to say, but there’s a sense of the more heartache you have, the louder the laughter. It’s interesting that the Stolen Generations narrative has subsided after becoming the dominant one. Not everyone doesn’t know where their family comes from. I let go the original production of Stolen 3 years ago, Rachael Maza took it over, and now Wayne Blair is doing it for STC.

Is innovation an issue for you?

There is less innovation and less engaging in debate about it in Aboriginal theatre, and maybe that’s because overall there’s less contemporary performance than there used to be. It’s shrinking. The supply-demand rhetoric that came through from the Australia Council a few years back has meant that instead of thinking of the key theatre companies as the keepers of technique, practice and history, they’ve become more and more geared, in an awful way, to audience development–instead of thinking that audiences need to be kept hungry for what’s coming next. Michael Kantor is working on what’s coming next at Malthouse. I saw The Ham Funeral with a mix of school kids, who I thought might not get it, and older people, but there was something really going on between all of them and the performance.

Many Indigenous artists seem to work across forms and media. In film Ivan Sen will write, direct and compose; Wayne Blair acts in theatre and directs film; Warwick Thorton is a cinematographer, now he directs and he provides the imagery for the Marrugeku Company’s live performances.

That’s where Tracey Moffat is fabulous. I saw her retrospective: the medium doesn’t stop her. She’ll go wherever she wants, wherever the story takes her.

Is that what’s innovative about Indigenous art? A fluidity between forms? You have a vision that’s your own but, as you’ve described it, you work very integratively.

Yes, there’s a real energy around it. But it’s about purpose first, not the form or the medium. Purpose is the driving might mean one day wanting to make a film, or writing poetry.

See review of Black Medea

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 8,9

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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