Making Crying Baby

RealTime interview with Rachael Swain

Thompson Yulidjirri

Thompson Yulidjirri

The humidity is high, the temperature is way above Sydney’s mild Summer average and the air is utterly still in Tamarama (next door to Bondi Beach) where Marrugeku and Stalker director Rachael Swain and her husband, company technical director Joey Ruigrok Van Der Werven, live…from time to time. But, despite having just completed a week of hot stilt-walking practice at Stalker’s less-than air-conditioned Marrickville studio and having to coordinate an incredibly large and complex group of performers and staff (25 people from Broome, Perth, Oenpelli, the outstation Markalikbarn, Goulburn Island, Melbourne and Sydney), there’s a cool air of quiet confidence in the old shopfront house before the company fly out to Perth—for an all too short onsite rehearsal in the Quarry Ampitheatre. Joey breezes out to pick up a new back-up VCR for the show and Eddie Nailibidj, a key performer in Crying Baby sits in on the interview with Rachael, nodding agreement, answering the odd query, relaxed deep into his armchair but nevertheless exuding a restless energy that says dancer—traditional, break and stilt dancer.

After a rapturously received preview of Crying Baby at the 2000 Darwin Festival (see RT#40 p10), the Marrugeku Company, an ongoing collaboration between Sydney-based Stalker Theatre Company, urban Indigenous dancers and musicians from WA and the Oenpelli community in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, premiere their second work at the 2001 Perth Festival. Like their first work, Mimi, Crying Baby is destined to become an arts festival favorite. As we go to press there is hardly a ticket left for the Perth show and there are more offers from major festivals than the company can contemplate.

The rehearsal in Perth will allow the whole company to rework the show, accommodate various cuts and changes, make technical adjustments and add some cultural nuancing for urban audiences now that the show has left its Oenpelli home. Rachael calls the Darwin showing an avant-premiere and this phase the 5th stage of the show’s long gestation.

Stage 1 was the end of 1998. We had the whole company up there for a month. We went up with the question, is there a new show to make? We really wanted to approach it very openly to see if Mimi was just a one-off. But very quickly we moved into a whole lot of new territory together.

It took the work on Mimi for us to understand one another enough to be able to explore more complex issues. There’s always been a fascination with each other’s vocabularies. That’s been a backbone of the work. The community-based artists love the physical theatre work of Stalker. And we really enjoy their amazing mastery in traditional dance and music. The urban Indigenous artists in the company have vocabularies from a number of places. For example Dalisa Pigram from Broome has been trained in the traditional dance forms of her people. She also did a lot gymnastics from when she was quite young, so she’s learned the aerial work in the show very quickly. She also went to the Aboriginal Music Theatre Training School in Perth that Michael Leslie set up. I met her just after that and we taught her the stilts.

 

Mapping stories

In Kunwinjku culture, the Djang (the closest you can get to the meaning is what whitefellas call Dreaming) exists in the land and as stories that have moved across the land. But there are also Djang stories we would think of as historical and built out of post-contact history. And because Stalker works either with large scale outdoor touring works or more site specific works, this whole idea of a story in a landscape is something that is part of the process of our company. That’s a shared understanding or the ground that we stand on together, that we build from.

The text for the new work was in fact a map which took in the Djang of the area, including the history of the first white man in the area, a man called Mr Watson. Thompson Yulidjirri, who’s the elder for this work, the storyman, tells his own history in the area. And Marrugeku, over the 6 years we’d worked together, we have our history there.

It took us days to make this big map with all these stories on it and that became our text for the show. We used it spatially but also as a group of narratives as well as an understanding of how the Djang stories, the contemporary stories and the historical stories could weave together into a narrative. It started on a piece of A4 paper and then we got another one and another one and then we got a big piece of cardboard and then we stopped; then we got 3 pieces of cardboard and started again-it went on and on. In the show, as Thompson is narrating he draws out the map and in the film [projected in the performance] Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton has made a montage of the telling.

One day, in the process of doing the mapping, there was this little circle on the map and I said to Thompson, what’s that one there and he said oh, that’s Mr Watson. And I said, who’s this fella Mr Watson? And he told me the whole story of his father’s people along with other tribes being taken from their land and the setting up of a mission on Goulburn Island. Reverend James Watson was the first white man to come through this area. We then went and researched Watson in the National Archive and managed to find a copy of his diary.

With the company there for a month, we listened to lots of stories and went to quite a few places. At the end, I said to Thompson, last time we looked at the Mimi story; if we had a Djang story now, what would it be? And he got that furrow in his forehead and he said: the Orphan story.

The Orphan or Crying Boy Dreaming is from a place called Gapari, the country where Thompson’s father lived. It’s a story Thompson’s custodian of. It’s a place he goes and visits. We’ve been there with him a number of times. It’s a story of neglect. This little boy was neglected by two tribes and a form of the Rainbow Serpent became angry at the tribes for not looking after the boy and she turned them all into rock. That’s the short version. Because Thompson grew up on Goulburn Island and Eddie grew up there too, the Crying Baby Dreaming already had quite a strong resonance. One of the crafty things that Mr Watson did was to take these different tribes from a place thick with stories to a place where there was no Djang. There was no dreaming on Goulburn. The people said it was very arid and a stupid place to go and live. Not so much tucker.

When we started this project, Thompson said to us, we’ve gotta look at the whitefella story this time. We can’t just look at that blackfella story. The other side of that was, I said to him, well let’s also look at the contemporary story from your country. You can’t just sit back on your heels as traditional men and talk about your Djang. What’s going on there now? And that, of course, is incredibly difficult for me as a director and for him as an old man. It’s something he cares about enormously but also a very hard thing to tackle because there’s so little hope there. And it’s so complex. There’s so much violence, so much culture being lost every day. Old people are dying and losing stories. So many of the kids have big petrol sniffing problems. A large percentage of the parents are alcoholics. Kids are growing up in chaos. For Thompson, as an old man, a big part of his life is teaching stories to the young people. What he’s finding now is that the young people don’t want to listen.

So these were our starting points. The Orphan story, the question about white Australia and contemporary life in the community. Thompson talks about this story in relation to the Stolen Generations but also in relation to white Australia. The film also carries quite a lot of the narrative. I made a film about a lost white girl in the bush. Often when there’s a Watson scene, there’s this lost girl who’s telling a white version of the orphan story. In Australia there’s this thing about Aboriginal children being taken from the bush but also a paranoia about white children lost in the bush.

 

The return of the Mimis in Crying Baby

The return of the Mimis in Crying Baby

Representing the whitefella

It was interesting reading Watson’s diaries. He comes across as very gung-ho. He was a madman really. He tried to ride a bicycle from Darwin to Kunbarrllajnja (Oenpelli). He had so little water left that he started drinking the oil from his bicycle chain. I’ve juxtaposed this quite maniacal character with this disoriented figure suffering a kind of blindness. In the beginning there’s a whole lot that he doesn’t see that happens around him.

When it came to the part of the show where Watson meets the Aboriginal people and asks them to go to Goulburn Island with him, I handed that over to the guys from Oenpelli who were dancing in the show, to see how they wanted to play that scene. Harry Thomson had a lot of ideas about how it should be. And what was really interesting for me is that they made it very funny. Everybody in the community knows the story of that first missionary taking the people away from their country and how it was the beginning of a lot of change-it’s a very heavy thing. But they play it very slapstick. It’s going to be interesting to see how that translates from playing it in front of a community audience to playing it to an urban, festival audience. It’s quite strange and of course, Katia Molino is very good at it and it’s a bit Buster Keaton sometimes.

In the beginning the Dreaming, historical and contemporary elements are separate but towards the end of the show they start to break into each other. At the end there’s a scene where Watson has a fight with a devil-devil figure—Katia and Trevor Jamieson, one of the dancers from Western Australia, have a great aerial dance on bungy with pulleys. It’s a moment where Watson’s starting to see the spirit figures and also fearing that maybe he hasn’t really been doing the right thing—moving into a phase of doubt. In his diaries he actually appears to have stayed in his myopic, aggressive mode. But when I imagine him up there in Arnhem Land licking the oil from his bicycle chain and completely surrounded by such a foreign culture, what he’s written in this diary has to be a falsehood. Where’s the doubt?

 

Remembering the words

The music is a mixture of live and recorded. There’s the Marrugeku band that was in Mimi with the same lineup: Lorrae Coffin from Broome who plays bass and the composer Matthew Fargher who plays violin and keyboard. Bruce Nabegeyo is the main songman. For this show he’s singing quite a lot of songs in kunbarllang which is his mother’s language. He’s remembered these kunbarllang songs. It took him a while.

For the dancing, Eddie speaks a number of languages but some of the other guys didn’t know these songs so well so it took a while to remember how to dance to them. The dances come from Croaker Island. Eddie moved around a lot as a young man. He’s quite special because he’s been trained in a number of the dance forms. He has an incredible vocabulary to draw from. Sometimes he’s teaching the old men. When he started on the stilts, he was trying to learn what we do. Then one day he said, okay that’s it, I’m gonna do it my way. Suddenly his stilt walking got better. He could do a lot more, moving from the basis of his own traditional dance vocabulary rather than trying to copy our copying of them. Eddie does a scene in which he breakdances. It’s great to see him playing a role other than dancing painted up in his narga.

 

Reading the audience

When we did the pre-premiere it was programmed as part of the Darwin Festival. We had 2 shows just for the community and then 3 more when the Darwin community could come in. In fact, I think most people from the community came every night. They knew the show off by heart. It was important for us to have that Darwin audience but I do think a Darwin audience is educated to a slightly different way of reading things than, say, a Sydney or Perth audience. Some things I’m changing. I don’t believe in the Peter Brook universal theatrical language idea and because we make works spanning remote community audiences, urban Australian audiences and international audiences, we rework the shows for each place. Also I’ll learn from seeing it in Perth. It’s a groundbreaking time. I’ve had to make guesses about how things might be read. For example, in the physical vocabulary there are moves that can be read by a Kunwinjku audience, simple things, like a hand signal that means Rainbow Serpent. We need to think of a different way to communicate that.

We’re asking the audience to listen in a different way. And we’re looking at narrative in a different way. One of the things I’ve learned from Kunwinjku stories is that they have a simple structure but layers of meaning. And as we weave the Watson story and the contemporary story, I hope that the audience will accept our invitation to listen and think in a different way about what reality is. About what they see, about what’s going on, about how much impact the history of this country has had on the present, how much impact the spirit stories have on the here and now.

A lot of grounding for the collaboration is that our physical vocabulary for the stilts and the aerial work has always moved in between the realms of the spirit and the human. Stalker has done that since early works like Angels Ex Machina. It’s something we’ve been obsessed with as a company and I think it supports this idea of a connection between Dreaming, history, and the contemporary.

One of the areas that’s been most challenging with this work has been to look at the contemporary scene. So the prologue is set in Oenpelli with everyone in the company sitting round campfires. We’ve tried to really blur the difference between the audience and the performers. Everyone is sitting around together and there’s no starting-of-the show moment. It’s just a very slow fade into the performance. We’re limiting the audience number to 800 which for Stalker is quite small. We’ve played other shows for up to 1200. In the community we were playing to 500. Our Darwin limit was 300. Crying Baby is more intimate than Mimi and more complex.

 

Cultural negotiation

We go through more and more together, we grow closer and we trust each other more, especially people like Thompson who essentially writes the shows with me. He’s got to the stage now where he’s often standing on the outside almost directing. He’s standing out there shouting at these boys in Language if they get it wrong. I love that. I think the territory that we can go into together, there’s so much more understanding and we can go deeper, and that’s more satisfying.

But I think the issues that the company deals with and what the people in the company are living through certainly don’t get any easier. The “humbug” as they call it up there doesn’t get easier. The issues facing the urban Indigenous as well as the remote community-based members are really tough. There are mandatory sentences being handed out to members of the company. The alcoholism, families in Perth and Broome that are struggling with the number of kids being looked after, people having no money and trying to get food, the health issues…they certainly don’t get any easier.

When we were in the community there was a lot of trouble going on. Someone got murdered and there was a lot of payback. It was very heavy. And we were making scenes that looked at or referred to trouble and characters not so strong in their traditional culture. But the scenes I’m happiest with are the contemporary scenes even though we had been really worried about making that kind of work and showing it to the community. The issues are lived out on a daily basis. And so, in that way, I feel like the company is an example of trying to live through reconciliation.

Cultural liaison with the traditional owners in all the countries we go to is a really big part of what we do. There’s a lot of advance work that goes into it to contextualise the work in terms of site and the local culture. There’s always a welcome by traditional owners of whatever country we’re in. With Mimi, and we’re hoping with Crying Baby, someone from that country tells the stories in their language. In Manila, we told stories in Tagalog. In New Caledonia they were in French and Kanak. The Noongar mob in Perth are doing a welcome for us and hosting a barbecue when we get there. So those relationships need to be set up properly. When you’re bringing a Djang story, you’re bringing a living entity to a place and so there’s a certain amount of negotiation around that. When we took Mimi to Perth, it was the first time we’d performed the show and we didn’t set up those relationships and there were a lot of people who had bad dreams about Mimis at that time and it caused a bad feeling about the production in that place.

 

Stalker

We’ve just started a new work called Incognita. We’re working with writer Paul Carter and Koen Augustijnen from Les Ballet C de la B. He and I are co-directing, co-choreographing. After making Crying Baby, I had this absolute need to look at a whitefella story for this country. So the piece looks at what it means to live in a country with a buried past. It’s a kind of remote white outback Australian setting. One of the starting points was what it means to recreate life on the site of a massacre, a place where there’s been extreme violence in the past, what kind of characters would evolve out of that. It’s pretty heavy. The process of making Crying Baby has been heavy. And it seems that having worked with Marrugeku really propels us into another way of looking at content.

*************

First thing I can say, I think its gamak [very good] that new story and old story go together. I will start with Crying Baby, this place, somewhere behind Coopers Creek. The story starts at Croaker Island, finishes up at Gapari. That little boy, he was crying, all the time crying, all the time crying for food. If you let that little boy crying all the time, little boy will make rainbow come, will kill you all. Like this mob, white man came and take children away, might be I can’t see them when they grow, they go away from mother and father, no one looking after them. I draw that story in that book. White man collect all them children. Take away, never come back. We have to look after them kid, or then that rainbow angry, coming to kill all.

Thompson Yulidjirri, storyman, visual artist

The Marrugeku Company, Crying Baby, Perth Festival, Quarry Amphitheatre, February 1 – 4

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 8-9

© RealTime; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001
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