looking back, looking forward

david milroy: playwright, musician, director

Trevor Jamieson, Ursula Yovich and David Milroy on guitar in his play Waltzing the Willara, Yirra Yaakin Theatre

Trevor Jamieson, Ursula Yovich and David Milroy on guitar in his play Waltzing the Willara, Yirra Yaakin Theatre

THE FIRST PLAY DAVID MILROY WROTE WAS IN 1997. CALLED RUNUMUK, IT WAS FOR A NEWLY FOUNDED WESTERN AUSTRALIAN THEATRE COMPANY, YIRRA YAAKIN. DAVID, LYNETTE NARKLE (CURRENTLY SEEN AS THE MATRIARCH IN THE FILM THE SAPPHIRES) AND PAUL MCPHAILX, PROGRAMED YIRRI YAAKIN’S FIRST SEASON WITH PLAYS THAT HADN’T YET BEEN WRITTEN. AND THEN DAVID WROTE SOME OF THEM, CREATING A PLAYWRIGHT IN THE PROCESS. HERE, HE REFLECTS ON THE EVOLUTION OF ABORIGINAL THEATRE AND CURRENT ISSUES THAT HE FEELS NEED TO BE ADDRESSED.

In those early days Aboriginal plays were viewed with curiosity. They were ‘exotica.’ Of course there were people with a genuine interest in Aboriginal stories too. We had been written out of history and as a country we were late in catching up. In the 70s and 80s there was a lot of ignorance about our stories and history, and we weren’t that visible being such a small percentage of the population. There were no Aboriginal theatre companies other than the Redfern model so we had to play ‘catch-up theatre.’ Of the early plays, those of Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert and Bobby Merritt were heavily based on the experiences of the writers and the people around them. The politics were quite strong.

fiction, non-fiction and ethics

Lately there have been more autobiographical plays—interesting works about interesting people—and they are very valid but, personally, I don’t do non-fiction shows any more. I am more interested in the craft of fiction. Non-fiction shows are also challenging to navigate in terms of permissions—the community, the extended family and the person you are writing about. You are pulling the lid off their life. That is a noble journey and for some, it can be very cathartic. You still have to be responsible to culture and community if you are writing fiction to keep it real and authentic.

writing for both audiences

I started off by writing shows with big casts and then, slowly, I wrote more ‘practically’ and the shows became more manageable in terms of cast numbers, to the point where I was just writing single handers. Now I just write what the show requires regardless of cast size or staging. It’s up to the powers that be if it gets a run. Audiences have also evolved since then. As Aboriginal writers we don’t have to spell everything out, post-”Sorry.” I write for both audiences: our own community and non-Aboriginal. For me, a play needs to be accessible to both, and each reacts differently—laughing and cringing at the same scene.

more than catch-up theatre

What has changed since I started in theatre? The styles of plays being written for one. Back then, the politics of the time were such that our theatre was about telling stories that had been erased from (public) discourse. But Aboriginal culture isn’t exclusively about ‘catch-up theatre’—having to educate audiences about our history and what really went on in this country. We have so much more to give. In terms of the future you can’t determine or predict what stories will emerge, that will happen organically. But it is exciting; there’s all sorts of energy around hybrid forms; theatre and music, theatre and multimedia, theatre and circus. It’s healthy. We have always adapted and evolved.

the next generation

Looking at where we are now, one of the burning issues for me concerns the next generation of artists coming through, and their training. When I began, yes, I was young and passionate but I fell into playwriting and I could have done with some guidance. I didn’t know the history of Aboriginal theatre and the politics of it. I didn’t know about genres of writing. I am not saying we have to slavishly follow western styles of playwriting but developing theatre would be easier if we knew what they were. I had no idea what a metaphor was! So, we need to focus on the next generation, to look at training pathways, and not just for actors and writers and directors but our stage managers, set, lighting designers etc. The major Indigenous training institutions—West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts in Queensland and the Eora Centre in Redfern—still struggle with inadequate funding. It will be great to put energy and resources into that.

room for optimism

Am I optimistic about the future for Aboriginal theatre? If you had asked me three years ago the answer would have been no. There were some great shows but less of them, companies were struggling or going under. We hadn’t had a black playwriting conference in years. I thought, “this is the end of black theatre—we will fade to the fringe.” It was a wakeup call. The National Indigenous Theatre Forum happened, and the Australia Council and others got to see that we had a united voice and some things changed such as the Yellamundie Playwriting Conference. Now I’m optimistic!

protocols & stories

There are other issues around how mainstream uses Aboriginal theatre content, how they engage with the community around protocols, and issues of more non-Aboriginal writers writing Aboriginal stories. We need to stay strong, and make our agenda clear to them. We’ve come a long way but there’s still a long way to go.

acknowledging theatre elders

I’d say my other burning issue is around acknowledging our theatre Elders, those living legends, and those who have passed on. We need a national event to acknowledge them and the role they have played, the strong foundation they have laid down for us to have a thriving industry and a pathway to the future.

This article has been edited from an interview with David Milroy conducted by RealBlak editor Jane Harrison.

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 21

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

9 October 2012
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