making theatre from scratch

andrea james: the art of animateuring

Sonny Dallas Law, Bjorn Stewart, Colin Kinchela, Bully Beef Stew, PACT Centre for Emerging Artists

Sonny Dallas Law, Bjorn Stewart, Colin Kinchela, Bully Beef Stew, PACT Centre for Emerging Artists

Sonny Dallas Law, Bjorn Stewart, Colin Kinchela, Bully Beef Stew, PACT Centre for Emerging Artists


Us animateurs, we don’t rely on the well-made play. We bring together a group of artists and we enter the unknown. It’s not community cultural development and it’s not (cue dreaded music) ‘group devising.’ It is deeper than that. It’s theatre making. Making theatre from scratch. We scratch below the surface and we dig deep into the dirt.

This business of animateuring requires great courage and the people you bring with you on that journey must be brave and talented. Not Young Talent Time or X-Factor talented; just fearless, smart and intuitive. This thing that we do requires great courage. We open ourselves up and we push things to the edge and beyond. We risk failure, ridicule and scorn when we push too far.

Most animateuring begins with a question or a hunch. An itch that just has to be scratched. We draw a big circle in the sand and we enter the play space. In that room or space we push through the shame barrier. We flail about with our bodies and minds looking for that sweet honey spot of truth; and when a brave, intuitive actor steps into this spot, our world is illuminated and we breathe a collective sigh.

Why is animateuring important for us theatre mob? Because it’s the closest thing we can get to initiation and ceremony. Big call? In our ‘modern’ worlds, away from the bush and the aunties and uncles, we constantly seek that place around the fire. We yearn for stories, dance, ceremony and tradition and we seek and find these things through our craft.


Bloodland, Sydney Theatre Company

Bloodland, Sydney Theatre Company

Bloodland, Sydney Theatre Company

To be an animateur requires deep listening or what Stephen Page calls “listening with your eyes.” I am reminded of the making of Bloodland, a collaborative theatre performance piece co-produced by Bangarra and the Sydney Theatre Company in 2011. I have long been inspired by Stephen’s segues away from straight dance—that magic moment when a dancer speaks or when a singer or actor is allowed onto a dancer’s stage—when monologue, poetry, song and yarning are allowed to spring forth. This began for me with Bangarra’s Skin in 2000 (providing some of the most memorable moments on the blak stage, aided brilliantly by the performances of Wayne Blair and Archie Roach).

So I was pleased to see Stephen step even further into the world of theatre with Bloodland (2011). Even more pleasing was the fact that the spoken word in the piece was predominately Yolngu. How gloriously annoying this was for some audience members who have become complacent, who want a plot, story, subtitles and characters to laugh at. Yet I was transfixed and reminded of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—these two fullas who wait around as if they are on ‘sit down money,’ where words seem to have no logic, but where the atmosphere and SPIRIT is thick. Just like in Godot, the people in Bloodland had a dilemma that was presented to us in all its glory and ugliness. The audience was placed in a privileged and voyeuristic position and we left the theatre feeling unsettled.

This brave new work was made (animateured) within four weeks. Bringing Wayne Blair’s treatment/script and some character outlines to the Yolngu homelands, the creative team made this work from scratch. As Stephen reiterated, “It’s rude to go in with your theatre plan. It was best just to go in…”

In a work deeply embedded in language and cultural principles, two moieties were formed within a cast/clan. Stephen Page describes his process as a “contemporary initiation”:

“Because we’ve never learnt the fear of that. Because we’ve been dictated to about how to fear…In our culture the fear is much more potent…If you’re back in your country you’ve gotta be out at a certain time between wet and dry season to get some gathering. And if you’re not back for that sun, that’s your initiation. That sun sets and you haven’t gotten back, that’s your initiation. You’ve gotta be able to monitor land and land’s gotta be able to shape your fear and you’ve gotta build a balance between that so that you can survive that initiation…Whatever organically happens in the process usually is what ends up on stage.”

This is what makes good animateuring. The blakness. Going into the unknown. Hanging around til just after the sun sets, then coming back to camp to dance, sing or tell your story. Not to say that we all have to go up to East Arnhem Land to find that place. Some peers criticise Page for his approach, saying that this feeds the stereotype that only real blackfullas are up north. It’s wherever we find our inspiration; each of us has our own traditions, country, stories, totems to draw upon and that’s what keeps the blak theatre fires burning.

bully beef stew

I recently experienced theatre as ‘contemporary initiation’ when I collaborated on Bully Beef Stew (RT105) at PACT Centre for Emerging Artists with Sonny Dallas Law, Colin Kinchela and Bjorn Stewart as they walked valiantly into that ‘dark place.’ As animateur it was my job to provide a creative framework for these wonderfully talented artists to explore Aboriginal male experiences and notions of initiation. As an Aboriginal woman I was required to leave the room many times and I will never know what happened behind that door. All I know is that when I came back to see them perform, they had changed. I love it when theatre can do that. When the indescribably sacred is felt but not known.

the next generation

Which leads me finally to the voice of our next generation of animateurs:

Possible idea for a play

1. Get Indigenous actor

2. Throw some dirt on stage

3. Profit.

This Facebook status update was posted by the cheeky and irreverent Bjorn Stewart on August 22. As a young blak theatremaker trying to find his way in a competitive and cutthroat industry, he threw this line out to see if he would get any bites. And bite we did:

Colin Kinchela It’s already ‘©’d’ :p

Sonny Dallas Law Hey i did that back in 2006!! lol

Andrea James What about ‘throw dirt on actor’??????

Bjorn Stewart Damn it! See now all you blackfellas are trying to steal my idea!

For us animateurs, concepts of ceremony, tradition, initiation and clan systems are hard to uphold in an industry that is essentially market driven and predominately controlled by non-Aboriginal artistic directors and bureaucrats obsessed with bums on seats. Limited funding and therefore limited time often forces us to reduce our cultural ambitions. Going onto country to make work is a per diem minefield that needs to be battled. Waiting for country to speak to us doesn’t always fit neatly into a project budget. Furthermore, the idea of ‘profit,’ as Bjorn so succinctly puts it, flies in the face of more traditional notions of reciprocity.

With our practice comes a sense of cultural responsibility and the unspoken expectation of reciprocity that some non-Aboriginal artists can avoid. Us blackfulla artists avoid this at our peril. Our work is about much much more than mooms on seats. There’s a blak commerce at play too.

“None of that is contracted legally,” says Page. “It’s all based on bartering and giving back and going up there and doing shows, workshopping with the kids… That has a lot to do with this organic process….here’s this full circle of giving back from where inspiration is.” This is the gift that Aboriginal artists give back to their communities in recognition and appreciation of our inherited stories and traditions.

Animateuring—making theatre from scratch—is vital to our cultural and artistic expression as blakfulla artists. Something that cannot always be served by wornout play commissioning processes and/or predictable subscription seasons (if I see another translation by another white male I’m going to scream!)

Which is why we must keep scratching, keep digging and telling our stories our way.

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 4

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

9 October 2012