myths & epic journeys: creating & recreating

jane harrison interviews margaret harvey, john romeril

John Romeril, Walter Waia, Margaret Harvey

John Romeril, Walter Waia, Margaret Harvey

John Romeril, Walter Waia, Margaret Harvey


JH What inspired you to make this new work?

MH In 2003 I performed in a theatre piece that contained Greek myths woven through it and it got me thinking about how powerful the Saibai Island myths are…I decided to create a visual theatre piece that stemmed from my own clan group. I am developing a highly visual theatrical experience in a genre that could be described as magical realism.

JH What is the Amana Kazi about?

MH It is for my people on Saibai. The play is called Amana Kazi, which means mother’s child. [Saibai is one of around 274 islands in the Torres Strait and is closer to Papua New Guinea (8 km away) than to mainland Australia. Ed] Amana Kazi really represents community and it takes a community to tell an epic piece like this. The play is being developed in collaboration with my Uncle Walter, who is an Elder of one particular clan group, the Ait Kadal (crocodile) clan. My dream is to have a minimum cast of 10 but 15 would be the optimum. We’re aiming for presentation in 2013. John Romeril came on board as dramaturg in late 2009.

JH Why this story?

MH I grew up down south, away from the Torres Strait Islands, but my Mum was always encouraging us to tell her stories. During my Australia Council Fellowship I developed a methodology for telling those stories. For me, it is part of making that connection again with family. I don’t have a literary background so it is a visual theatre piece.

I began by speaking to my Uncle Walter about how to bring to life some of the myths of our clan and my mother’s stories. I feel the power of the stories. My mother left Saibai on a pearl lugger in 1947 when she was six months old. The family settled in Bamaga, set up by the Queensland government for families of the exodus, and she went on to marry an English man. So I don’t come from a traditional background—yet there is an emotional journey to the piece.

My Uncle Walter is a wise, knowledgeable man. I always wanted John Romeril on board but the two men had to connect to make it work. As soon as he and John got in the same room, well, they might as well have been brothers. Uncle Walter said, “If you don’t bring this fella back, I’m not coming back.”

JR I liked Uncle Walter’s company, but liked his story too. He explained the way he was ‘fired off,’ like an arrow to the mainland by his Dad to skill up as part of the post-war generation. Walter doesn’t just ‘tell’ me this story, he enacts it. He adopts the stance of an archer. You see the bow, you see the arrow. The fingers relax. The arrow’s been fired. His eye-line, and mine, watch it out of view. In Walter’s case, that arrow lands in Adelaide, where he’s sent to get a law degree. He goes on to do Native Title work, especially around Sea Rights. He was involved in the Mabo case.

But what struck me, hour one of that first meeting was, “Wow, this man can ‘dance’ ideas.” As a playwright, a dramaturg, I’m thinking, “This is gold.” He is innately theatrical.

As the conversation continues, Romeril suggests Walter’s journey is a diaspora story, an exodus story that parallels the play Margaret is developing. A difference is that Walter flew to the mainland, whereas their mother, in a far from incident-free voyage, sailed to the mainland. The Saibai backstory is that king-tides in 1946 inundated parts of the island, ruined gardens, killed fruit trees. The issue confronting half the island’s population was relocate or starve.

Young Saibai Islanders who’d been part of the Torres Strait Infantry patrolling Australia’s northern shores during World War II approached their Elders. They’d spotted a tract of land on Cape York. It boasted good soil, timber and permanent creeks. The post-war settlement at Bamaga would evolve, becoming home to displaced Islanders and Aboriginals alike, including Margaret Harvey’s mother.

JH How is John working as a dramaturg for this piece?

MH John is helping to build it; the structure of the piece. He is an outside eye. He was also someone we thought we could take to Saibai, and who could make that connection with Uncle Walter, apart from just helping us with the history. Uncle Walter has a traditional background even though he was sent to Adelaide. When he speaks it is very poetic, especially when he talks about the land, the sea, the stars. Uncle Walter and John both speak their own ‘language’ but they understand each other. It is two Elders speaking, with mutual understanding.

Going back to my roots, right back in blood, it is an amazing thing. Although you leave the land of your heritage, it is still in you.

JH How is the process of working with John?

Harvey describes how Romeril listens to Uncle Walter, and retains that information, in turn sharing it with her. “I re-learn some of these cultural stories from JR. I don’t turn a ‘blind ear’ to them ‘cos I trust him. It is knowledge that I didn’t grow up with.[Our relationship] is organic and respectful. I don’t feel like a newbie, as a writer. It is about the creation, respecting each other, and what each of us brings to the table.”

JR Presentations are made to the extended family on the theatrical material Margie is developing, and always with an eye to staying true to their cultural roots. While I push the form of theatre I am also asking, what are the stakes here? And what, protocol-wise, is appropriate?

MH JR works in a respectful way. And having that trust is a big thing. Certain of the myths and legends in the stories come with gender issues attached so we need to be careful how they are used. We also need to consider can the story survive down south, where there is no common cultural understanding audience-wise? We want to widen the audience to reach beyond community, yet have the community’s voice be heard.

JR Margie has an aesthetic. She will see a YouTube clip and say, “I like this palette of colours.” Because she’s grown up with it, dance, song and ceremony remain a huge part of the story.

The rehearsal room is intense. Uncle Walter will say, “I last heard this song when I was 13.” He remembers a few of the traditional moves that belong with the song. At times it is very emotional, they cry so easily. It’s beautiful, epic stuff. This has never been done before. People travel, often taking long journeys. But so do artifacts, so do stories, so do languages.

JH What have you learned from working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre makers, JR?

JR Perspective. And the adventures I can now have with first peoples of this country…I get a sense of my forebears having washed up on this continent in 1854, clinging, in my case, to the country by our fingernails. This interaction enriches me; it gives me a sense of how to live in this place I’m in. What a palette! It is energising, uplifting… It gives my white a darker, denser, shade of pale! (LAUGHS).

JH Why is dramaturgy is important?

MH For me as a new time writer/creator this collaboration is imperative in helping bridge the gap in a theatrical medium. As Indigenous artists we need to be really honest about what we bring. When re-telling a story with the outside world, you need to find a way to communicate it to the audience. We are using language; one of the main intentions of this piece is to help keep language alive, but for me it’s about finding a creative way to communicate without just having surtitles. I’m not going to alienate the [non-Torres Strait Island] audience. Otherwise they are just watching something ‘exotic.’ It’s not just about ‘showing,’ it’s about sharing, and using a shared language. That language is theatre.

JR I may not be a first person, but I am the first audience!

MH It’s not just about John being an iconic playwright, he understands culture. All of our family loves him. When we see him out and about, we make a beeline for him.

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 8

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

9 October 2012