Thursday, December 26, 2019

Signposts and Messagesticks: An Ethnographic Performance Research Presentation

Signposts and Messagesticks: An Ethnographic Performance Research Presentation of the Study of Non-Indigenous Secondary Drama Teachers’ Engagement with an Indigenous Drama Text
Presentation by
Mark Eckersley

This performance research presentation was first presented at the 2018 Drama Australia Conference in Melbourne Australia on December 1st, 2018. A video copy of most of the presentation is available at A video of some of the presentation is available at:
(A mound of earth is positioned in the centre of the stage. Two piles of stones are evident at the front of the stage. One is made up of different shades of brown and black stones and one is made of white stones. The Researcher walks around the covered objects.)

The Researcher:              I’d like to acknowledge that we are gathered today on the land of the Wurundjeri people, the traditional custodians of this land. We acknowledge the care they have taken and continue to take for the land and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and future.
I want to preface this presentation and research with four questions which seem to me to underpin my engagement as a Non-Indigenous Australian in a space where Indigenous Australians are the custodians of much of this landscape, its traditions and ‘ways of Knowing’. I ask myself:
‘Where’s my place? What’s my landscape? What’s my story? How do I tread with soft padded feet?’

I will start with a story. Early in my doctorate studies I had a problem. My supervisor wasn’t able to secure me an Indigenous Australian co-supervisor. Contact was made through the university with a couple of people but no response seemed forthcoming. So I found an Indigenous Australian academic whose research seemed relevant to mine and I sent her an email with the story of my engagement with Indigenous Australia. It was a very difficult email to write but here is a summary of the email which ended up in the Prologue to my thesis.
(The Researcher places a stone on the ground with each memory and event mentioned. The stones eventually form a circle around the space.)
Dear Potential Mentor,
I approach you as a non-Indigenous doctoral student who has been lucky enough to have contact and guidance from many Indigenous Australian knowledge bearers in his life. I ask myself:
‘Where’s my place? What’s my landscape? What’s my story? How do I tread with soft padded feet?’
I was born in and respectfully acknowledge the homelands and nations of the Turrbal, Jagera and Murri peoples. After about 40,000 years of living on their lands and caring for and telling stories about Country, in the 1820’s non-Indigenous soldiers, convicts and settlers came taking the land, the languages and imposing names that had no links to the places they stamped and trod on. I remember sometime around 1967, my mum and I were going through King George Square in the city of Brisbane to join a rally to support the 1967 Referendum. I recall in 1970, my mum took me to a poetry reading by Oodgeroo Noonuccal reading We Are Going at a backroom in the Brisbane City Hall. I reminiscence seeing on the television in 1972, the setting up of the Aboriginal Tent embassy in Canberra. I can see in my mind’s eye Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring a handful of Daguragu soil into the noble elder Vincent Lingiari’s hands in 1975. (01:15)

I reminiscence how in 1981 at Griffith University in 1981, I heard about the history of disease, wars, slaughter, genocide, enslavement, the Protectionism and Control Boards, the Assimilation policies and the Stolen Generation Period caused by Colonists on Indigenous Australians. I remember in 1982 the day when my friend Ben shared with me that he was descendant from the Kombumerri peoples. I recall in the 80’s seeing Brian Syron and Justine Saunders acting in my first Indigenous Australian play, Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man at the Edward Street Theatre in Brisbane. Later I saw Jack Davis’ play The Dreamers at Twelfth Night Theatre in Bowen Hills. I have now seen over 130 Indigenous Australian plays in performance from theatre makers from over 25 of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations.

By 1986, I was living in Victoria and studying Theatre Directing at Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). I was lucky enough to work with Indigenous Australian playwright Jack Davis’ No Sugar at the Fitzroy Town Hall. Early in 1987, I saw a flyer for the 1st National Black Playwright’s Conference so I went up to Canberra and met Bob Maza and Ernie Dingo and they invited me to work as a dramaturg at the conference working on plays which some young Indigenous Australian artists and actors had written. The group included Bob Maza, Ernie Dingo, Justine Saunders, Lydia Miller, Rhoda Roberts and Vivian Walker (son of Kath Walker known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal).

I remember joining the January 1988 protests against the celebrations of the Bi-Centenary of Invasion. In 1989, I moved back to Brisbane to finish my Bachelor’s degree in Drama at QUT. I worked on a number of projects with fellow student artists including Wesley Enoch. Later that year I collaborated with Indigenous Australian writer, poet, storyteller and actor, Maureen Watson on a performance titled Mairwah, the traditional Indigenous Australian name for the Brisbane River. The performance involved working with over 200 differently abled children and adults. (02:15)

We worked with over 10 different Indigenous communities and groups connecting to over 120 Indigenous Australian adults and children. The performance used five languages – English and Auslan (sign language), and the local Yugarra, Gubbi Gubbi and Noonuccal languages.

The 1990’s were a golden age for Indigenous Australian theatre and I saw many of these productions including Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae, Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s The Seven Stages of Grieving and Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead. I started to take notes on every production I saw. I completed a Masters of Education at the University of Melbourne at this time and I was able to include some aspects of my study of Indigenous Australian dramaturgy in my thesis but I felt as if my understanding of this area was still in its infancy. I went overseas with my family late in 1999 but I continued to make notes on every Indigenous Australian play I saw and read every time I came back to Australia. By 2010, I had started to put this together into a book called Australian Indigenous Drama.

I enclose my notes and research on my initial research into the way non-Indigenous Australian drama teachers engage with Indigenous Australian drama texts. I hope that you might accept mentoring me on this research journey.

I hope I tread this landscape with respect and mindfulness and I hope I try to see the ground I tread on while trying to respect the peoples and cultures whose knowledge, ‘ways of Knowing’ and traditions have looked after this land for over 120,000 generations.

I was happily rewarded with this Indigenous Australian academic agreeing to be a co-supervisor on my research.

(The researcher walks around the objects or spectactors who appear on the stage looking and observing them as one object. Each statement is an observation and description.)
The Researcher:              An Abstract is a shape – “This is an ethnographic study.” With purpose, focus and detail – “The purpose of this ethnographic study is to investigate how non-Indigenous Australian Secondary Drama teachers engage with an Australian Indigenous Drama text, using ‘ways of seeing’ which develop knowledge and understanding.” It sometimes points out the gaps in literature and research – “There is a gap in the scholarly literature relating to the way that teachers engage with Indigenous Australian perspectives and texts and the knowledge and understanding they may develop.” It often highlights the major research question – “How do non-Indigenous Secondary Drama teachers engage with Indigenous Australian Drama texts and with what effects on ‘ways of seeing’ that develop knowledge and understanding?” It often quickly summarizes or outlines the research – “ In this study, ethnography and case study research is used to examine how non-Indigenous Victorian Secondary Drama teachers (NIVSDTs) look at and make sense of an Indigenous Australian Drama text using in-depth interviews, visual diaries and a Focus group discussion with four NIVSDTs. The significance of my research lies in its contribution to knowledge about social, cultural and political issues surrounding engagement with Indigenous cultures and ‘ways of Knowing’.”

(The Researcher uncovers the first object or takes up different positions to create a dialogue between the different ‘voices’ in the field of research)
The Researcher:              Chapter 1 – Introduction to the research. The voices of four actors in the field ‘set the scene’.
(The Researcher may place four masks or hats on the stage and picks up and wears each one as he/she speaks)
Curriculum Doc.:             The Australian National Curriculum mandates that Australian teachers must teach Indigenous Australian perspectives across all learning areas (ACARA, 2012).
Gov. Review:                    “…the emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature… is criticised for undervaluing Australian literature… We are persuaded that there is a danger of… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, culture and heritage being treated in a tokenistic and superficial manner…” (Australian Government, 2014, pp.165, 247)
Non-Indigenous Australian Academics:    Australian teachers struggle to identify and teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and knowledges (Harrison, 2011, p.15).
Ind. Australian Academics:          “There is an injustice in this (embedding Aboriginal perspectives in the education) for non-Aboriginal teachers. They are expected to do something that nobody has shown them how to do… There is plenty of research and training around what it is, and why it is important, but there is very little out there that deals with the how” (Yunkaporta 2009, p.5).
The Researcher:              The Australian National Curriculum requires Australian teachers to teach about Indigenous Australia as a cross-curricular priority but non-Indigenous teachers struggle to teach students about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and knowledges.

However, without teachers teaching this material in an informed and sympathetic way, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, culture and heritage may continue to be taught in tokenistic and superficial ways.
(The masks or hats are placed down and The Researcher moves between and around them during the next passages.)
With this in mind, I investigated how NIVSDTs ‘see’ an Indigenous Drama text using visual methodologies and Indigenous Australian perspectives such as Yunkaporta’s (2009), an eight-stage model. His model of cultural interface, involves examining - The Story, The Map, The Silence, The Signs, The Land, The Shape, The Backtracking and The Home-world.

Visuality also is used to frame the research and analysis. Theories of visuality are a set of concepts and theories in the Arts, Culture and Sociology fields which consider the relationship between representation, reality and knowledge through looking at the relationships between objects, images, words and their reception. Theories of visuality are used to underpin the three research sub-questions which are:
1. How do non-Indigenous Victorian Secondary Drama teachers (NIVSDTs) ‘see’ an Indigenous Drama text as an opportunity for theatrical exploration?
2. How do non-Indigenous Victorian Secondary Drama teachers (NIVSDTs) visualize an Indigenous Drama text with the view towards greater knowledges and understandings through using the representations, symbolism and meanings embedded in that text?
3. How do non-Indigenous Victorian Secondary Drama teachers (NIVSDTs) ‘turn’ or translate their interpretation of an Indigenous Australian Drama text into practical formats that address the concerns of the Australian National Curriculum?

(The Researcher uncovers the 2nd object. It is larger than the first. It is a stack or stacks of books. The Researcher stacks and restacks these books during the process of the performance of this scene.)
Researcher: This literature review addresses the empirical and theoretical literature to support the focus of this study.
Firstly, contextualising the problem. In 2009, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) was established and this authority published the document The Shape of the Australian National Curriculum (ACARA, 2009) stating that “… all young Australians can learn the histories and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, of their contribution to Australia, and of the consequences of colonial settlement for Indigenous communities, past and present…” (ACARA, 2009, p.6).
What does the literature say? Faccinetti (2012) in her review pointed out, five main challenges:
 Lack of general knowledge
 Trouble finding reliable information
 Preconceptions about Indigenous peoples and cultures
 Tokenism
 The inclusion of Indigenous Australian perspectives in the Cross-Curriculum Priorities area is confusing and over-complex (Faccinetti, 2012)
The 2014 Review of the Australian Curriculum regards the inclusion of Indigenous histories & cultures as seemingly ‘politically determined’ (2014, pp.3).

So, what is an Australian Indigenous Drama? Is every play written by an Indigenous Australian an Indigenous Australian drama? Can a non-Indigenous Australian write or co-write an Indigenous Australian Drama? I would, after much research, frame an Australian Indigenous drama as one being written or developed or performed by an Indigenous Australian person, persons and/or a group which comprises a process which involves substantial Indigenous Australian input in process and product which helps to privilege Indigenous Australian ownership and knowledges. It often also involves a process of negotiation and discussions about who has the rights and ownership to tell, represent and act in Indigenous Australian stories. This process has proven confronting but productive for non-Indigenous Australian theatre makers such as Scott Rankin and filmmakers such as filmmaker Rolf de Heer (Wright 2011). De Heer realised that to be able to make the film Ten Canoes he would have to embrace Indigenous Australians working on the film as auteurs controlling the vision, casting, locations, logistics and negotiation with the Yolgnu community who were caretakers of the stories being told (Wright 2011).

In Victoria, some of the Indigenous Australian drama texts which were included on our curriculum lists have been: Bran Nue Dae, No Sugar, Stolen, Belonging, The Sunshine Club, The Seven Stages of Grieving, Black Medea, Conversations with the Dead, Yanagai! Yanagai!, The Sapphires, Jandamarra, Walking into the Bigness, Namatjira, Black Diggers, Beautiful One Day and Coranderrk. Over 160 Indigenous Australian plays have been written and performed from 1969 until 2018. Over 100,000 Australian students have studied an Indigenous Australian play from 1990 to 2017. In 2017, over 3,000 Victorian students studied an Indigenous Australian play in either VCE English, VCE Drama or VCE Theatre Studies.

Indigenous Australian educators have explored not just what is taught when approaching Indigenous Australian knowledges but how these knowledges are taught. The 2009 work of the Indigenous academic Yunkaporta Aboriginal pedagogies at the cultural interface attempted to unify this through his eight ways of cultural interface.

Nerida Blair’s book Privileging Australian Indigenous Knowledge (2015) attempted to reposition Australian Indigenous Knowings emphasising the connection to Country, stories and voices through lived ceremony and practices (2015, xxiii). Co-becoming Bawaka: Towards a relational understanding of place/space (Bawaka et al, 2016) is an Australian study where the Indigenous Australian ‘Country’ is one of the authors, along with Indigenous Australian and Non-Indigenous Australian knowledge holders. Foley proposes the implementation of Indigenous epistemology and Indigenous Standpoint Theory as an approach which values and privileges Indigenous ‘ways of Knowing’ (2003, pp.44-50).

To complement Indigenous Australian ‘knowings’ I also used Visuality as one of my theoretical frameworks. Theories of visuality are a set of interdisciplinary theories involving different fields of study which provide for a variety of semiotic and analytical discourse approaches to explain conceptual interactions between representation, reality, culture and relationships. In particular Reception theory as originally outlined by Hall (1980 & 1993) helped identify three decoding systems or positioning in discourse. The work of Smith (2002) in his Visual Regimes of Colonization, also allows us to look at how visual regimes of colonization work through calibration, obliteration and symbolization to undermine the work of non-Indigenous Australian teachers when working with Indigenous Australian texts. (8:30)

(The Researcher uncovers the 3rd object. It is larger than the first two. It is an object which looks like machine or perhaps even a stationary bicycle. The Researcher gets the machine going or rides the stationary bicycle during this scene. The machine or the bicycle builds speed and momentum as the scene moves on.).

Researcher:       I used a qualitative research approach as a means for exploring and understanding the work of non-Indigenous Victorian Drama teachers. Ethnography helped to contextualise the lived realities and perspectives of my participant NIVSDTs engaging with an Indigenous Australian Drama text.

Data was collected using semi-structured interviews and a focus group discussion as well as through visual journals prepared by the participants.
Case study was used as a complimentary methodology in the study since it helps to unify observations made about human context and interaction in a real world context.
The play used was The Seven Stages of Grieving which was chosen by a VCAA Drama and Theatre Studies panel and added to the 2017 VCE Drama and Theatre Studies playlist.
Participant selection for this study was done through criteria and guided selection. Four volunteer participants were approached through Drama Victoria through the VCE Theatre Studies Online Focus group discussion. The following criteria were used to select ‘information rich’ participants:
·       Participants had to have taught for at least 3 years
·       Each had to be teaching The Seven Stages of Grieving with VCE Theatre Studies students in 2017
·       They had to intending to see a performance of the play with their students
·       They had to representative of a range of teachers in terms of gender, age, educational settings and experience
·       They had to be willing to contribute to over six month’s research
·       The four case study participants chosen were all NIVSDTs. The average age of the participants was 50 years old which is more than the average age of 43 for Victorian teachers              (Vukovic 2014).

Two of the teachers taught in Government Secondary colleges, one teacher taught in a Catholic secondary school and one teacher taught in an Independent school. Two participants were female and two were male.
One teacher had significant experience teaching drama and Indigenous Australian plays over many years and another teacher was less experienced teacher and this was his first experience studying an Indigenous Australian play.
To identify and track data to its original source while maintaining anonymity was ensured through replacing the names of participants with pseudonyms using names derived from the first four letters of the alphabet (i.e. A - Alison, B – Bernadette, C- Corey and D – David).
The first data collection stage was semi-structured interviews. The second stage of data gathering centred on visual journals created by the participants during a six month process. The third stage of the data gathering involved the running of focus group discussion with the participants. Due to sickness, Participant D (David) was unable to be physically present at the focus group discussion. Consequently, David was given a transcript and audio recording of the focus group discussion and he was given the option of providing an audio or written response to the focus group discussion with his responses.
The study investigated how NISDTs engage with an Australian Indigenous Drama text to examine a ‘way of seeing’. The case design and data analysis were informed by ‘theories of visuality’ and Indigenous Australian ‘ways of Knowing’. The significance of this research lies in its contribution to knowledge about social, cultural and political issues surrounding the engagement of non-Indigenous teachers with Indigenous cultures and knowledges.

(The Researcher uncovers the 4rd object. It is larger than the first three. It is possible that four audience volunteers or spect-actors are used for this scene.)
Researcher:        In this scene, the findings are revealed using Indigenous Australian academic Yunkaporta’s Eight Yunkaporta’s (2009) eight stages of engagement and cultural interface. These are:
The Story, The Map, The Silence, The Signs, The Land, The Shape, The Backtracking or The Home-world.
The Story
Alison is 48-year-old NIVSDT. For her, The Story of her engagement with Australian Indigenous culture, history and perspectives started at university.
Alison:  “I was quite horrified when I was 19 and I went to university and I discovered that wells were poisoned and all of these things add up. At first, I didn’t believe it. That’s not, they are not my ancestors and after more discovery and research I found it was right. I was horrified…”
Researcher:       The Story for Bernadette
Bernadette:       So, two of the things I have studied in my life have been Sociology and Politics so I am quite interested in social structures and I have spent some time in my life in Indigenous communities, my school has a few connections with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory … I think that one of the other things in terms of story is that I am interested in Feminism and I am interested in the personal as political and the political as personal.
Researcher:       The Story for Corey
Corey:   “So I will start with the rituals of more ancient Aboriginal culture and work my way up into the history, the more modern history. I am so unfamiliar with the modern history, modern aboriginal stories, it is so out of my comfort zone, so I will start with the ritual stuff first.”
Researcher: The Story for David
David is a sixty-one-year-old NIVSDT who teaches in an urban Government school and he has taught Drama for 26 years and in that time has taught 13 Indigenous Australian Drama texts.
David:   “I teach Theatre Studies, Drama and English… and I have taught 13 Aboriginal plays all up… Part of the story which I wanted tell to students was to set the scene with the initial work and give a background. I gave them a background to pre-colonial history of Aboriginal people. I then wanted to point out what happened during the Frontier Wars.”
Researcher:       The Map
For Alison studying Indigenous Australian plays in Drama are vital signposts on The Map of her learning journey.
Alison:  “But we are in Wurundjeri land and "What do you know about aboriginal culture?", "What do you actually know?" … "What about here on this land here? What do you know about here?"
Researcher: The Map for Bernadette
Bernadette:       “It’s big and it is like a (hand gestures indicate a tornado) like a tornado… And I suppose, each time we came back to a scene, so that circular movement of going through a scene and going somewhere else and coming back to that scene. … That visual of taking a child, the metaphor of the pebble, of taking a child out of its community and placing it somewhere else gave us such a sense of what is at the heart of the Stolen Generation.”
Researcher: The Map for Corey
Corey:   “Oh, I think definitely a painting would be the best way to map it, yeah, with a bit of everything. I liken it to a painting I saw… It was a picture of how the, what is it, yams … and there is this central picture of kinda circular drawings and … its looks like a Western Desert Concept Map.”
Researcher: What is The Map for David?
David:   “I like the idea of creating a map to describe my journey with The Seven Stages of Grieving. So I begin with the history and what is known and what is around me. That’s the first signpost. I make sure that I don’t just try to portray Aboriginal culture as in the past. I used the map of different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their homelands with my students. I put it up in the drama room and I often found the students often looking at it and being amazed and working out where people were and what was in their homeland.”
Researcher: The Silence
The Silence for Alison is the silence that she feels non-Indigenous Australians create around Indigenous Australian culture, history and peoples. Alison also seemed struck by the non-verbal elements in the performance such as the interaction of the Indigenous Australian actress Chenoa Deemal with projected imagery.
Alison:  … So the sign or image or the ideas which were really striking to me and my students was the idea of not having a voice and there are letters and words which were put upon the actress and shape her identity or try to shape her identity but then the wonderful thing about this play is that she shines through that…”
Researcher: The Silence for Bernadette
Bernadette: “Then the actor came out and created that created that liminal space with the pouring of the rocks sort of glow-in-the dark or phosphorescent rocks and all of those rituals, I would call them sacred rituals in a performative space, you know the link, the morphing between what is sacred and what is performed.”
Researcher: The Silence for Corey
Corey: “I liked the image of putting on the paint (Participant C does a definite action with two fingers of his right hand of putting on ceremonial paint… That really resonates, it has a dramatic element signaling like ‘I am about to put on my costume or makeup…Also, we saw the sand and it was done in circles on the floor (laugh). That connection with land resonates really well with me and that’s something that I try to really encourage with the students.”
Researcher: The Silence for David
David:     “I think that when I read the play, I was thinking like some of the other teachers said, the silence about Aboriginal history and the Frontier Wars and all the slaughters and also the fact that we are silent about Aboriginal knowledge. When working with the students on the play, the gestures and still images, the Image Theatre gave the feeling of trying to sum up the story… So the silence is also the silent connections maybe deep Aboriginal symbols and connections… Then when we saw the performance, the silence became both the projections and the unspoken or unheard words like Rudd’s “Sorry” and the hand movements the actress made in the sand to create new shapes and tracks in the sand… Like continuing the culture from the silence to being outspoken.”
Researcher: The Signs
When Alison attempted to describe what were some of the signs or symbols of her engagement with Indigenous Australian perspectives she kept coming back to ‘stepping into others shoes.
Alison: “That is really important to me and I say that is the one thing you get from the moment that you’ve stepped inside someone else’s shoes and where a student says, “I have never seen it from that perspective”.
Researcher: The Signs for Bernadette
Bernadette: “We discussed the idea that emerged out of the feminist movement that the political is personal and the personal is political, as well as discussing ways in which the body has been reclaimed (usually by women) as a site of empowerment and resistance to the dominant patriarchal hegemony… The space and the gestures were very important in the performance but with the script, the text … the words were shown as a site of privilege and exclusion both ways, when Indigenous languages I feel excluded because I don’t know what is being said and on this occasion the actress used her own local language…”
Researcher: The Signs for Corey
Corey: “One (sign) that came up that the students used that came up in the early stages of our work, we had done the poem in the early stages of the play, ‘Memories and Pain’ and I let them go and explore that sort of poem and the idea of using a stick as a spear or a gun. So depending on how they were interpreting the poem whenever there was a mention of I suppose Western culture it became a gun but it could also become a spear, so um that transformation of that symbol…”
Researcher: The Signs for David
David: “I address the symbolism in Aboriginal culture… but I don’t want them only to see the Aboriginal culture in the past. Strong modern images like the racist booing which happened to the Adam Goodes, Australian of the Year and a great AFL footballer, are good to use so that students can see that Aboriginal stories and experiences and history are still ongoing. In the performance, earth running through the hands of actress creating different piles to explain different Indigenous groups and people and marriage and rules and inter marriage.”
Researcher: The Shape
In trying to give a form to the shape of her engagement, Alison says she identified it as the shape of a whirlpool.
Alison: “It’s like, for me, swirling. A little whirlpool and it’s like when are in it, like the ‘Seven Stages of Grieving’ this year, I’m immersed in it… I get right into this place and I think ‘What can I do? What should I be doing? There are all these stories.”
Researcher: The Shape for Bernadette
Bernadette: “I think it is a bit like the piles of stones which were created in the play, in the performance in scene 17. My knowledge is building, but there is a bit here and a bit there but it is certainly not complete. So I suppose as an image it is like those mounds of stones so there is a bit here and there but it is all connected to a bank of cultural knowledge or story. My knowledge is a satellite.”
Researcher: The Shape for Corey
Corey: “In terms of The Shape, for me … I feel that I need to do a lot more. I have through Aboriginal dance and music, I have tried to use, I teach Hip-Hop to Year 7’s, and … any Indigenous Hip-Hop music has a really strong message…I think I need to look at how Aboriginal culture has moved on, and it’s not the traditional natives around a corroboree dancing for tourists.”
Researcher: The Shape for David
David: “The circle shapes that the actress made in the sand seems to show that way that Aboriginal knowledge is shaped and the way it is transmitted or passed on. The use of circles in the performance also became important because I think that we sometimes as drama teachers think about the performance area like a stage, a proscenium arch. But in this play and in this performance the circle is a special shape and... we see the performers back and the shape of the performance is like something we are observing from the side…”
Researcher: The Backtracking
As a NIVSDT, Alison was consistently backtracking, reforming and reconstructing her own understanding of Indigenous Australian culture and ‘ways of Knowing’.
Alison:  “… the process of every drama student is to step into someone else’s shoes, and understand the world from another person’s perspective… And Indigenous ‘ways of Knowing’ and the magic of the knowledge about the land - going back to The Land, and the way that Indigenous people have lived from the land, and you know what, we are lose all that, and we could learn from them.”
Researcher: The Backtracking for Bernadette
Bernadette: “I think my understanding has grown through this play. I feel like, sometimes I dip into Indigenous culture spasmodically… My own personal experience is that there is something quite particular about Indigenous Australian humour that is both disarming...”
Researcher: The Backtracking for Corey
Corey: “Um, I think the power of storytelling. The way in the performance the Aboriginal actress layered character. I think there was a lot of shift in the performance between the actress and… like she would drop in and become somebody totally different…”
Researcher: The Backtracking for David
David: “I see that the play has given me a chance to revisit my connection to Aboriginal culture and history. I have re-realised the power of storytelling to tell individual stories that tell a larger cultural or historical story … I feel that although the play may be for an Aboriginal audience that it is also for us and it throws it back to us and asks us what we are going to do about this history, these stories and this Aboriginal heritage. I think that this adds a sense of perspective.”
Researcher: The Homeworld
For Alison, finding ‘The Homeworld’ and connecting with local Indigenous Australian Elders and knowledge holders is important to her engagement. However, she did have concerns that her students stepped back from deeper levels of engagement and the ultimate sense of responsibility that this whole process offered.
Alison: “The play, and all its elements, and the comedic elements, it was really interesting when we came back to discussion of the play after seeing it, that feeling in the students of ‘Okay, we’ve experienced that’ … and then I questioned myself, ‘Should they be changed by this?’ I am asking myself these questions and some kids seem to feel ‘These are my ancestors that did this and we’ve got to take responsibility’. And of course there is that other attitude. ‘I didn’t do it. I didn’t do this.”
Researcher: The Homeworld for Bernadette
Bernadette: “Then the actor came out and created that created that liminal space with the pouring of the rocks sort of glow-in-the dark or phosphorescent rocks and all of those rituals… I thought this was a beautiful way to begin, a beautiful type of storytelling and a great way making prominent a quality of theatre that perhaps is not always foregrounded - preparation of the space.”
Researcher: The Homeworld for Corey
Corey: “So, I didn’t really get anyone Indigenous person in, I relied entirely on what was presented and the forum after the show that we saw. I just didn’t really have time…
Researcher: The Homeworld for David
David: “I think that it has changed a lot since the beginning. Maybe one of the reasons I keep choosing and getting students to study Aboriginal texts is that I always thing that I have something to learn… The students and I concluded that we need a treaty now and to start the dialogue …”
Researcher:        I started this presentation with a story and I will end with a story. When living on Borneo, I took my son and a few of his friends out into the jungle for a trek. Although we had used a map, we got ourselves a little lost since what was mapped and what the terrain was really like differed significantly. We were near the sea because we could hear the waves and we could smell salt in the air. My son’s friends wanted to follow the river down to the sea. My son and I looked at one another and shook our heads because we knew that the river contained crocodiles and dangerous snakes.  It was then we noticed the slow trickle of a fresh water stream. My son and I consulted and suggested we move up the stream since we thought it might lead to a hill or rise from which we could see the landscape. The others reluctantly agreed. Sure enough, as we followed the fresh water stream, the foliage became thinner and we started to move up a small hill. As we reached the top of the hill, there was a clearing with a view. And what a view it was. We could see where we had come from, we could see the sea and we could see the dense hills and jungle behind us. We could also see the intricate beautiful patterns of the mangroves, lagoons, swamps and ponds of the Ganma.
              Where is my place? What is my landscape? What is my story? How do I tread with soft padded feet?  I think my place is to walk in the Ganma, the place where the rivers of the waters of Indigenous Australian Knowings meet the salty sea of Western knowledge in the murky lagoons, swamps, ponds, islands and channels of cultural dialogue. This landscape, this dialogue and my journey is my story. I hope I am traversing this landscape with respect and mindfulness. I hope I tread on this ground respecting the peoples and cultures whose knowledge, ‘ways of Knowing’ and traditions have cared for this land for over 120,000 generations. I want my passion for honouring the stories, lessons, relationships and Knowings of the First Nations peoples of Australia to help me travel through this landscape with soft padded feet while contributing to ongoing discussion, dialogue and reconciliation. 
This study sought to make real-world observations regarding cultural interface in Australian education in the hope that the over 70,000 years of Indigenous Australian understandings can enrich our present day ways of Knowing. This can be achieved through acknowledging the rich Knowings of the past, establishing dialogue with the knowledge holders of the present and moving toward a future where we can tread with ‘soft padded feet’, enriching our journey and vision with every step.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fresh Perspectives: Teaching Australian Indigenous Perspectives in Drama - Workshop for Drama Australia Conference October 2014

Fresh Perspectives: Australian Indigenous Drama - Wheres your place? Whats your landscape? What’s your story? How do I tread with soft padded feet?
By Mark Eckersley

(A workshop developed for the Drama Australia National Conference Evolve 2014 in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, October 2014)

Fresh Perspectives: Australian Indigenous Drama - Wheres your place? Whats your landscape? What’s your story? How do I tread with soft padded feet?

Acknowledgement of Place
·      I respectfully acknowledge the Yuggera and Murri peoples on whose land I grew up in QLD, the Wurundjeri and Wathaurong peoples where I work and raise my children. I would like to pay respect to the traditional and original owners of this land the Muwinina  (mu wee nee nah) people. I pay respect to those that have passed before us and to acknowledge today the Tasmanian Aboriginal communities who are the custodians of this land

(Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workshop participants or readers of this material should be aware that this workshop/document/blog may contain images and names of people who have since passed away)

Before I start this workshop, I would like to point out what some researchers have highlighted as the most important aspects when teaching and dealing with indigenous Australian drama and theatre. There have been a couple of studies into teaching using indigenous learning models, history, literature and drama. Significant studies have been done by Harris (1980), Ishtar (1994), Moriarty (1995), Syron (2005), Harrison & Greenfield (2011), Casey (2012) and Harrison (2012). The main points in working in this area seem to be:

  • Teaching indigenous relationships to place and identity as communal or collective rather than individual
  • Avoiding (or making conscious) stereotypical assumptions and notions about indigenous people particularly in relation to 'place' and identity'
  • Establishing strong collaboration between schools or teachers and the local indigenous community and the local indigenous arts organisations
  • Indigenous knowledge and culture has a deep connection to cultural process and production, indigenous protocols, story ownership, sense of place, identity and spiritual beliefs (Casey 2012)
  • Using drama and theatre as a "catalyst for cultural, political and social change... challenging existing assumptions of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal culture, politics and theatre" (Syron 2005)

Workshop Aims
·      The aim of this workshop is to focus on the theme of Evolving Possibilitieswith a focus on the Cross Curricular framework of ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories and perspectives’
·      To develop a cultural understanding of indigenous perspectives through exploring specific activities and storytelling
·      Outline links between the dramatic elements in more traditional ceremonies & modern Indigenous Theatre
·      To look at the integration of different cultures, narratives, cross-arts initiatives and cultural awareness so that drama teachers can engage with the cross-curriculum priorities and your students
·      To show a number of techniques and activities for classroom teachers and drama educators to explore and implement 'Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander cultures, histories and perspectives
·      Through a sense of place, landscape, story, song and dance we shall explore how to teach Indigenous Australian culture, histories and perspectives.
·      Important focus questions of Where’s your place? Where’s your landscape? What’s your story? And how do I tread with soft padded feet?”

Indigenous Perspectives as a Cross-Curriculum Priority
·      The inclusion of cross-curriculum priorities in the Australian National Curriculum are an attempt to
…equip young Australians with the skills, knowledge and understanding that will enable them to engage effectively with and prosper in a globalised world. (ACARA, 2012).
·      Observation - Teachers feel they do not have enough knowledge, skill, understanding and resources to use Indigenous Australian literatures, stories, cultures and histories appropriately and effectively in their curriculum.
·      Observation - Teachers find it difficult to decide what a cross-curriculum priority is and how, where and why they should plan it in the curriculum

Drama and Drama Teachers are perfectly placed to be advocates and leaders teaching Cross-Curriculum Priorities
·      Drama and drama education has been used successfully on work in a number of cross-curriculum and social education initiatives such as development of literacy skills (Abbott 2013 and Rieg & Paquette 2009), AIDS and HIV awareness (Harvey, Stuart and Swan 2000) and Sustainability Education (McNaughton 2004)
·      To use a metaphor from Australian indigenous history, like the Macassan perahus (or praus) of the eighteenth century, Drama may be able to help teachers to navigate through the rough and sometimes unchartered Torres Strait of the Australian National Curriculum and Cross-curriculum priorities to the deeper waters and riches of indigenous Australian knowledges, practices and perspectives.
·      WARNING: Do not just work on material and ideas from Dreamtime stories and the long ago past of Indigenous cultures. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and history is a proud long living culture which is still living and growing today and the songlines of this culture continues in the people, the stories, the history and the culture as it continues today.
·      "Storytelling has always been a part of our Indigenous heritage, not just as entertainment, but an essential part of passing down the law and lineage of each group… and it is still alive today." (Justine Saunders in Brisbane 1989:vii)

Indigenous Perspectives and Indigenous Learning Styles are more suited to:
·      Learning by personal trial demonstration, or learning by doing, not by talking
·      Learning from real life or by practice (learning by 'wholes', not sequenced parts) 
·      Learning through context-specific skills, rather than the generalized principles, or learning skills for specific tasks rather than learning general principles. 
·      Emphasis on person-orientated learning and people and relationships rather than on information 
·      Learning by real life
·      Focusing on Indigenous artistic and cultural mores and practices 
         (Harris 1980: 39)

Indigenous Songdrama
·      Stories of the Great Father Spirit and the journeys of these peoples and their encounters described in songdrama
·      Indigenous Songdramas deal with the first stage of creation the activities of the Great Father Spirit
·      Oldest indigenous stories are half-spoken, half-sung songline form
Examples: Whale Arrival Story,The Three Brothers Story, the famous gwion gwion or jenagi jenagi (known to some as the stories of the Bradshaw Cave Dancers).

  • It is always better to check with local community leaders or land councils to find out what local Songdramas can be used for educational purposes since many stories, songs, representations and songdramas require special permissions.

Songdrama Exercises
·      Imagine a relative, friend or event that although long past, has shaped the way you are and what you have become. Tell your partner the story using metaphoric rather than literal language. Tell the story in almost song-like tones.
·      The group starts a tapping rhythm or chant. Each member of the group sings a short story about where they come from. You can be metaphoric. The group keeps the rhythm or chant going until each person has shared their story.

Indigenous Totem and Dreamtime Drama
·      Totem drama is highly ritualistic
·      These stories and their enactment are often linked to dances, sung stories and body painting
·      It often involves painting of bodies with different earthen paints and colours to enact spirits
·      Uses specific chanting rhythms for the aspects of different spirits
·      Uses a central spatial focus sometimes with physical symbol like the tnatantja pole
·      Totem drama songs and dances are still shared today as seen in the film of ‘Ringbalin’ where a number of indigenous people and clans share their stories and dances to dance the lifeblood back into the Murray-Darling River.
·                You and students can even download the Ringbalin phone app to hear the stories and take the journey:

Totem and Dreamtime Drama Exercises
·      This can be done in pairs, small groups or in a large group
·      Think of an animal or bird or feature of the place or landscape in which you live
·      Develop a simple gesture or action which shows this animal, bird or landscape
·      Say the name of the animal, bird or landscape feature and do the action
·      Now show and say the name of your totem and the whole group repeats it back
·      You can start to add a chant if you want to build the momentum of the chant and gesture.
·      You can even define a space through placing a set of pebbles or some earth on the ground around your space or 'place'. Think what your animal totem for your space or ‘nation’ will be. Create a rhythm and simple sequence of repeatable gestures, actions and/or movements for your nation you can even have students create a sacred space and have someone visit and share in the space.
·      An extension to this involves looking at the hills, mountains, rocks or any geographic features that are outside and through using one geographic feature thinking of an animal which that feature could represent

Rainbow Serpent Myth Story
7,000 BC     Here is a Rainbow Serpent Creation Story from the Kunwinjku peoples of Western Arnhem Land. A common activity I use is Reader’s Theatre with students using Dreamtime stories. I normally chose more than one Reader’s Theatre narrators
Far out in the Dreamtime, there were only people, no animals or birds, no trees or bushes, no hills or mountains. The country was all flat.
Goorialla, the great rainbow serpent, stirred and set off to search for his own tribe. He travelled across Australia from South to North. He reached Cape York where he stopped and made a big red mountain called Narabullgan. He listened on the wind and heard only strange voices speaking strange languages.
This is not my country. The people here speak a different tongue. I must look further for my own people.

Goorialla left Narabullgan and his body made a deep gorge where he came down. He travelled North, stopping every evening to listen on the wind for his own people. He travelled for many days and his tracks made the creeks and the rivers as he journeyed North.
His next resting place was at Fairfield where he made the lily lagoon – Millilinka. Goorialla turned his great body round and round but the ground was too hard to make it deep.

One day he heard a voice singing on the wind. He heard, “Haaa! Haaa!
That was my people singing,” said sad Goorialla, “They are holding a big Bora.” As he travelled North, the singing became louder and louder…

Traditional Indigenous Dance and Mime
·      Primary and Secondary students alike love to learn Indigenous dances and animal moves. Once again check what animals and dances can be used by consulting with local leaders and land councils. The following mimes and movements can be taught in an educational setting (not necessarily in a public performed context) on their own or done with an audio or videoclip such as:

·      Abel Tasman, Captain Cook and other Western sailors were not the first to make contact with Australian Indigenous people. Probably around the 13th Century Macassan traders made contact and traded with Indigenous people. 
·      The following song lyrics by rock group Yothu Yindi were originally written as a poem and a tribute to the Macassan traders who made contact with and traded peacefully with Indigenous people for many hundreds of years.
·      We are going to create a dance or movement piece to accompany music or a song. This can be done with students as a short exploration or as a performance piece. Here are some videoclips of some Indigenous songs about Macassan Traders and contact:
     Yothu Yindi - 'Macassan Crew'
     Traditional Indigenous Songcycle on Macassan arrival
     Here is a newsclip outlining the controversy about the date of the      arrival of the Macassan traders.
Macassan Crew
By Yothu Yindi

Yendharama birrapirra
Tradewinds blow
The southern cross
Taking their prau
Across the sea
They came in peace
Through the Ashmore Reef
Smoke and steel
And the Tamarind seed
Steer it up right
Steer it up true
Navigate the morning star
Brave Macassan crew
Sailed on through
The hole in the wall
The place we call Rarrakala
To the shores of the far North East
Smoke, steel and the Tamarind tree

Gapala Mangatjay
Gapala Gurrumulnga
Navigate the morning star
Brave Macassan crew
Miyaman Matjala,
Miyaman Gurrumulnga,
Daynggatjing Garrnhdalu,
Daymulung Wila'wila'yun,

Miyaman Mangatjay,
Miyaman Gurrumulngu
Daynggatjing Garrnhdalu,
Daymulung Wila'wila'yun,

Steer it up right
Steer it up true
Navigate the morning star
Brave Macassan crew

Other Suggested Activities
·      ‘Statues Come to Life’ or ‘A Night at the Museum’ - Have students research various famous indigenous historical figures and during Indigenous Awareness Week the students comes to life when groups visit their statue. This can also be performed in a group like ‘A Night at the Museum’
·      Read Media events or historical accounts of events and discuss and deconstruct dramatic elements, cultural bias and stereotypes. Make or create new interpretations of these media events or historical accounts using Image Theatre or Forum Theatre
·      Make connections with members of your local indigenous communities and learn the original place names for parts of your area or learn the stories and discuss ways that these could be presented.
·      Take some poems or plays by Australian indigenous poets and playwrights and use these as the basis for theatre pieces or act out speeches or scenes from Australian indigenous plays. Some poems which work successfully are:
Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s A Song of Hope and Jack Davis’ Jack Pat
A number of Australian Indigenous poems are available for use at:

Indigenous Australian Drama in the 20th and 21st Centuries

We are now going to break into smaller groups (4 or 5 groups) and work for 10 minutes on working out ways to present and stage a number of extracts from Australian Indigenous plays. You can work with the style indicated for each play or you can come up with your own style of presentation.

Kevin Gilbert's The Cherry Pickers (1968)
This play was a turning point in Australian Indigenous drama. The Cherry Pickers was written in prison around 1968 and smuggled out of jail on toilet paper. The play uses mythical realism, chorus-like chants and uses colloquial and local dialect language features:  

I saw the inner earth, the rock of heart, the cycles and the change of time that winds us back to life and spirit in a form changed...”
Handouts! We get to feed our family when we’re starvin’ and go and sit on the holy mission. We have to swaller our pride and go and sit longa Christ for a while to catch a feed orf them...”
“But it ain’t against THE law… if a bloke is hungry and gotta eat then it’s all right. The whites kil’t our kangaroos, emu, duck. They stole our tucker, our land...

Robert J. Merritt’s The Cake Man (1974)

Poetic Realism – Epilogue The Cake Man
Sweet William: … Forget all this shit about giving me back my culture… What I want, what I’m here for is… it’s something else again… You ever heard of the eurie-woman? Well listen, then, I’ll tell you what’s an eurie-woman, and what it is I want here. I was working at the Killara Station … (Wide-eyed) an’ all of a sudden I heerd this emu drumming somewhere close. I got up am wen’ outside and stoked the fire, an all the time this emu was still drummin’. Soooo… while I was turnin’ round, I got the biggest fright of me whole life! It weren’t no emu, it was a woman. And she had hair that was shinin’ black, an’ it hung right down her backside. She was the prettiest woman I ever saw… yeah… she was an eurie woman… I fair bolted out a there… But it didn’t matter where I went, she was always in front of me … her hair shinin’ and swirling like it was made out of water, an’ her skin like black lightning. Well… then there is this gubba I was workin’ for, was sayin’ to me… ‘Come on, William, ain’t no eurie-woman… Come back to reality.’ (Pause) (Smiling sadly). Exac’ly what the eurie-woman was sayin’ to me… (Pause) Two realities. (Pause) An’ I lost one. (Pause) But I want it back … I need it back (Pause.) Not yours… mine.
Note: Originally this was done with Sweet William drunk with a bottle in hand. How does changing this help to undo stereotypes which surround indigenous people? How could this speech be done to reinforce a positive modern representation of indigenous culture?

Kevin Bostock’s Here Comes the Nigger (1976)

Political and Domestic Realism
Verna: (smiles): I’ll tell ya, most of the money that’s earmarked for blacks ends up in white pockets… They visit aboriginal reserves and communities, they shoot in for a day or two in their big, black government cars. But do they live with grassroots people and experience conditions for themselves. No they don’t. Instead, they stay in posh hotels where they can go to buffet luncheons and have room service with hot and cold running white girls.

N.B Political comments and speeches are often done by students in an overtly political way. Try doing Verna’s speech while doing different domestic tasks (i.e. making a cup of tea, ironing, sorting clothes)

Wesley Enoch & Deborah Mailman’s The Seven Stages of Grieving (1994)

Direct Address, Comic Theatre, Stand up Comedy
Scene 12 Murri Gets a Dress
 (Delivered in the style of stand up comedy) Have you ever been black? You know when you wake up one morning and you’re black? Happened to me this morning. I was in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, “Hey, nice hair, beautiful black skin, white shiny teeth ... I’m BLACK!”
 You get a lot of attention, special treatment when you’re black. I’m in this expensive shop and there’s this guy next to me, nice hair, nice tie, nice suit, waving a nice big pump-you-full-of-holes semi-automatic gun in the air and the shop assistants are all looking at me. “Keep an eye on the black one ... eye on the black one.”
 OK, so I went to try on a dress and the shop assistant escorts me to the ‘special’ dressing room, the one equipped with video cameras, warning to shop lifters, a security guard, fucken sniffer dog ... ‘Get out of it’. Just so I don’t put anything I shouldn’t on my nice dress, nice hair, beautiful black skin and white shiny teeth...”

Note: Students can think of an incident where they were insulted or suffered prejudice and turn it into a  stand up comedy piece of theatre.

Wesley Enoch’s Black Medea (2000)

Unity, Focus, Opposition, Juxtaposition

(Students can use soundscapes to help stage this speech. The two speeches can also be done together synchronised or as a Split Focus scene)

Medea: (Sound of the wind which Medea initially talks to) A loveless bed, the madness, a man – a shell of everything he is capable of, that’s what you left me. You have taken any peace I dreamed possible. (Talks to herself) I’ll take what’s mine. I gave him all the happiness he has, I gave him a home, I gave him a son, I gave him my life. I want a life in return… (Talks to the audience) I have sinned against all that is sacred… Do not judge me, for tonight I am coming home an outcast.

(Use movement and physical aspects to help stage this speech)

Jason: I had this dream. I am following this man… I can’t see his face but I know its my father. I am following him down this alley between two high walls… There are no doors or windows. I can hear other people. The alley’s only wide enough for one… I am following my father and I can see we’re in a line of men all walking in the same direction down this alley. Then we stop when we reach the end… I see my son … I want to show him the way out but I can’t show him anything…

Note: Are there other Ancient Greek plays or plays like those of Shakespeare which can be rewritten or transposed into an Australian Indigenous context.

Tom Wright’s Black Diggers (2014)

Didactic Dialogue and Irony

Black Diggers’ uncovers the contribution of First World War Aboriginal Diggers, following their exceptional stories of the battlefields of Gallipoli, Palestine and Flanders to their homelands were they were treated like animals and second-class citizens. Stylistically it was initially staged in the style of Brechtian Epic Theatre

“Four years I spent in uniform, all of us, ready to make a sacrifice. And I get back, and you say, with a stroke of a pen, that you can just wipe aboriginal land off the map…”
“Ex-servicemen are welcome here. We don’t see the skin. We see the service.”
“I still don’t have the faintest bloody idea what we were fighting for but I felt like I won something over there then I lost it back here.”

Conclusions about Teaching Australian Indigenous Perspectives in Drama
·      Indigenous Learning structures centered on personal trial demonstration, or learning by doing is suited to most drama teaching
·      Songdrama and early indigenous storytelling techniques of chants and rhythms can be used to tell metaphoric personal stories
·      Creating a special space or making or creating a special space can be an important technique to embrace from traditional Australian Indigenous Drama
·      Using traditional indigenous Dreamtime stories, music, animal movements is a useful starting place for doing Indigenous Drama
·      Using an Indigenous song or poem can be a good basis for a class or a performance piece
·      Modern Indigenous plays and speeches from plays written by Indigenous playwrights can be a good way to explore World Theatre and aspects of theatre style such as Realism, Poetic Realism, Non-Naturalism, Direct Address, Comic Address, Unity, Focus, Opposition and Juxtaposition
·      Doing Indigenous Australian Drama should always involve concepts about ownership of ideas and stories remember what is important – Place, Identity, Stories and a link to the land.
·      Or to put it another way:
Wheres your place?
Whats your landscape?
What’s your story?
How do I tread with soft padded feet?

If you wish to broaden any work done on Indigenous Australian drama to include explorations of Indigenous drama and theatre more broadly, you might want to start with looking at North American Indigenous drama and theater. A good place to start is with the following resources:

Indigenous drama and theater North America:

Maori Indigenous drama and theatre:

Brazilian Theatre
Peixoto, F, Epstein S. & Schechner, R. 1990. 'Brazilian Theater and National Identity' in TDR. Spring 1990. pp.60- 69. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.