Friday, March 7, 2014

Australian Indigenous Drama - Introduction

Let this table be a home for me. Let it be a home for all the lost and the hungry. May all my children and my children’s children eat at this table.”

(Wesley Enoch from 'The Story of the Miracles at Cookies’s Table')

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

About the Author

Mark Eckersley is a lecturer, teacher, dramaturg, director and researcher who has a Masters of Education from the University of Melbourne. He is presently working on a Doctorate of Education in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in Drama Education. After initially completing an Associate Diploma of Performing Arts in Acting at Queensland University of Technology, Mark Eckersley became one of the founding members of Queensland’s Sugar and Spite Theatre Company which performed throughout South-east Queensland and at the late night La Bamba at La Boite Theatre. He then went on to work for the Queensland Theatre Company as an actor and toured shows throughout Queensland. After this, he went on to study Theatre Directing at Victorian College of the Arts. While completing his studies, Mark worked as an Assistant Director and Dramaturg for Bob Mazza at the First Aboriginal Playwright’s Conference and helped develop the work of a number of indigenous playwrights. 

Mark then worked for Melbourne Theatre Company as an Assistant Director to Simon Phillips. Venturing back to Brisbane to complete his B.A. at Q.U.T, he performed with Bonzani Commedia Troupe. He then worked as an Assistant Director and Dramaturg on the cross-arts Mairwair Performance Project telling the story of the Brisbane River with Maureen Watson and Access Arts utilizing the skills of 123 different-abled performers and 45 indigenous actors and dancers. Completing his teaching studies in Drama, English and Media at Deakin University, Mark went on to direct and teach in Australia until 1998. During this time he worked with Drama Victoria serving on various committees and editing Mask magazine for 2 years. In 1997, he completed his Masters of Education at the University of Melbourne with a thesis titled The Dramaturgy of the Australian Theatre Director. In 1998, he went on to edit a successful book on teaching Asian Theatre called Drama from the Rim, in which he wrote chapters on Indigenous Australian Drama and Korean Drama. Mark went on to teach for over 12 years in international schools in Asia and the Middle East and was Head of Drama and Media Studies at Jerudong International School in Brunei in South East Asia before his return to Australia in 2012. The following material is from the successful 2013 book Australian Indigenous Drama. Mark Eckersley is also an author of a guide to Jack Davis’ play No Sugar and the successful book and blog A Year With The Bard.

Introduction to Australian Indigenous Drama
This blog (and the book it is taken from) are attempts to provide a general overview of Australian Indigenous Drama through giving some insight into its history, cultural background, perspectives and practices. It attempts to provide a link between the dramatic elements in more traditional ceremonies and the vibrance of Indigenous Theatre started in the 1970's which remains pivotal to the Australian theatre scene today in the 21st Century. Australian indigenous performing arts have always been a complex integration of different narratives and cross-arts dialogue. The preference of some western commentators to centre observations about Indigenous drama on the written word and on plays and playwriting, takes away from long traditions and the richness of Indigenous drama as a living dialogue between traditions, ceremonies, forms and individual and shared histories. It is deceptive to think of Indigenous Australian playwrights like Kevin Gilbert, Jack Davis, Jimmy Chi, and Wesley Enoch as writers who sat alone in a room (or in Kevin Gilbert's case, in a jail cell) and simply wrote what have become seminal pieces of Australian drama. Rather these artists have shared their stories, their histories and their skills in various ways and through various performing arts and in conjunction with other indigenous artists. This helps to make gatherings such as the rehearsals for Out of the Dark (1951), the Indigenous Tent Embassy performances (1970-71), the workshops held at the beginning of the Sydney Black Theatre (1972) and the 1st National Black Playwright’s Conference (1987) more understandable as central to the development of Australian Indigenous Drama. It may seem daunting to directors, classroom teachers and drama educators to study Australian Indigenous Drama and include material about Indigenous culture in studies of drama but the experiences are well worth it.

This material is written for a broad range of readers. Firstly, for those at university and high school who are studying drama and theatre. Then for IB Theatre, A Level, HSC and VCE Senior Drama and Theatre Studies school students. It provides information, material for research and practical exercises for the study of Australian indigenous drama as part of a World Theatre context. For university students and teachers, it offers an overview of Australian indigenous drama while providing materials and suggestions of avenues that students may want to explore further. The Australian Indigenous Film and Television page has proven particularly useful to Media and film students throughout the world as it provides a variety of links. For those interested in the performance of indigenous drama and those who see regular live theatre, the book and blog provides an insight into a very important part of the landscape of modern Australian theatre.

Australian Indigenous drama, like traditional indigenous belief systems, tends to embrace a complex network of human, geographic and spiritual relationships. Australian indigenous drama is not just a form that can be replicated, because it involves approaches and perspectives that are unique to indigenous culture. It involves many dramatic aspects from traditional dreamtime dance drama through to the social realist dramas of the 1970’s and the 1980’s through to the post-modern Australian Indigenous drama of the 1990’s and early 21st century. The ‘Dreaming’ continues through Indigenous drama today, through the ways that it embraces Indigenous traditions, beliefs and history while confronting the present and future challenges faced by indigenous and Australian society in general.
There seem to be two main views of the origins of Australian Indigenous drama. One view maintains that it starts with the birth of a Black Australian Theatre which developed, wrote and produced plays. This perspective would align the beginnings of indigenous drama with the writing from prison by Kevin Gilbert of The Cherry Pickers (Carroll 1995:349) and the formation in 1972 of the Indigenous Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre (also known as the National Black Theatre or the Sydney Black Theatre (Parsons 1995:13).

The second view, which I subscribe to, sees drama as a subsidiary of traditional indigenous cultural forms. This perspective sees indigenous drama emerging through general cultural expressions, passing down of knowledge and histories. This perspective sees indigenous drama as growing as knowledge, histories, stories and ceremonies were taught and re-enacted and passed down within families and clans. This then broadened its influence through cultural exchanges between different tribes and Indigenous nations and then ventured beyond Australian shores to the Macassan and other traders (Macknight 1972:317-320). As Justine Saunders states in the Introduction to Plays From Black Australia
"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." (Brisbane 1989:vii)
Saunders and other prominent indigenous theatre practitioners see theatre as continuing a culture and heritage which began well before the arrival of the Europeans.

Unlike some forms of drama where terms, terminology, forms and styles are relatively fixed, indigenous drama is a vibrant and fluid performing arts form and area of study. Much of the work on Indigenous Australian Drama done before the 1970’s uses various terms and terminology to describe practices and performances. Much of this work was done by anthropologists, therefore terminology is often anthropological-based. Often they group all performed aspects of more traditional ceremonies under a dance category, not seeing the separate but integrated aspects of storytelling, character, performance and ritual perspectives as drama. I have tried to use terms and descriptions that suit the dramatic conventions and forms of indigenous drama which I regard as often fluid in its use of different performing arts. Some of the terms I use such as Songdrama and Totem Drama were developed when working with indigenous performing artists such as Bob Maza, Maureen Watson and Vivien Walker, some other terms were developed through talking and working with people in Indigenous Studies at colleges and universities, and others have been developed through working with indigenous and non-indigenous Drama teachers and theatre practitioners. When in doubt, I have used terms that are more commonly used in drama and theatre studies teaching. The end of this book/blog contains many valuable listings for resources. In the case of many of the music, films and visual resources, some of these may not directly be examples of indigenous drama or theatre, but they are resources that I and other teachers working in this area have found valuable resources and references for teaching or doing study in the area of indigenous drama.
Before we launch into learning about indigenous drama, I would like to reiterate that until recently, indigenous drama was not passed down through written texts. It was an oral and kinesthetic tradition that was passed down over centuries from tribal elders and cultural caretakers. So we must start with understanding a bit about this tradition and indigenous learning styles. Why I want to address indigenous learning styles first, is that I believe there are significant differences in the ways in which indigenous Australians and ‘Westerners’ learn and thus experience Indigenous culture.

Indigenous Learning Styles and Guidelines

Stephen Harris in Culture and Learning: Tradition and Education in Northeast Arnhem Land (Harris 1980:38-41), puts forward five major Indigenous learning strategies which he compares to their non-Indigenous learning style equivalents. In approaching Indigenous Drama, it would be useful to note these differences in learning styles and approaches:

·      Learning in the European approach involves incitation or learning or verbal instruction and error rather than like many indigenous people and groups who may learn by personal trial demonstration, or learning by doing, not by talking plus a demonstration.

·      Verbal instruction compared to indigenous learning in real life or by practice. Closely related to this, is indigenous learning 'wholes', not sequenced parts, or learning by successive approximations of the efficient product.

·      Indigenous learning through context-specific skills, rather than the generalised principles, or learning skills for specific tasks rather than learning general principles.

·      The Indigenous emphasis on person-orientated learning, not information-orientation; or the indigenous focus on people and relationships rather than on information. This is related to the absence of the institutionalised office of teacher in many Australian Indigenous societies.

·      Learning in artificial settings, rather than the indigenous focus on learning by real life, by looking and copying rather than by a focus on Indigenous artistic and cultural mores and practices. In most Australian indigenous cultures, life is not separated from spirituality, not separated from art, drama is not separated from celebration, song, storytelling, dance and painting.

(Harris 1980: 39)

Just as we should be careful of an assimilation-based standpoint, we should be equally wary of the increasingly populist (yet deeply conservative) viewpoint of indigenous Australians as 'spiritually rich' by comparison with their 'spiritually impoverished' Western counterparts. The popular perception of Aborigines as less materially-oriented than other Australians, makes palatable the path of their material dispossession for a ‘White’ conscience.

Using Indigenous Drama should be seen as creating a bridge and dialogue with Indigenous culture and not another chance to plunder an already dispossessed group of peoples. Indigenous culture challenges our notions of Art and Education. Indigenous Drama is not just stocktaking or storytelling activities, they are ceremonies involving integrated and highly structured, critical, compressed periods of formal learning, during which the complexities of kinship, law, identity and history are first inculcated and then examined. In the Australian Indigenous social context of the corroboree: storytelling, drama, dramatised narrative and narrative dance are shared group activities where the distinction is not drawn between spectator and participant (O'Toole 1992:143). Indigenous learning strategies and styles should be taken into account as much in the theoretical study as the teaching of Australian Indigenous Drama.

The above diagram shows ways that Indigenous Australian Perspectives can be thought about in terms of Education and Drama Education more specifically. It suggests different approaches and 'understandings' which can be used to approach Australian Indigenous Perspectives in Education.

An interesting and invaluable 2007 document was prepared by Dr Maryrose Casey and Liza-Mare Syron under the guidance of the Drama Australia’s Director of Projects Richard Sallis in 2007 for Drama Australia (the primary association for drama teachers in Australia), entitled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Guidelines for Drama/Theatre Education. This document attempts to provide insights and guidance into indigenous perspectives while also providing guidelines about indigenous educational perspectives and using indigenous material in educational programs. The document is a vital document for educators and students of drama since as stated in the document:

“Non-Indigenous teachers and students as well as Indigenous teachers and students all have something to discover through drama and theatre and drama/theatre education about Australia and its Indigenous peoples.” (Drama Australia 2007:6)

The guidelines point out that any inclusive drama curriculum should include areas of knowledge which address:

• The diversity of Indigenous cultures, languages, beliefs, and histories
• The importance of Indigenous history to Australian heritage
• Issues that relate to Indigenous people
• The effects of European settlement on Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples
         (Drama Australia 2007:6)

The Drama Australia document warns against simplistic representations of indigenous culture and history, and advocates continuous consultation and dialogue between teachers and indigenous communities and indigenous artists. The document differentiates between traditional and contemporary practices of storytelling and drama. As indigenous actor Pauline McLeod says in the document:

“Traditionally, the storyteller was born to the role. There was also the opportunity to earn their position-learning and telling stories - this was the traditional way stories were passed on.”
(McCleod in Drama Australia 2007:8)

Indigenous director and playwright Wesley Enoch takes this further when he explains that the differences between traditional performance and storytelling practices and contemporary practices are more than superficial in that while contemporary performances may be referential to traditional practices, “… practices that are regarded by communities as sacred, secret and strongly connected to culture, society, land, objects, dreamings and history has (have)  become known as traditional performance.” (Enoch in Drama Australia 2007:8)

As the document points out, art and performance were a fundamental part of traditional indigenous culture and even though links to traditional practices may seem amorphous and intangible, indigenous performing artists and productions are always making active choices about how to incorporate traditional elements and the challenge of working with Indigenous Australian drama is the engagement with these layers of cultural heritage within the work in performance and text form.

The following chapters and activities are an attempt to give an insight into the richness and depth of Indigenous drama which has evolved over some 40,000 years through the ceremonies, dances, songs, scenes, stories and the shared and individual histories of Australian Indigenous peoples.

Further Reading on Indigenous Learning Styles and Guidelines

Brisbane, K. 1989. Plays from Black Australia. Currency Press. Surrey Hills, Sydney.

Carroll, D. 1995. Australian Contemporary Drama. Currency Press. Surrey Hills, Sydney. 

Drama Australia. 2007. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Guidlines for Drama/Theatre Education. Drama Australia.

Enoch, W. 2005. The Story of the Miracles at Cookie's Table (play). Currency Press. Strawberry Hills, Sydney.

Harris, S. 1980. Culture and Learning: Tradition and Education in Northeast Arnhem Land. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press.

Macknight, C.C. 1972. 'Macassans and Aborigines', Oceania. Vol. 42, No. 4.

O'Toole, J. 1992. The Process of Drama. Routledge. London.

Parsons, M. 1997. 'The Tourist Corroboree in South Australia'. Indigenous History. 21 (1), 46-49.

Parsons, M. 2002. ' "Ah that I could convey a proper idea of this interesting wild play of the natives" - Corroborees and the Rise of Indigenous Australian Cultural Tourism'. Australian Indigenous Studies, 2(1), 14-27.

Queensland Department of Education and Training. 2011. Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in Schools. Queensland Government Printers. Brisbane.

Queensland Department of Education and Training. 2011.Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Learning: Intentional Teaching. Queensland Government. Brisbane.

VEA (Video Education Australasia). 2012. Intergrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in Schools. VEA. Melbourne.


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  2. I've been trying to find a copy of your book available for purchase. Where can I find it?

    1. Hi Megan, My suppliers seem to have no copies left but I have some back in Australia. I can get my daughter to send you a copy. it would be $25 AUD plus postage. There may be another edition coming out next year if you can wait. Send me the address and I will get a price calculation. Cheers Mark

    2. I'm in the USA --
      Cornish College of the Arts
      1000 Lenora St
      Seattle WA 98121
      Much appreciated

  3. Hi Megan, This cost would be $US 35. If you want to purchase please send an email to and we can work out the details. Mark

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