ILBIJERRI Theatre Company—
This piece is an edited excerpt from the ILBIJERRI Theatre Company’s upcoming 30th anniversary book. It details, in part, the collaborative working process that eventuated in the production of the cooperative’s first production Up the Road in 1990, written by John Harding, followed by its second major work, Stolen, which was developed over seven years by Jane Harrison in consultation with many community members who were impacted by child removal policies. Stolen went on to do multiple regional, national, and international tours. Founding member of ILBIJERRI, Kylie Belling, played one of its leading roles alongside Tony Briggs, Stan Yarramunua and Glenn Shea. The story of these two works is told through the voices of the writers, directors, and actors who were involved in their initial production seasons and subsequent tours.
John Harding’s reflections on ILBIJERRI’s beginnings in Up the Road detail the extensive processes that were undertaken to get both the show, and simultaneously, the company, off the ground. What all of these contributors describe in their reflections as writers is a community in constant collaborative conversation about both the creative output of ILBIJERRI, and about governance and how things should be done in what would become one of the longest running Black incorporated artistic bodies in the country.
‘If Black Theatre is to develop like I hope it will, it will go back to the true environment of black people’—Uncle Bob Maza
I am a Yorta Yorta, Wiradjuri, South Sea Islander woman, born and raised on Kulin Country. I am also a proud Co-Founder, former Board Member, Artistic Director, Director, Community Project Officer, Writer and Performer of the longest running Aboriginal Theatre company in Australia, where I and my fellow Co-Founders truly believed we had a responsibility to create work initiated by and for Aboriginal communities.
While all ILBIJERRI Theatre Co-founders were active in the arts at the time, I was the only founder with formal performing arts training as a Victorian College of the Arts School of Drama graduate. I was the first Aboriginal student to complete a Diploma of Dramatic Arts at that institution. After graduating in 1985, I was cast into a number of theatre, television and film roles, and enjoyed a ‘successful’ career as an actor/interpreter within the mainstream performing arts industry. None of these roles, however, were written by Aboriginal writers.
This experience in the industry, along with a growing consciousness of the burden of representation responsibility placed on Indigenous people, were becoming major personal concerns. In 1989 I attended the 2nd National Aboriginal Playwrights Conference, where I was finally afforded the opportunity to meet like- minded First Peoples artists from around the country and Victoria. This is where the genesis of ILBIJERRI began.
The season of ILBIJERRI’s first work Up the Road, about a Victorian Aboriginal community, written and directed by co-founders, with a cast of predominately first-time Aboriginal actors, included an extensive state-wide tour to Victorian Aboriginal communities. This reflected the passion and self-determination of a fledgling company with little support that wanted to create work ‘initiated, by and for Aboriginal communities’. During this time, the development of the company’s ‘Blak Bums on Seats’ Policy reflected the major focus it had on serving, cultivating and maintaining a Victorian Aboriginal audience.
Thirty years on, this organisation has successfully navigated the performing arts industry to survive and thrive. While I moved on from the organisation, it was around this time that Liza-Mare Syron, in her Afterword of Maryrose Casey’s 2012 Telling Stories: Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander Performance was declaring that:
… the development of Indigenous Theatre and performance practice is at a crossroads. One direction leads towards the main staging of Indigenous companies; the other direction leads back to the communities. The challenge for the Indigenous theatre and performance practitioner is that as well as working in cross-cultural contexts, he or she will also be required to navigate between two Indigenous performance contexts, or to choose one above the other.
In the privileged but often fraught position of working for a State Government Arts funding body, I am well aware of the pressures and demands that Aboriginal arts organisations operate under, particularly successful multi-year funded organisations like ILBIJERRI. There is pressure to continually produce creative and innovate works, partner with other theatre companies, capacity build their staff and the broader First Peoples creative community that they service, as well as acquit and chase the next funding opportunity. I also witness the trials and tribulations of individual and small independent Aboriginal Theatre creators. Many have little time and ability to question or change the way funding bodies dictate what ‘success’ is.
First Nations artists and creators are questioning the ecology within which they operate, as they work towards a decolonising arts practice that does more than educate and represent. Given the expectations and burdens the industry and funding bodies place on mainstream audience success, we must continue to ask how Aboriginal audiences can be privileged. Following on from Uncle Bob Maza’s provocation, we must question the presumption that First Nations Arts organisations and individuals prioritise and cater predominately to mainstream audiences. We must continue to push against the burdens of the assumed need to ‘close the audience gap’, break down stereotypical ideas, and stop being so ‘serious’ on stage, while being incredibly grateful for the growing interest and appetite in their artforms by mainstream Australia. We must continue to decolonise Aboriginal theatre by privileging the Aboriginal audience.
For me what sparked the beginning of ILBIJERRI was being at the 1989 Black Playwrights Conference at Macquarie University. It all came from that conference, one of the most important black conferences in Australian history.
I was working at 3CR as a radio producer on The Koorie Survival Show when I was contacted by Vivian Walker, the son of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who was on the board of the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust (ANTT). He rang me up and said: ‘we need an administrator to run this conference’. So I jumped on a plane and went to Sydney and I was the administrator for ANTT.
We spent three months raising the funds, then invited 40 of our most well known playwrights, actors and dancers. At that conference we did 18 readings and performances in two weeks, at least one a day or sometimes two a day, and we put them on in the gym and invited community members. The NSW branch of the CFMEU provided and delivered scaffolding for our sets. Most nights we had a crowd. People came all the way from Redfern, including people like Mum Shirl (Shirley Colleen Smith) who is one of the legends of Redfern, and they sat and watched these plays. I was surrounded by people like Jimmy Chi and Bob Maza, Archie Weller, Stephen Page, Russell Page and Joe Hurst, who was an artist that we turned into a set designer.
Being in that environment was so inspiring. People had come from across the country, and everyone was sparked with energy, thinking – what are we going to do when this finishes? There were no Black theatre companies at the time.
Then I asked my sisters, Bev Murray and Kylie to be on the first steering committee to establish ILBIJERRI. I was working at Melbourne University helping run the Koorie Student Centre, which back then was in Faraday Street, in a two story house. So I could say to them ‘just come and we’ll meet in the Common room here’.
I approached the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and I said: ‘I need a solicitor to incorporate us’, and that took almost a year. The solicitor said: ‘you need a mission statement as part of your incorporation papers’. I had no idea what that even was and he said to me ‘well, what’s your vision, what do you want it to do? Keep it brief, you only want a couple of lines.’ And I thought, in a nutshell, I want to provide an artistic platform for the Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to use to air their issues and their concerns to the world. That was it.
So then I created Up the Road from a poem I wrote called ‘Pinstripe Blues’. It was about a black public servant and about how when the Blakfullas are happy, your white boss in the public service isn’t happy – and when your white boss in the public service is, it usually means your community aren’t happy.
Up the Road was our first play in 1990, and we had nothing. I got Joe Hurst who had done all the sets for the playwright’s conference in ’89 and I said: ‘look my budget’s tight…’ I think the budget was $30,000 to do a four week tour of Melbourne. That had to pay for all of the actors, director, venue hire and set and set designer and techs. The playwright, me, got nothing. Basically all the money went on the salaries and I had $200 for the set.
I said to Joe Hurst: ‘I want you to come down’, because there were no Aboriginal set designers in Melbourne. ‘I’ve got $200 for the set, and in the budget there’s money for you.’ It was like $500 a week for four weeks to do the sets, to tour with the actors, and he was like:
‘yeah, no problem where can I stay?’
I said: ‘On my couch.’
‘No problem, who’s gonna feed me?’
His set was just a sheet of canvas that was probably about 4mx5m. He just went to this garage and put it up on the wall and painted a sunset. We got a kitchen table, some seats. That was it, that was the set for Up the Road. My mother was in the cast. None of them were actors, aside from Kylie, they were all staff and volunteers from the Advancement League who (laughing) got forced to be in this play.
‘People had come from across the country, and everyone was sparked with energy, thinking – what are we going to do when this finishes?’—John Harding
When I was hired as a writer for the project that would become Stolen, in 1991, ILBIJERRI said in their brief to me, ‘We want to tell many stories, not just one, we don’t want a straight narrative. And we don’t want Aboriginal people to be all shown in the same way’. It suited my writing style, to tell many stories, not just one.
ILBIJERRI supported me all the way through the writing process, sometimes with little resources. I spent six years collecting testimony in the community. We spoke with people who shared their experiences like Aunty Iris Lovett Gardiner, and all the people who were involved in the workshops we did to develop the play.
Maryanne Sam and people like that took me under their wing. I remember some mad journeys across Victoria. We went to places like Barmah and up to Cummeragunja. They introduced me to people within the community, and that’s how I was able to start collecting the stories. It was that first experience for me of embedding myself in the Aboriginal community.
I’d grown up always knowing I was Aboriginal, always identifying as Aboriginal, but I still didn’t have that many contacts within the community. I’m not stolen generations myself, and my mother wasn’t stolen generations, so I didn’t have the direct experience. I questioned whether I was the right person to do it on many occasions, and many tears were shed. There were times I was full of self-doubt. But I think it was ILBIJERRI having that confidence in me, and me not wanting to let them down. That’s why I stuck with it.
A lot of the people involved at ILBIJERRI were stolen generations, and it was challenging for me to ask questions of their experiences. It was content which was, of course, well known within the community, but not very well known out of the community. Our role was to listen to people. We heard stories they had maybe never told anyone before.
All those stories went into a blender in my brain. What we made was also co-created in the workshops we had. The actors would improvise scenes, and I would learn from those scenes and document them, and they found their way into the script. We had quite a few writing workshops. I think I had 36 scenes at the start of the last workshop, and I had thought we would just be tweaking the material, but it ended up being a really rigorous process. The play got unpacked and rewritten in collaboration during that three weeks.
When the show was touring, the director, Wesley Enoch, decided with the cast that at the end of the play they would each step forward and recount an experience that was fresh within them from their own lived experience. That was the most powerful part of the play for me. It made the audience realise; hang on a minute, it’s not something that happened in the past, it’s not something distant. There were these five human beings in front of them who were stepping forward and telling their experience of either being stolen generations or knowing family members who were stolen generations.
With such a big story, as a first-time writer, I think I needed to go through that process of workshopping for six years, that work of continuous failing and having that generous input from others. Everyone was invested. Tammy Anderson told me it’s more than a play. It’s one of those stories of our community that hadn’t really been fully, properly told.
I first got involved with ILBIJERRI in 1993, when they were following up the great success of John Harding’s Up The Road with a community based project exploring the stories of Aboriginal children who had been removed from their families. Antoinette Braybrook and Kylie Belling had spearheaded the research and brought on first time playwright Jane Harrison to build the play. Maxine Briggs facilitated this first reading as part of the Fringe Festival. The reading was performed as a promenade theatre piece, where scenes were played out in different rooms, and to this day I remember Aunty Iris Gardiner hanging blankets on a makeshift clothesline inviting people to inspect how clean they were as a way of trying to convince people not to take her children. It was a moving experience even then in all its roughness to see and hear these stories played out.
I can still remember the opening night where the audience leapt to their feet. After the successful season of Stolen in 1998 and the subsequent national and international touring, I became Artistic Director in 2003-2006 and alongside Maryanne Sam, and later Kim Kruger, we were perched in a little office in the tower of North Melbourne Town Hall and later downstairs in the offices. There was a real sense of growth and excitement about the company as the successful grants and projects, commissions and workshops took off, quickly outgrowing the confines of space and resources.
The cast were instrumental in the shaping of the work and the powerful ordering of scenes but there was always a question about how to end the play. At the end of every performance of Stolen, the cast were invited to improvise to tell a personal story (or not) about how they were affected by the show, a memory from their life, a story someone had told them, telling a joke, or to abstain with the phrase ‘I have nothing to say’. It was a powerful ending which told the audience that they were not just watching a play that was distanced from the world but had repercussions to the Blak people they saw on the stage, in the audience, in the streets, in the media. At the end of this improvised moment, the cast stepped off the stage and exited out through the audience to the foyer.
‘I can still remember the opening night where the audience leapt to their feet.’—Wesley Enoch
I remember being an original member of the workshop team for Stolen. I wasn’t a professional actor at the time. I am a member of the stolen generation, removed from my birth mother by the Aboriginal protectorate, and I met my birth mother for the first time while doing that show.
Being a member of the stolen generation, and nobody really knew at the time, the stories and the issues within the story you are wanting to tell personally connects with you. It hit a traumatic nerve where in one session I just emotionally lost it and a verbal outburst came out from my mouth.
I had never experienced that, and I know it affected everybody. They were holding auditions to cast the show and I just couldn’t do it, it became so personal. Kylie and Jane asked me to audition but I couldn’t.
Kylie Belling is one of the founding members of ILBIJERRI. As an actor, she has performed on screen in Redfern Now, The Sapphires, The Flying Doctors, Fringe Dwellers, and Li’l Elvis and the Truckstoppers.
She graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1985 and now holds the position of Senior Manager, First Peoples, in Creative Victoria.
Wesley Enoch is a writer and director for the stage. He hails from Stradbroke Island (Minjeribah) and is a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man. Previously Wesley has been the Artistic Director at Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts and ILBIJERRI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Cooperative.
John Harding (Kuku Yulangi/Erub; Torres Strait Islander) is the founder of ILBIJERRI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Cooperative. Since ILBIJERRI’s inception, John has worked tirelessly in the pursuit of Indigenous artistic expression in the arts and particularly theatre.
Jane Harrison is descended from the Muruwari people of New South Wales. She is the author of Stolen, Rainbow’s End, and the young adult novel Becoming Kirrali Lewis.
Glenn Shea is an award-winning writer, and the first Aboriginal person to graduate NIDA with a degree in Dramatic Art.
Stan Yarramunua is an actor and producer known for his roles in Mystery Road (2018), Landed and Blue Heelers (1994). Stan is a respected Dja Dja Wurrung Elder, Artist, Actor, Author and Entrepreneur from Melbourne, Australia.
‘Being a member of the stolen generation, and nobody really knew at the time, the stories and the issues within the story you are wanting to tell personally connects with you.’—Glenn Shea