Indigenous Theater in Australia

by Jeremy B. Cohen

in Global Connections

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(This post is part of the Global Connections grant program and blog salon.)

One of the most fascinating dynamics of spending two weeks in Australia was learning how the realities of the size of a country truly challenge the speed and depth of the new play development process, even with its current level of strong government support. I was struck by the fact that innovative practices to deepen artist support and increase the number of new Australian plays remain locked up by antiquated assumptions about what artists in a country are capable of creating and, therefore, prevent any larger discussions from moving forward.

During my trip, I spent time with a number of playwrights from around the country at the National Playwrights Conference hosted by Playwriting Australia, with 75 members of the Australian Writers Guild, with a wide range of artistic leaders, and with MFA students at a couple of the country’s top writing programs. I also experienced an aesthetically broad range of new plays and was particularly enthralled by the work of Lachlan Philpott (the sleek, youthful, bruising world premiere of his play M Rock, a partnership between Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Theatre for Young People), Jada Alberts (the powerful and brutal world premiere at Belvoir Theatre of her play Brothers Wreck about contemporary life of the indigenous community in Darwin in the North Territory of Australia), Declan Greene (the incredibly funny and beautifully sculpted new treatise on loneliness and connection, 8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, helmed by one of the most important theater leaders of her generation, artistic director Lee Lewis), and Angus Cerini (who launched his blistering new work Resplendence as part of the Neon Independent Festival at Melbourne Theatre Company). I would highly recommend all of these playwrights and many more that I saw while abroad. I was also moved by Andrew Bovell’s incredibly powerful speech about Pinter, about artists as activists, and about how tepid work can’t move forward in the theater ecology in Australia given the socio-political climate in which they currently find themselves.

In that vein, one of the most urgent investigations of my time there was understanding how the indigenous theater conversation continues to gather strength in Australia, not only in rhetoric but in action: in commissions, in development, and most importantly in productions. There are multiple indigenous theater companies producing work around First Contact or Dreaming stories as well as a next generation of Aboriginal theater leaders addressing myriad stories from the last 100 years forward. On one of the first days of my trip, I had the privilege of participating in a major discussion on indigenous dramaturgy led by Isaac Drandic, Associate Director of Ilbijerri Theatre, with Rhoda Roberts (head of Indigenous programming at Sydney Opera House), Fred Copperwaite (artistic director of Moogahlin Performing Arts), and the provocative and charismatic Kyle Morrison (artistic director of Yirra Yakkin). To hear the breadth of conversation about how Native stories were being told in theater, where they had been and where they were headed, and who was allowed to tell these stories blew my mind. It’s not that these conversations haven’t happened in the US, but that given the size of our country and national theater community we are woefully behind in putting more plays by Native American writers on our stages. In Australia, the National Black Theatre Company was founded in the late 1960s and Moogahlin was formed in November 2007 as a response to the Indigenous work created by that company 40 years before and the history of Aboriginal theater that originally started in New South Wales.

As my own response to what I’ve learned, I’ve started a series of conversations between Native theater artists in the US and Australia. I’ll be publishing them online in the coming months so we can learn from one another and work diligently and actively to address this complex issue.      

Jeremy B. Cohen joined the Playwrights’ Center in 2010 as Producing Artistic Director after serving seven years as Associate Artistic Director and Director of New Play Development at Hartford Stage. Cohen also founded Naked Eye Theatre Company in Chicago. He has directed extensively in theaters across the country and has received numerous awards and nominations, including Joseph Jefferson, Helen Hayes and After Dark. Cohen has been a member of the Directing Faculty at the O’Neill Playwright’s Conference/National Theatre Institute, and recipient of an NEA/TCG Directors Fellowship and a Northwestern University award.

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