Hidden lives

Australian theatre history is rife with misconceptions and myths. We have not taken our theatre seriously enough to record it accurately and because with some notable exceptions few of our critics of the ‘60s and ‘70s were visionary in their assessment of new Australian work.

Maryrose Casey is both a highly qualified theatre historian and an experienced theatre practitioner which makes her uniquely qualified to delve into Australian theatre history and to draw conclusions which challenge the current status quo. In Creating frames Casey has set out to record and honour the substantial and significant body of work that Indigenous theatre practitioners have contributed to the contemporary Australian repertoire and to illuminate the social, political and financial climate in which the work was created.

Casey’s book is visionary in its analysis of the inadequate critical contextualisation of Indigenous work and practical in its articulation of the difficulties of creating theatre in an environment that is often unsympathetic and sometimes downright hostile. Casey’s comprehensive book involves interviews with an exciting and wide-ranging collection of Indigenous artists including Wesley Enoch, Bob Maza, Justine Saunders and Ningali. It provides a desperately needed historical recording of the development of Indigenous theatre in the last 30 years and an insightful analysis of the reception of that work by Australian critics, mainstream Australian audiences, festival audiences and critics around the world.

Casey traces how the development of writers like Robert Merritt, Kevin Gilbert, Gerry Bostock and Jack Davis has had  significant cultural impact by redefining how Indigenous Australians are represented on stage. In her insightful introduction, Casey reveals that ‘the book is a result of curiosity’. When she discovered that she could not find satisfactory historical recordings of Indigenous theatre work from the ‘60s through to the ‘90s, Casey set out to excavate and record historical events with clarity and objectivity, and to articulate the contexts within which those events were judged. As a consequence of her research, Casey was able to separate facts from perceptions and reveal certain historical ‘truths’ to be myths propagated by inaccurate judgments drawn from the perspective of the dominant culture.

It becomes disturbingly clear in the course of the book that the mainstream press in Australia, either because of cultural ignorance or prejudice, failed to recognise and record some of the most important developments in contemporary Australian theatre because they were initiated by Indigenous practitioners. As a result, many of the Indigenous artists mentioned in this book were never celebrated for the heroic and independent stances they took in launching various theatre groups. People like Brian Syron, Bob Maza, Justine Saunders and many others too numerous to mention, deserved public acclaim for the enormous success some of their ventures achieved in the face of poor public funding. Yet such artists were often forced to live on the smell of an oily rag and their achievements went largely unnoted by the critics. Katherine Brisbane was one of the notable exceptions, and she was one of the few authoritative critical voices who recognised the importance of what she was witnessing.

Creating frames challenges cultural myths by accurately recording historical data, clarifying cultural contexts and addressing some of the imbalances in the recording of our cultural history. In the 30-year period Casey writes about, Indigenous theatre practitioners have remained resourceful, imaginative and indomitable in the face of apartheid, assimilation, institutional racism and inadequate funding.

The scarcity of funding, particularly during the period under investigation, meant that Indigenous theatre practitioners were never able to capitalise on national and international successes (both critical and at the box office) because they never received enough funding to develop adequate infrastructure. Creating frames ensures we will never forget the debt contemporary Australian theatre owes to those daring pioneers who continued to practise their art in the face of adversity.

Casey’s writing is at its best when she allows her material to breathe and engages in the imagery of an experience. There is a wonderful passage about Bob Maza attending a theatre event in Canada that is rich in imagery and another in which she describes the tapping of the Black Theatre’s telephone in Redfern. Casey has set out to be accurate and objective, so her writing sometimes feels dry and inaccessible. I was most engaged by the quotes from various interviews when the people being reported suddenly leapt off the page. My curiosity was piqued by the information Casey provided. However, I found myself longing for more imagery, a longer glossary, an in-depth analysis of group dynamics and relationships and perhaps even a little gossip. I was also surprised that, given their level of commitment to Indigenous theatre, David Gulpilil, Wesley Enoch, Neil Armfield and Aubrey Mellor received such cursory mentions.

These are minor quibbles. Casey has written an accurate and important book, which makes a significant contribution to Australian theatre history. 

Creating frames: Contemporary Indigenous theatre 1967–1990, Maryrose Casey.
University of Queensland Press, 2004. isbn 0 7022 3432 x, rrp $29.95

Kate Cherry is Associate Director at the  Melbourne Theatre Company.



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