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National Play Festival 2018

"Let me digress here for a second ..."

Wesley Enoch asks, "Is it just me or are we seeing more homophobia, racism, sexism on our stages?"

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Smell the Air: The Nick Enright Inaugural Speech

Date: 22 Mar 2018

Imagine a time when you could stand where I am now and look down the hill to the wetlands and sunset orange water of the harbour.

Imagine the sight of towering trees that reached for the sun, a sight that has long been replaced with concrete and steel.

Imagine the feel of the rock and dirt beneath your feet and the memory of familial footprints that go back millennia. Imagine the smell of rotting undergrowth, sweet flowers and a bitter taste of smoke from camp fires cooking fur-covered meats.

Listen to the sound of women singing songs whilst fishing from their nawi, the sound wafting over still waters and carrying up the hill to your ear. Imagine hearing the scolding of overactive children who threaten to tip their precarious bark endeavours.

This is where we are. That time is here now among us, not the past. Though the clocks, calendars and cartography tell us That World has passed and been shaped by other forces, we will forever live in the memory of the time we are using our imaginations to remember.

We may never have known it but that time lives in the memory of this place and The Now is a moth newly born, emerging from the underside of a leaf without knowing it is destined to live for three transits of the sun and moon.

It thinks now is all there is, without sense of the age of the leaf or tree or the connection of the tree to the ground and its roots and the cycles of droughts and floods or the scars in its bark or the many children it has around it struggling for the sunlight and place to grow.

The Now is a moth that eats and mates and dies without ever knowing forever.

Imagine now thousands of witnesses gathering on the rocky outcrops, beaches and bays; from high vantage points and low. Imagine as they see, almost 250 years ago, a travel-weary ship catching robust gusts in its grey white sails, like flapping wings, see as they saw the ship arrive.

A sense of wonder, a sense of curiosity, a sense of fear, a sense of story – stories told and stories to be told. These gathered Eora.

Now imagine the stories that are forgotten, the stories left untold and the great distraction that ensued. Do not be misled, the now time is a distraction from the lessons learned of the past, the now is a moth with no sense of the long deep memory of our history here.

The white sails have fluttered and blustered, ate, mated and inevitably will die leaving only the tree to remember the story of the moth-like now. The act of feeding ourselves, the cultural practice of welcomes, elders, the care of country, story, ceremony, teaching the next generation and remembering the generations that went before.

All this memory will lead us to a stronger place on this Land … if we learn to embrace it … or we will die like the moth.

In this I remember and give thanks to the elders who have gone before us, who even now are amongst us and guiding us. Their invisible hand has brought us here to this place and time, here in this room of tempers and temperance.

One such hand is the ghost white invisible hand of Nick Enright. And I will remember him here.

His was a hand that could support and guide, deliver a loving caress and a stinging slap.

His hand can be seen in the careers of many, in the institutions he was a part of, in his plays, his signature, in the quiet corners where conversations would happen and the pulpits from which he would sermon.

His handprint sits like a stencilled mark on my heart.

Put your hand up if you ever studied with Nick Enright, worked with him, if he ever did you a favour, if you ever ate a meal with him, if you’ve read his plays, seen them or acted in them.

Put your hand up if you heard a story told about Nick Enright, his ability to love and share. He is everywhere in Australian theatre.

The invisible and visible hand of Nick Enright is all around us and lives on in us. I even now have to imagine Nick is still with us when I face a moral or ethical dilemma and I think:

WWND – What Would Nick Do?

And several times when there has been a play that needs a senior guiding hand, a playwright in search of a dramaturg, or a student in need of a teacher I have thought:

WTFINWYNH – Where the fuck is Nick when you need him?

But mostly I think:

IMNE – I Miss Nick Enright.

The hand that could give a loving touch, lift you up in support and the hand that could slap you so hard you would sting for days, months, years.

His hand hit me once. It felt like a slap even though he never touched me. The slap came in the form of a preview ‘talking to’ where he criticised my lack of judgement on the work we had done together on The Sunshine Club.

This was a musical about black and white dance halls across the country post WWII. He had drawn my attention to the subject a few years earlier and championed me through the process with the great support of Robyn Nevin.

His criticism was harsh and personal and so, so right; he cut me, he slapped me away when I demanded to be cared for and nurtured. He was tough when I wanted him to be tender. I didn’t talk to him for almost three years, such was my shame. Not until he was sick.

He had pointed out my indulgence and refused to allow me to charm my way out the situation or play a race card or demand a different standard because I was Aboriginal and [this was] my first ever musical and my premiere season at the Opera House. He gave me no room to wriggle out. I didn’t know it at the time but he was teaching me even then. Like an old aunty’s tough love.

Never indulge in the self-referential sentimentality of autobiographic justification. The only real truth is the truth the audience demands from a story.

No matter how much you want to use your writing to heal yourself, write your personal story onto the public record, to be loved by others or pontificate about an injustice, your ultimate responsibility is to make sure the audience are receiving your story as it wishes to be told.

Nick was no saint but in his humanity he had this sense of selflessness and the honourable pursuit of writing that many of us share. To be the storyteller of the tribe. To tell the stories that answered a need, not necessarily for your own sense of ego but a broader need. I can’t say he never wrote his autobiography in his plays but I can say he never gave in to self-indulgence within the material.

He never wrote the play where the teacher falls in love with his student, but he came close with A Poor Student.

He never wrote the play about the childless man who ached to be surrounded by youthful exuberance and see the next generation flourish but he came close with The Man with 5 Children; he never wrote the play about being a gay man from the country but he came close when he wrote the book to The Boy From Oz; he never wrote the play about the crippling guilt of being white in a black country but he co-wrote the adaption of Cloudstreet and helped Jimmy Chi write his musicals, he helped me shape The Sunshine Club and many more.

In many ways he didn’t write his own story but he wrote for all of us and when he couldn’t he assisted us to write our own.

I will forever be grateful to Nick Enright. And in the deepness of time he will be remembered not only for his writing but also through his contribution to the many lives he touched, the many lives in this room and the countless others in the world outside. It is a great honour to deliver the inaugural Nick Enright Keynote. Thank you.

Smell the air

I believe storytellers play one of the most important roles in a society. They hold the history of the clan, the lessons learnt, they provide a vocabulary for change, they can entertain, educate, agitate, celebrate … storytellers excite a society, uniting them despite their differences by providing a single moment in time where you feel part of something bigger.

This is why the tribe hunts for us, gives us food, provides respite from the everyday pressures of survival, provides shelter… so that we can focus on telling their stories, refreshing the old and imagining the new. This is an unspoken contract with society.

We must be the best storytellers we can so that those storylisteners can understand their world better.

Growing up, my family and I would return to Stradbroke Island Minjeeribah across Quandamooka to attend family functions – weddings, funerals, birthdays. I have one memory of a wedding where Aunty Kath Walker – Oodgeroo Noonuccal – recited a poem for the gathering.

It’s a poem, I can’t find this exact line in her published writings and I suspect it was written for the occasion of my relatives’ wedding or an early draft of a later work.

I distinctly remember through the fog of time the breeze coming from the bay and the sun shining and her words – I am the Tree and the Tree is Me … She went on to ask the tree its history and memory of the world… in this one line I caught the sense of connection and responsibility.

Standing amongst my extended family, on an island that had seen countless generations birthed and marry and die. A place where stories had lain dormant and resurfaced, remembered and reshaped. It was the 1970’s, I would have been perhaps eight, and this line has stuck with me for the last 40 years.

The other distinct memory of that day was when Aunty Kath said the line – I am the Tree and the Tree is me – and another relative calling from behind saying, ‘She’d shit herself if the tree talked back to her’. Everybody laughed and the moment was gone. Whatever point she was trying to make evaporated. The transient laughter robbing that moment and taking me away from a time of thoughtfulness.

I have rewritten that line in my head over and over through the years… what if the call had been, ‘What did the tree say back to you, Kath?’, if he had included her so she could have responded. If he had broken the mood with a comic interruption but not departed the substance of the drama, if he had not set up a sense that we ‘the congregation’ were complicit in the rejection of the moment by addressing only us rather than the speaker.

It is weird how little things stick with you. I read this situation as apocryphal, the fate of a writer and the possible issues with audiences. Don’t get too serious for too long or you might lose your listener. Include their understanding of the moment for fear of them taking away your right to that moment as the storyteller.

Recently at APAM, Jacob Boehme gave a fantastic key note address where he played out an all too familiar conversation between a fictional black artist and white gatekeeper. The familiarity with the situation and responses were breathtaking.

‘I would like to give just one example of how the conventions of this sector and of a market such as this, could currently be interpreted from a First Nations perspective:

Whitefulla still has all the power, authority and autonomy to dictate what trading and economic system we operate under.

Whitefulla determines what excellence or quality is.

Whitefella still manages and has curatorial control of performing arts venues Blakfella could work in.

Whitefella still programs Blak stories either written or directed by whitefellas and determines the Blak narratives that audiences engage in.

Blakfulla says ‘fuck me’ if I’m gonna make a living from this, I better make the same kinda shit too’.

Blakfulla gets busy making that kinda work, that kinda narrative that intrigues, delights, traumatizes, tantalizes and satisfies the curious mind about Blakfellas culture, identity, traditions and modernity.

Blakfulla constantly talking about being a blakfella.

Blakfulla gets an opportunity to pitch their work.

Whitefella says ‘Not Aboriginal enough’ (true story).

Blakfulla has another go.

Whitefella says, ‘Now I want you to condense 70,000 years of ancestral lineage, of continuous culture and creative practice, of complex totemic, skin and ceremonial systems complicated by 229 years of colonization, survival, government and social policy that continues to actively oppress your peoples and sovereignty into a two minute elevator pitch or marketing blurb, but make it exciting and make it accessible.’

The audience were in stitches of laughter but backstage listening I was moved to tears. I couldn’t see who was laughing and it made me think in weird and wonderful ways. How often has this been the truth? How long has it gone unspoken? And why are they laughing? I couldn’t see their faces and I was concerned.

Who is this audience and their connection to what is being said?

Why should this truth telling be read as humour?

Why should we think that these words are entertainment? And is the message really getting through?

When I asked Jacob about this he said it was the blakfullas laughing the loudest – he said, ‘I totally understand the point you are making but my experience post speech was one of brother and sisterhood from our mobs and guilt and mea culpa from the words of non-Indigenous mob who spoke to me and in the eyes of those who wouldn’t.’ It is without doubt that Jacob had hit his mark.

But these two stories still have clear lessons for me – deliver your ideas too seriously and your message will be washed away – deliver your ideas too flippantly and you run the risk of your message being washed away – have nothing to say and you will be washed away. The pressure to fit a mould not always of your own making.

It is a very Goldilocks position – not too much, not too little but just right – but these two stories remind me why I wanted to be in the arts in the first place.

I wanted to tell the stories that were not being told, I wanted to speak up and say the things that were hard to say, I wanted to call out injustice.

I was attracted to the power of storytelling to change the hearts and minds of a congregation and through them the world. The artist tells stories to make sense of the world, to give an emotional vocabulary for the human condition in all its extremity, to help remember our collective history, to shine a light, to expose creation.

Idealistic? Maybe, but isn’t it the role of the young, the stubbornly progressive and the artist to be ambitiously idealistic?

Alas, the young grow more reasonable with age, the stubbornly progressive collapse under the weight of too too much disappointment, but the artist must continue to have ambitions for their community, society and country. For why else do we exist if not to stay true and hold a firm belief in our purpose and power, to help shape the world as we would want it to be?

Each of us here will have a story of the moment we felt that power. When the thrill of the voice excited us enough to motivate a life-long vocation. This moment gives us strength and pure, clarifying thought. It is this moment we return to at our darker times when confidence flees and the doubts pile up to block out the sun.

Everyone feels like this at some point. I remember one such moment on the Opening Night of The Sunshine Club at the Opera House. I sat eating jellybeans catatonic with doubt and felt abandoned to my own fears. The kind of fear that only others can help you escape but equally stops you from reaching out to them.

There is a balance between the need for professional confidence and professional doubt. Too much confidence can make you arrogant, too much doubt can cripple you. Artists need to negotiate with their demons and their cheerleaders and somehow never fully believe either.

We have to believe we are making a difference in the world, no wonder we gravitate to like-minded people to bolster our personal emotional resources, collaborators who agree with us, audiences who get what we are about, the good reviewers not the bad ones. I’ll come back to this idea.It is our sense of purpose we must constantly return to as a guide.

Why do we exist and why are we storytellers? Everyone will have a different answer but I would be concerned if any of you were primarily motivated by celebrity, cash and feeling safe.

Why are you an artist? A writer? A director? A performer?

I can also ask the same question of an audience member… why do you pursue an artistic experience? Fame, money, emotional security? Or in fact the exact opposite of these things – to experience something new, to share moments with others, to feel part of a group, to enrich my life, to be lifted to a state of ecstasy through extreme beauty.There is no long term artistic purpose in being agreeable, liked, or lauded.

There is no long term value in just telling a society what it already knows. Artists interrogate the norms and show the familiar from a new angle, perhaps as a warning, a clarion call to change or as a deep observation of human behaviour.

This is as old as time – from Medea to Hedda Gabler, from the creation stories of Maroochy and Coolum to The Drover’s Wife. But, in recent years I have witnessed a growing timidity in our cultural leadership and I include myself in this statement. Too concerned with upsetting audiences, politicians, sponsors, donors, funders so much so that we have become timid in our role as storytellers.

Have we forfeited the field and now find ourselves hiding behind remakes of classics, experimentations in form and a too often self-congratulatory malaise of irony and sarcasm?

Have we lost touch with our responsibilities to the tribe?

Let me digress here for a second. Is it just me or are we seeing more homophobia, racism, sexism on our stages?

And more often than not written by homosexuals, blackfellas and women. I’ve sat in a number of shows in the past few years and asked myself: are all these people sitting around me, laughing in the dark, laughing because they recognise the situation and the truth of it or are they laughing out of a sense of comic ridicule of the scenario playing out?

Are we laughing with or at? Are we the audience of like-minded people who can see the craft of the writer and read the nuance of the extremity being played out?Or are there some amongst us who recognise themselves on stage and easily side with the racist character/statement/situation with a forgiving chuckle.

As I sit in the dark engulfed by the sea of white middle class urbania and feel the tide of my own discomfort ebb and flow, I am struck with the thought – what are they laughing at?

When confronted I have heard writers say, ‘Yes I’m telling racist jokes but I’m doing it ironically’, ‘Yes I’m using the trope of sexualised female characters but it’s a parody’, ‘ but the prejudiced position I’m using is sarcastic, I’m inciting debate and discussion.I don’t believe in what the characters are saying’.

Call me old fashioned but I reckon if you are not busying yourself deconstructing the status quo you are making a decision to unconsciously construct it.

Can an audience read the difference between the ironic use of racist jokes, stereotypes or rhetoric and flat out racist slurs? Sarcasm and irony are very dull tools to sharpen a political message.

Like with the speech from Jacob, I get that the words are dripping with irony and sarcasm because I am part of the in-crowd but if you are not ‘in on it’ are you receiving the intention of the artist?

We can all name shows where we have laughed because we are part of a crowd who get it. The fabulous works by Declan Green and Nakkiah Lui, two writers I adore and get excited as they twist and turn the stereotypes in the best escalations of farce and comedy.

But I am left with a gnawing question – what happens if the audience don’t understand our history; if they have emerged from under the leaf and can only see what is front of them and think this is the whole world?

I can hear the defences – we can’t go at the pace of the slowest, we can’t ignore the pre-existing body of work, audiences are smarter than that, we Trojan Horse our messages inside the comedy, or you have to give the people what they want.

I think there is a shrinking body of contemporary Australian work that is so bold as to express big ideas clearly through characters that are unambiguous about their thoughts on the world. We are seduced by the recrafting of a classic, the popular forms of comedy and music theatre, of well worn paths, the acceptable and legitimate.

I know that it’s not easy. God knows you talk with Patricia Cornelius, Alana Valentine and Stephen Sewell and they will attest to the difficulties of writing the powerful stories of importance to our country and then getting them in front of an Artistic Director let alone an audience.

But I can’t help thinking we are conveniently writing, not for the whole tribe and welcoming them in, but for the small number who already agree with us. Hiding small Easter Eggs in our works in a kind of literary wink to our peers.

I wonder if we have become accustomed to subverting our messages and burying them deep in things that make them acceptable, tame and palatable? And along the way shaping the taste of the audience to the point that they have become less interested in the artist’s voice, lost the stomach for risk, and so it becomes a self-serving cycle – we modulate our work to not offend the audience, the audience becomes less skilled at dealing with big ideas, we further bury our voice and so on and so on.

And those who are seeking the voice of the artist to help explain their world, the audience who crave big ideas to shape new thoughts, explore the edge of human experience are left disappointed.

This is a time to be brave before it is too late.

Where is the play about Treaty and Sovereignty in Australia?

Where are the new voices talking about feminism and inequity, where is the artistic work that will support the #metoo and Times Up actions? Climate change? Manus Island? The greater class divides growing in our country? The intergenerational burdens?

We all know of artists creating this work with heart and nuance and the rare examples of where they have found their way to the stage. Maybe we are caught in a cyclical trap of fashion where we merely tire of the companies, artists and works who strike out to make a difference.

We fund and defund, support and drop as we follow the next wunderkind, international trend or cause celebre. Like the politics of our era we are scared to express our values through our work.

We don’t talk about our core beliefs or the national cultural project we are involved in.

We get caught in the economic justifications for supporting artists and avoid discussions about intrinsic value and the millennia old role of the storyteller.

We let that deep history sit in the background and allow people to forget the importance of Art.

We have vacated the territory we inherited and we are to blame.

We are complicit through our self-censorship as well as the censorship of others.

The growing disrespect of story and storytellers is because we are not mounting the winning arguments. I can hear it – I think I’ve even said it at times – it won’t sell, no one wants to hear that story, you need to build your audience up first, isn’t that a little old fashioned, do you want to be known as that writer, politics is a background not a foreground in a good play.

We have been conditioned in ways to shrink ourselves and in many ways shrink the cultural voice of our nation. We have abandoned bravery in favour of bankability, we have accepted commercial precedent and formula rather than succeed in our responsibility to the tribe.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-popular, I am not suggesting we should perform our work alone in a room and expect the tribe to support us. Quite the opposite. We must fiercely pursue the popular – Vox Populi Vox Dei – but we must embrace the discomfort of a forward-thinking vision for a future rather than the comfort of an imagined nostalgia when the world was easier.

I can tell you the world is much easier for me and my family now than 50 years ago. Any nostalgia would never have included me.

At the extremes, I think producers look to the comfort of precedent, the reliability of what has gone before, what has worked, the power of recognition for an audience. It is more known, predictable, more calming. Producers will give importance to the managing of risk, sometimes minimising risk, some would like to totally remove risk. This means looking into the past, analysing data and finding a formula to predict a future.

But an artist lets history sit in our creative landscape and we stare out to the horizon. A good artist is connected to their community, in constant dialogue and through their work speaks an osmotic truth. Artists and creative thinkers are spending their time imagining new futures, new ways of being, new inventions. And as in industry, the ability to explore and fail is so powerful and more often than not antithetical to market forces.

Market forces can often create stagnation in the creative arenas and that is why research and development departments exist in large multinationals. Google spent close to $10 billion dollars on R&D in 2014 or 15% of their revenue; Tesla, Apple, Boeing all realise that market competitiveness means you have to invest in R&D.

Artists are the research and development department of a society. We are attracted to the most dramatic and energetic situations in a community and we seek to expose it, explore it … to go where no mere mortal would dare go, is too scared to go.

We live the contradiction of being outsiders and deeply embedded in our community.

We play a national role to give voice to the silent, provide visions of a future, help create vocabularies for change, and to use our time on this planet making it a better place.

We play a role that comes with this responsibility but are we playing that role adequately?

Artistic Directors are the unelected representatives of a Cultural Parliament and as such they have many constituents they are indebted to, but they are artists: their role is to champion the artistic pursuits of an organisation, represent the conversations of artists in a community but I am increasingly worried that these roles are being diluted and Artistic Directors are being pressured to abandon the brave in favour of commercial yardsticks.

I know it’s a balancing act but the weight of safety cannot be allowed to crush the natural artistic need to risk it all.

As a side bar, I am interested in the role of these collaborations/dramaturgy in the supporting of new works.

Like Jacob, I am keen to have strong Indigenous voices that reflect cultural and artistic authority. Artistic Directors are making choices to change the status quo or not and are empowered to do so or not.

On two occasions in the past five years I have heard of literary managers of large companies taking the credit for ‘dragging the play’ out of First Nations writers and shaping it into the success it had become. I found this attitude a bit patronising and it raises questions about how works are shaped by the collaborators you allow in.

Oodgeroo writes in her poem Assimilation No – ‘Pour your pitcher of wine into the wide river, And where is your wine? There is only the river’.

How are we and our works being shaped by the gatekeepers and the shifting corporate culture of our publicly supported arts companies?

The more commercially interested the companies become the more they are under pressure to shape a program of activities around precedent, risk avoidance and the vocal minority of the offended. They provide feedback and shape works with this knowledge and inadvertently nudge and cajole writers into a box not of their own making. Like a wine flavoured river.

Alana Valentine writes in her new book Bowerbird, published by Currency Press: ‘Bad feedback will try to suggest how to make the play more like the one the dramaturg would like to write. Good feedback asks what you were trying to do in that moment and tells you that you need to work harder, more creatively, to achieve it. Great feedback pinpoints a problem you can see straight away.’

I am not rejecting the support from others but I am growing concerned that there is a superficial embracing of diverse writers with distinct voices, in this case Indigenous writers, but then no wholesale cultural investigation of where the work comes from and where is the right home.

I fear the writers know exactly the answers but are never asked or the companies are too scared to ask for fear that what is a precarious acceptance be complicated by messy differences and the writers are caught in a complicity of gratitude.

It is easier to comply and be rewarded by the like-minded, many who will eventually pay to see your work on their stage.

Do collaborators weaken your resolve or strengthen it? To the point eventually we end up getting a banana flavoured milkshake. We learn to accept that it is what it says it is but once you taste the real thing you realise it isn’t really. That stuff never grew in the ground.

The unspoken contract between our communities and us as storytellers demands that we are intrinsically intertwined, that we are responsible to be the eyes and ears for the people who are affording us the time to see and hear, and to think and speak.

To be a popular voice for the nation that we are shaping and which shapes us.

To pursue the hard to do more than the easy to say.

To not be reduced to our politics but be emboldened by the political.

To find the form in the content of the story and encourage deeper understanding.

To avoid the indulgences and the self-congratulation of the coterie of the like-minded whilst protecting our honourable and history laden vocation – to be the storyteller of the tribe.

The last word here I wish to give to Aunty Kath. Like all storytellers everything is filtered through a prism of what makes a good story, what makes the memory stick. I was talking to a family member about my memory of that statement ‘That Tree is Me and I am that tree,’ and they pointed me to a poem simply called ?

Sometimes you realise you are standing on the shoulders of giants, or in my case sitting in the bow of a tree that has been growing for over 1000 generations with a view out to the horizon and an imagination that stretches back to a time before time.

My 40-year-old memory may have chosen to recast her words to my own purpose or perhaps I had written and rewritten the phrase as a personal mantra but here is her poem.

‘Hello Tree
Talk to me.
I’m sick
And lonely.
‘Are you old?
Trunk so cold.
What secrets
Do you hold?‘Talk tree!
Can’t you see;
My troubles
Trouble me.‘Silent tree
Let me see
Your answers
ANSWER ME.‘Tree!
You dare
Question ME?
How dare you
Dare, question ME.’

Thank you.

This is the full text of the inaugural Nick Enright Keynote Address, given by Wesley Enoch at the National Play Festival on Wednesday 21 March, 2018.

 

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