At its most transformative, theatre always has the power to change a mind, a person, a viewpoint.
But Stolen, soon reappearing at Riverside Theatres by the National Theatre of Parramatta, is something else.
As a slippery communion of the experiences of five members of the Stolen Generations, the unorthodox stageplay has taken on a life of its own since its debut 20 years ago at Playbox Theatre in Melbourne.
For writer Jane Harrison, the experience of the play she wrote two decades ago keeps shifting, as new directors and new actors bring the script back to life, and as her own family members watch new productions unfold.
Stolen is now part of the story and the fabric of her own family through its generational reverberations.
“My children who are now young adults were there literally from the start, it’s always been in their lives,” says Harrison. “I remember taking my youngest daughter, who’s now 19, to the opening night of Stolen, where she cried. I changed her nappy on the piano in the foyer.
Harrison is of Aboriginal heritage through her mother’s side of the family. “She’s Murrawarri country up near Bourke,” she says. “Although I grew up with my mum, I didn’t have a lot of contact with the Aboriginal community, and we didn’t see my mother’s family all that often.
“My mother didn’t have experience of the Stolen Generation, and neither did I, because her mother was English. Although she grew up in poverty in a house with dirt floors with an Aboriginal father, she wasn’t targeted for removal as she had a white mother. So it was really confronting to take this topic on. I freaked out about whether I was the right person to write it.”
Without that direct experience of being stolen, Harrison approached the material through empathy and deep research. It took six years from commission to first performance. “Some of the board members of Ilbijerri Theatre were stolen and adopted into white families or fostered or had experience being in the system,” she says. “They took me around to communities and missions, introduced me to a lot of people. I had to listen a lot. I had to absorb all those stories. I learned from them, I learned from community members and elders, and for six years I kept my ears open.”
Since its 1998 debut, Stolen has become a mainstay in high school drama and English school rooms. It’s toured extensively. And it’s known as the type of theatre that people see more than once and take their children to.
In the story, there’s Shirley, trying to reconnect with a lost daughter. There’s Ann, whose Aboriginal heritage was hidden by the white family she was placed with. There’s Jimmy, searching for his mother. There’s a forgotten and alienated woman, Ruby. And there’s Sandy, whose Aboriginal mother was raped by a white man.
“It was a long time ago now,” says Harrison, over the phone from her home in Melbourne, of the play’s germination as a commission by Victoria’s Ilbijerri Theatre, Australia’s longest established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company. “The play was called The Lost Children then. Ilbijerri put an advert in the newspaper, in the days where you’d look in the job section. I was a writer who happened to be out of work, I had been working in advertising as a copywriter. The ad said ‘no experience necessary’.”
Despite Harrison’s own distance from the Stolen Generation, the subject matter remains personal.
“It’s painful when I have to see a lot of people in my life who are continuing to suffer because of what’s happened to them in the past,” she says.
“I know a lot of people who are in the Stolen Generations and that trauma is part of who they are. Even though they might be beautiful people, successful in their lives, there’s still something that can never be returned, something they can’t get back. That’s their normal. To be removed from their family, their parents, their grandparents, their extended family, their culture, from the opportunity to grow up with their language and their connection to country.”
That idea of five individuals, bound to a past that won’t budge and bound together by that shared, immovable experience became the guiding motivation to how Harrison inhabited her characters as a writer.
The narrative took on a life of its own, too, with the script unfolding as a series of vignettes tracing the loss and resilience of five Aboriginal people from the Stolen Generations. In this way, the experiences of countless thousands of displaced Indigenous people unravel kaleidoscopically onstage.
“Ilbijerri told me they didn’t want a straight narrative, they wanted something more innovative than that,” she says. “They didn’t want one story, because the story of the Stolen Generations isn’t one story. Not all Aboriginal people had the same experience. I had about 30 little scenes written, but I didn’t have an overall spine for the play. Six of those stories made the cut. The actors contributed and some more stories were improvised in.”
Stolen opened at Playbox Theatre in October 1998, directed by theatre-maker Wesley Enoch. The play has continued to morph ever since.
What hasn’t changed is the broader cultural context in which the play is performed. “Colonisation and Stolen Generations are the foundations for how we are today,” says Harrison. “It’s not in the past, we live with it as Aboriginal people. That’s what we all have to come to terms with, that’s what we all have to acknowledge, that we’re living with this legacy of discrimination and racism and genocide.”
The new National Theatre of Parramatta production at Riverside is the second directed by Vicki Van Hout, who brings her own earthy, physical sensibility as a dancer and experimental performer, having trained at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (Australia’s leading Indigenous dance college) and then at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York.
Harrison describes Van Hout’s vision of her script as “quite mesmerising”.
“Vicki brings a new dimension and a new approach. She’s a choreographer, so [her production is] very physical theatre, it’s also very musical and rhythmic. She uses so many different senses. A lot of it is about the temporary nature of home. An essential motif on the stage is a tree that’s been yarn-bombed with all these colours.”
Van Hout follows in the footsteps of many other directors, including Leah Purcell and Wayne Blair, as well as the dozens of actors who’ve brought their own lived experiences. With all those collective efforts over the years, Harrison says the story is now “more than us, it’s more than the individuals” working on each production. “It’s about honouring the community, and that’s the most important thing.”
Perhaps that sense of shared community around the play is why Stolen has become a mainstay of stages around the country, as well as its presence on the Victorian VCE and NSW HSC English and drama curriculum.
As well as the fresh creative input of each new productions’ contributors, there are always new audiences coming to the play for the first time. “I love the fact that young people are still seeing it,” Harrison says. “It hasn’t been staged in Melbourne for years, and people still ask me, is it on, is it on, can I go and see it?” she says.
“People come up to me. I was at a book signing for my novel, and one guy came up to me and said, ‘I saw it 12 years ago and I just wanted to tell you how much it meant to me.’ He was non-Indigenous. So I think it’s an experience that stays with people, especially if you’re new to the themes. It still resonates.”
“These are the sort of stories you need to have visceral response to, not just see statistics and facts. You need to feel what it’s like. Theatre is beautiful for that. You’ve got a darkened room, you’ve got five real people in front of you and they’re sharing a journey and an experience. It’s not just a piece of entertainment.”
Stolen plays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta May 29-June 1.