Mutton birding is a “pretty rugged” business, laughs actor Lisa Maza.
She’s learned a lot about it through her starring role in Nathan Maynard’s The Season, a family comedy that transports its audience to Dog Island, a windblown speck of a rock off Tasmania’s northeast tip.
It’s here that the Duncan family meets every year to harvest short-tailed shearwater – known locally as the mutton bird, or moon bird – as their ancestors have done for at least 10,000 years.
“The process of mutton birding is pretty simple,” Lisa Maza explains. “You just put your hand down a hole and hope there’s not a snake in it. Then you pull out a bird between two fingers – look at it quickly to check it’s not too small or too young or whatever – and then pretty much just break its neck.”
That’s not the messy bit, she adds.
“Then you have to carry those birds back to camp and you squeeze them out, from their backside to get out their guts, then you have to pluck them. And it’s all done by hand.”
An experienced harvester can collect up to 500 birds on a good day.
“The Tasmanian mob have been doing this for a every long time and they take not even a tenth of the birds. There are millions of them.”
Mutton birds provide oil, feathers and food. The flesh is usually frozen or salted.
“Most of the islanders keep the salted ones and sell the frozen birds,” Maza says. “There is a bit of a market for mutton bird in Japan. I’ve even seen a butcher in my area selling mutton bird and I live in Sunshine [Melbourne].”
So, what does it taste like?
Maza laughs. “I’m vegetarian,” she confesses.
The Season debuted in the Sydney Opera House in January 2017, as part of the Sydney Festival programmed by Wesley Enoch. Revived, it’s now touring nationally.
Maza plays one of two sisters. Her character, Marlene, is a straight-talking, fun-loving woman with a salty sense of humour. Her sister Stella is married to Ben, the Duncan family patriarch and birder extraordinaire.
“What I love about the play is that it tells the story of blackfellas as they are,” Maza says. “I reckon if a person who doesn’t know any blackfellas went to see this play, they would get a good idea about what family life is like. It’s perfect like that. It’s about passing on tradition and relationships, and everything is set in this unusual place, but in the end it’s all about family.”
And mutton birding is very much a family affair for the Duncans – this year more so than usual. Ben’s teenaged, city-raised grandson Clay has joined the party. It’s his first time birding and he doesn’t much like the look of it. Ben, meanwhile, has other things on his mind – especially his rival and nemesis Neil Watson, whose family works the next-door rookery.
Through its portrait of an indigenous family at work and play, The Season opens your eyes to the living reality of a Tasmanian culture many assume to have died out long ago, Maza says. She, like so many, had learned in school that Tasmania’s indigenous people had come to an end with the death of Truganini in 1876, that they were “extinct”’.
“What I learned at school was a very narrow view of things,” she says. “We were told about ‘the last Tasmanian’ and I remember thinking, really? Is that true? I was working with actor Elliott Maynard in Stolen, and he was saying that when he was at school in Tasmania, he was told that there were no Aboriginal Tasmanians left. He put his hand up – and he was only a little kid – and said, ‘excuse me, I’m Aboriginal’, and the teacher brushed him off and told him he wasn’t.”
Contemporary figures suggest that though disease, forced relocation and frontier violence claimed countless indigenous lives in the colonial period, between 6000 and 23,000 modern-day Tasmanians claim Aboriginal heritage.
The cast of The Season – Maza, Mathew Cooper, Nazaree Dickerson, Trevor Jamieson, Della Rae Morrison, Maitland Schnaars and James Slee – hails from just about everywhere else, however.
“I was born in Brisbane and my family are Torres Strait, from Murray Island,” Maza says. “But what I love about this play is the director [Isaac Drandic] is a blackfella, the writer is a blackfella, and the seven cast member are all blackfellas. That is something that people who have been working in the arts for a long time have been working towards. Our stories have been told by whitefellas for a long time but we need to tell our own stories.”
The Season is a play that black and white audiences can relax with and enjoy, Maza says. “I love doing it this play because, personally, I don’t want to tell tragic stories all the time. I want people to laugh. I want them to think, too, and I think a good way to get people to do that is through comedy. I do like to educate but mostly I want to entertain and connect.
“Every blackfella who has seen it loves it and whitefellas, too,” Maza says. “They are a very particular family but there is nothing that people won’t understand about them. It’s a very energetic show, quite in-your-face, but it has high production values and it looks beautiful. People love it and we’re thrilled by how touched they are. Every night we are hearing all these loud laughs and a bit of crying as well. It’s a rollercoaster.”
The Season plays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta from September 20-22 and The Seymour Centre from September 25-29.