Ilbijerri’s Rachael Maza on how indigenous work is moving centre stage in Australia
With only 5% of Australians participating in theatre and only a few indigenous people working backstage at all, developing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company presented some unique challenges. The company’s leader, actor and director Rachael Maza speaks to Eleanor Turney
Ilbijerri is Australia’s leading and longest-running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company. Led by Rachael Maza, who celebrates her 10th anniversary with the company in February, Ilbijerri creates, presents and tours theatre creatively controlled by indigenous artists.
“In a nutshell,” says Maza, “Ilbijerri was set up because there was a dire absence of opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, and a lack of opportunities to see our faces on stage. We wanted to shed the cloak of invisibility.”
Now in its 27th year, Ilbijerri’s work covers a broad range of stories and experiences. “What is Aboriginal theatre?” asks Maza. “Well, how long is a piece of string?
“It’s about countering and readdressing the false narratives that live in the collective consciousness. The majority of ‘Aboriginal’ theatre is made by white directors and companies. We’re still long overdue self-determination and to have control and authorship over our narratives. I’m fighting for that space.”
Maza says the stories told by others about Australia’s indigenous peoples are not the stories she would choose to tell. “The stories that get told are of trauma, of dysfunction, of tragedy. When an Aboriginal playwright tells their own story – and I’m speaking very generally – we hear the stories that we tell among ourselves.
“We want to tell our children of being extraordinary fighters, of survival, of heroes. That is such a huge difference. It’s important to have space for creative and political authorship over our stories.
“I get that it’s complex, but major theatre companies are still bringing in non-indigenous directors to direct Aboriginal work. The positive is that they are producing the work at all. They’ve always put bits of the work on here and there, but it’s notably more, now – at least every year there’s an indigenous production and that’s a real shift.”
Maza began as an actor, and quickly grew frustrated with the kinds of roles she was offered, and being “at the bottom of the creative food chain”.
She continues: “I came out of [drama] school really naive, thinking now that I’m trained I can do anything. [Being typecast] was really shocking. Occasionally a director would do bold, cross-cultural casting, and I’d get to play a lawyer or something, but never the lead. I got bored of it – all those years of being in a rehearsal room and having to shut your mouth. I got into directing and suddenly I could speak freely. I was like, ‘ah, this is where the fun is at’.”
Running an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander company is “a whole other level”, though. “A good 40% of my job has nothing to do with making work, and is all about advocacy.
“I’m one of the few people in a paid position, so it’s on me to take on some of that work. We’ve got such a long way to go. Black theatre is still very small, we’re fighting very hard to have creative and cultural authority. That means we need Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander directors, writers and dramaturgs driving the projects.
“The industry is definitely improving, but it’s very slow. There’s only one indigenous set and costume designer in this country, and there’s only one lighting designer. What the hell? We often work with non-indigenous creatives, which I do not have a problem with – I just want a choice.”
Recently, Ilbijerri has expanded its education and outreach work. “We tour into Aboriginal communities,” explains Maza. “We’re taking theatre out of the theatre. That is really powerful, and we need to be doing it. Artist development work addresses that dire absence of working, professional, experienced, indigenous creatives.”
Maza is quick to acknowledge that the theatre industry is tough for everyone, and that – as ever – poor pay means many talented people make their careers in other sectors. “I’ve talked a lot about how bleak it is for black creatives, but in the grand scheme of things, theatre is a very tough industry.
“Only 5% of Australians participate in theatre, so you read that and think, ‘No wonder we’re struggling.’ Overall we share the same fight – wages are considerably less than other industries, the absence of women in leadership roles – those are shared issues.
“A huge issue for us is finding backstage people. We need people to do funding applications – the talent is out there. They all end up in the government or corporate sector because they get paid twice as much. We’re so poorly funded that we can’t be competitive. It makes people do it for the love, basically, and that’s unsustainable.”
5 things you need to know about Australian theatre
1. Melbourne Festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, was born in Sheffield and was previously artistic director and chief executive of Norfolk and Norwich Festival and artistic director of the Perth International Arts Festival.
2. Australia’s oldest theatre company was founded in 1953 as Union Theatre Repertory Company, and is now the Melbourne Theatre Company.
3. Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art alumni include Luke Hemsworth, Baz Luhrmann and Hugo Weaving.
4. In 1789, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was performed by convicts to celebrate the English king’s birthday. The story of the performance was dramatised by Timberlake Wertenbaker in Our Country’s Good.
5. Henry Melville’s play The Bushrangers is recognised as the first play written by an Australian to be performed on Australian soil. It premiered in Hobart in 1834.
That said, Maza is cheerful about Ilbijerri’s position, future, and its standing within the wider industry: “We’re in a very good financial situation, as far as small to mid-scale theatre companies go in this country. We’re funded by all three tiers of government – local, national and federal. Government funding is very hands-off – no strings attached.
“Essentially, we don’t answer to anyone. We put in the application and have to meet our key performance indicators, but those are determined by us. It’s an extraordinary luxury.”
Maza remarks that change is slow, but it is beginning to happen. She says: “People don’t know how to engage with Aboriginal work, how to build an audience for it, how to market it. There’s a fear of the risks involved, and it’s still a prevalent idea in the industry that black stories don’t get bums on seats.
“There’s heaps that still needs addressing, but there has been a lot of fantastic work done. We’re still at an awkward point where, as an industry, we’re not good at articulating why we need creative, cultural and political control over our work.”
As an artistic director and a leader in the sector, how does Maza see her role beyond the company? She brings up the idea of “cultural load” – what we each carry with us – and how much more load there is to carry for indigenous people in Australia. “We are answerable to our mob. Every piece of work I make or story that I tell, I am responsible for it, I speak for my mob. I do feel weight on my shoulders, but it’s not a burden. It’s a responsibility that I’ve always understood and I take seriously.
“That’s why it was traumatic for me being an actor and having no authority. You end up being an unpaid consultant, because in that moment you are aware of your responsibility to represent your people. That load is important. When you’re in a disempowered place, when you can’t speak up, that is torture.
“You either stop doing those jobs, or you start speaking up and get a reputation as a troublemaker. For me, it’s also political. How might these characters represent our people? Are they ticking off tropes, or smashing them and replacing them with our own narratives? That’s a hugely political act. It’s a responsibility I take on with relish.”
Artistic director: Rachael Maza
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Number of productions (2017): six
Audience figures (2017): 18,661
Number of staff: 11
Landmark productions: Stolen (1998), Jack Charles V the Crown (2012), Beautiful One Day (2015)
Awards: Melbourne award for contribution to community (2017); Drover award, Rachael Maza, for touring legend (2017); Green Room award for best independent theatre production for Blood on the Dance Floor (2016); Victoria award for best performance by a theatre company for Beautiful One Day (2015); Helpmann award for best regional touring production (2014); Drover award for tour of the year (2014); Green Room Association award for industry contribution (2014)
Turnover (2017): A$1,345,750 (£768,000)
Funders: Australia Council for the Arts (24%), Creative Victoria (13%), Victorian Government (12%), City of Melbourne (7%), Australian government (6%), earned income (26%), philanthropy (12%)
For more information contact Lydia Fairhall, executive producer of Ilbijerri, email@example.com