Embedding First Nations’ arts in national conversation

Almost three decades ago, a First Nation’s initiative was launched in Western Australia as a youth performance workshop. It operated from a small desk in the Subiaco Arts Centre. Earlier this year, during the Perth Festival, it launched its largest production, an outback musical set in the Pilbara, featuring among other stand-out tunes, the eye-catching, toe-tapping and heart-warming song, Land of The Long White Sock.

Photo credits: Dana Weeks

Yirra Yaakin has, across the passage of time, evolved into a diverse and vibrant arts, cultural and educational entity, which provides opportunities for First Nations’ theatreworkers and promotes Noongar and First Nations’ culture and language. On any evidence, Yirra Yaakin - the name means ‘Stand Tall’ in Noongar – is a prolific performance company, generating at least one new play every year and pushing deeper into West Australian schools and the community, while always uncovering more local First Nations’ talent.

As Artistic Director Eva Grace Mullaley says: “We are not here to showcase Aboriginal culture on stage: “we are here to inform and engage in the national cultural conversation, reflect who we are and share our stories in contemporary Australia through the power of live theatre and performance.’’

But if Yirra Yaakin was born at a time when the arts were a larger part of the national conversation – recall the 1993 Labor Party election launch that celebrated our arts and culture – it has continued to thrive when arts funding, from a range of sources, has been harder to come by.

The key, according to Yirra Yaakin’s General Manager Peter Kift, has been securing multi-year funding. “One of the main factors when I started back in 2013, was the consolidation of multi-year funding through the Australia Council which gave us the stability to actually plan longer term and gave us a strong financial foundation on which to move forward,’’ Peter explains.

And through that stable funding arrangement with government, the organisation was able to leverage more substantial corporate partnerships, including the enduring association with Woodside (Development Partner) that has lasted now been a decade and Wesfarmers Arts (Koondarm Koomba – Dream Big Partner), for six years. Peter explains that Yirra Yaakin conducted due diligence on Woodside before finalising the partnership. “Yes, they are involved in mining and all that sort of thing but at the end of the day, they also have a very strong commitment to Aboriginal engagement and empowering communities in which they work,’’ Peter says. “So, in regard to our relationship with them, one of the main issues is development – developing staff, developing artists, developing the organisation and developing our work. And they’ve been able to support all of that, without wavering.’’

That commitment to development has had a measurable impact: the Woodside funding enabled Yirra Yaakin to engage 70 Aboriginal theatre workers last year, for a total of 417 weeks, or the equivalent of eight full-time staff.

“It’s all about enabling us to develop our artists and our art and for us, also, long term sustainability of employment in the sector for First Nations’ artsworkers,’’ Peter says. “It’s a very strong relationship. We also know they spend billions [of dollars] on renewable energy and that’s an area that they don’t really promote as much as we’d like them to. What people also don’t realise is that about 30 per cent of their staff are involved with renewables within the organisation.’’

Pivotal to Yirra Yaakin’s consistent output is the development of a pipeline of emerging talent, and material through what it calls the Metro Writers Group that identifies new playwrights and supports their development through a series of incubation workshops, which culminates in 10-15 minute-public readings of selected plays. It has been very successful over the past few years in producing new work for the stage.

Peter cites Narelle Thorne’s comedy about dating - Dating Black- which had its world premiere last year, as proof of how well the Metro Writers Group (MWG) works: “The play came through the MWG two years earlier, was developed since then and produced for the stage last year. It was a huge hit here,’’ Peter says. “It was very well received and hopefully we will be touring it in regional Western Australia in 2023. The situation is that if people come forward and they have a story to tell, we’ll listen and then encourage them to participate in our free writer’s workshops to transform that story into a play.’’

In addition, there is attention and investment on building capacity within the sector. The Wesfarmers’ funding helps with capacity building and sustainability. It enables Yirra Yaakin to employ assistant directors, assistant choreographers & assistant stage managers, amongst other First Nations’ arts workers, to learn on the job and get paid for it.

Many of Yirra Yaakin’s young artists have gone through the highly regarded Western Australian Performing Arts’ Aboriginal theatre course and they are invited to work with the company where they tour schools in the Perth metro and WA regional areas, delivering plays and workshops that incorporate language to thousands of students and young people. It is usually their first employment opportunity within a professional theatre company and the first step in Yirra Yaakin’s Next Step Training Program, funded through the Woodside partnership.

Peter says: “We’re here to present contemporary Aboriginal stories that reflect that Aboriginal people are part of the wider community and the stories that come from there are just as relevant and important as the non-Aboriginal stories that are told. It’s our opportunity to say we are more than blackfellas on stage. It’s a really, really important aspect that First Nation’s culture is embedded in everything across the country, in terms of art and culture. It’s uniquely Australian, it’s not imported and something we should all be proud of.’’

However, for all of the certainty and support that comes with long-term funding support there is a downside: the existence of these long-term government funding arrangements precludes Yirra Yaakin from accessing project funding from the state or federal government. It means that many initiatives have to be paid for from within existing funds. It’s why the company is embarking on the establishment of a development or, what it calls the Benang (Tomorrow) fund to support the pipeline for developing a play from script to stage, which usually takes between two to three years. Yirra Yaakin is also investigating structured giving as another pathway for donors and philanthropists to support the company.

There is also the issue of total creative control of the company’s productions: it’s simply not possible to currently fill every creative position in every production with First Nations’ arts workers.

“For example, there’s only one or two First Nation’s lighting designers around the country,’’ Peter explains. “One First Nations’ set designer, lots of musicians and actors but behind the scenes is an area we’re really struggling with at the moment. The long-term issue needs to be addressed across the board. It’s a bit of a struggle at present. And there is a brain drain from Western Australia with artists heading east again or into the mining sector where the pays are substantially higher.

“However, we are doing our small bit of addressing this void by initiating a ‘Behind the Scenes Workshops’ series over the coming two months where we will provide an introduction to various backstage roles to First Nations’ people over the age of 15 each Saturday, with industry experts providing insight into their professions,’’ Peter says. “Hopefully, this will encourage more First nations’ artsworkers to consider these roles as a legitimate career path.’’

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked its own havoc on the company. Although it was still able to tour Western Australia during the state border closures, it meant Yirra Yaakin’s works couldn’t travel interstate. There is some hope that will change now that borders have re-opened, and the company is looking forward to interstate touring next year.

And there is no doubt that the storytelling itself has become more confident. In many ways, Yirra Yakin’s journey captures that growing confidence. “We originally started out as a youth workshop company…, there was nothing out there, so we got some project funding, took some stuff on the road, did the workshops with kids, and that is how it all began,’’ Peter says. “We developed, in time, the voice for blackfellas for main stage theatre, and it just grew from there. In the past 10 years, we’ve stepped it up again. This year, we did our biggest show ever – 13 cast members and five musicians in a big musical on the biggest stage in the state, His Majesty’s Theatre - a full stage musical. It was a huge undertaking for us, but it was a great success with over 5000 people enjoying the eight performances.’’

That show was Panawathi Girl, written by David Milroy, and premiering – just as that other ground-breaking musical Bran Nue Dae did, in 1990 - at the Perth Festival. Panawathi Girl is set in 1969, two years after the referendum on Aboriginal rights. The show features actors playing Gough Whitlam (yet to be elected PM) and John Gorton (PM at the time) as part of the rollicking tale about First Nations in the Pilbara. For all its feel-good factor, it does have a deep resonance for now. As a character notes: “Fifty years from now, nothing will have changed.”

For Yirra Yaakin, that same march of time has affirmed the company’s longevity. And next year’s 30th anniversary will be a time to reflect and celebrate what has been.

“There are a number of arts organisations that have been around for a while but what it proves is that investments in these organisations is an investment in our communities,’’ Peter says.

“We’re still here…and we’re producing world-class theatre and engaging more and more people, despite Covid disruptions over the last couple of years, with over 28,000 people either engaged or participating with the company last year. So, the numbers speak for themselves,’’ Peter explains. “We’re not the 100,000 plus people that the major organisations or commercial arts organisations get but we’ve been pretty consistent over the past 10 years with our year-on-year growth…and the numbers continue to rise as we reach more audiences who are becoming more and more aware of the importance of First Nations’ performing arts in this country. It’s so important that First Nations’ stories are told and told authentically, and that all Australians should be proud of our unique culture.’’

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