audience conversations, audiences, conversation, Responses, Theatre

in conversation: on theatre, football, indigenous leadership and walking into the bigness

I love conducting audience conversations. I love that moment of walking up to strangers in a foyer (or as they leave a tent) and asking if I can stick a microphone in their face for twenty minutes. But in truth, they are seldom strangers. Not really. Even the English comedians I spoke with about Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It had people in common. Because, of course. The world isn’t very big and theatre is very small. But the people I grabbed after Richard Frankland’s Walking Into The Bigness were truly strangers; that elusive ‘real General Public’ that I’m always searching for, who see art as audience members rather than makers, friends, lovers. It was a beautifully mixed group: four middle-aged women and two elite athletes, recent retired AFL star, Aaron Davey and olympian Kyle Vander Kuyp. This conversation was wonderful. I love that it captures a meeting between strangers and by about the second minute of recording I all but disappeared as the participants began to interview each other. So here we go. Theatre, football and Indigenous leadership: the conversation you didn’t know you needed. As one of the woman, Sue, said “see what this show brings out?”

'Walking into the Bigness' show photography by Pia Johnson.

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography by Pia Johnson.

SFB      What just happened in there? What did you see?

BETSY  A life story. A life story of a very incredible man. Five different people assumed the same character.

KYLE    I think the characters really brought out the language – the indigenous language that me and Aaron had a bit of a laugh about. We’ve heard that in our own aunties, uncles and cousins. You hear that language come out. And the racism that he suffered. There are so many layers to his life.

I think they did a great job of bringing the whole audience in, whether they were Indigenous or non-Indigenous. It was a story about a man and yeah, he happens to be one of our Indigenous leaders that we all look up to.

AARON  Yeah, obviously there’s still a divide in this country between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It was fantastic to put that in a play and make it a cultural lesson. It’s a culturally safe place where everyone can sit down and have a laugh –

SFB      And a cry.

KYLE    And a cry, yeah.

AARON And if we can get a lot more well-respected leaders within our mobs to tell their stories, I think that goes a long way of educating not only the people in the theatre but the whole country. If we can get it in art and performance like that where you can see the fun side and sense the seriousness of it, I reckon that’s amazing. Myself and Kyle are both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men and there were a lot of more non-Indigenous people in there tonight, which was special for us guys walking out.

LAURIE Can I say, it does remind us that it is such a current story still. That’s the heartbreaking thing. It grabs my heart and makes me sad and makes me cross. For you guys, how do you watch it and come out smiling? How do you do that?

AARON  It motivates you. We’re working with a lot of young people and I’m doing a mentoring role with young trainees and helping kids get into employment and education. And maybe you can start to break the family cycle if you can maybe say the right words to a young kid.

I was on the phone at work today to a mum for about an hour about her son. I think that is a lucky gift to be able to have a conversation with a mum or a trainee or even the host employer and say “hey look, you need to give this guy a little bit of a break at the moment.” It bites you a bit hard. You have days where you’re really flat but having a show like this just gives me a spring in my step again. Let’s re-load. This is what we’re all about.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

SFB      I think for me, the overall feeling I left with was a sense of pride rather than despair. To see a strong Indigenous man standing up and telling his story. And that it ended with that beautiful scene where he asked the kids “do you want to be boy-men, do you want to be boy-boys or men” and having them say “nah, I want to be a man.”

BETSY   It helps the young people to embrace their culture, doesn’t it? Not be ashamed but be proud.

AARON  Sometimes people struggle with their own identity. I sort of done a talk at my kid’s school a couple of weeks ago. Never assume that the darkest Indigenous Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander person is a lot more traditional or knowledgeable than the fair-skinned ones. That’s not always the case. My daughter is pretty fair and someone in the class said “that’s not really Michaela’s dad”. My daughter’s got blond hair and my other kids have got brown hair. It’s just one of those things. It’s still about educating the country.

I had a young guy ring me. He’s fourteen-years-old and his teammate called him a – a – an ‘Abo’. The young boy texted me two nights ago and said he’s going to walk away from footy because he don’t feel like he can go anymore. They’ve only got one game left and he wanted to come watch me play. I said to the young fella, “you can either shy away from it or you can nip it in the bud and show how strong you are.” So he went to training last night and rang me afterwards to say “I done it”. This young kid’s got a pretty tough upbringing and so that’s where Kyle and I can play that role in the community.

KYLE    And we would have had that when we were young. We had people give us the right message at the right time. It becomes a cycle. Aaron’s had ten years in footy and he said today to a group of people “it hasn’t been smooth. It’s been bumpy and I have to be honest.” I think that honesty hits kids too. They go “oh I thought AFL careers are all dollars and spotlight” and it is hard. It is hard work. And there are great moments but there is hard work. I think Richard’s story really talked about hard work. Getting up. Dusting yourself off. What was that line? “When life knocks you down, get up and smack it down” something like that. That’s what we gotta keep doing.

BETSY   Like that young kid. He got up and smacked it down.

LAURIE Did he retaliate to those kids that said that to him?

AARON  He got really defensive and told the coach “I’m going, I’m not coming back, I’m gonna quit footy – ”

LAURIE  But physically?

AARON  Nah, nah, nah. Nearly. But he was good. When he rang me – you can tell in their voice. He said, “I went to training” and I said “I’m proud of ya. I know how much courage it takes.” For someone fourteen years old and they’ve played footy with each other for years! And it might have been a slip of the tongue but yeah.

Same thing happened at Melbourne with one young guy. I took him and another guy out for dinner – both non-indigenous – and the asics boot had just come out. They’re black, red and yellow. And this young kid is real respectful. I’ve got a lot of time for him and he goes “oh you see these new boots I got? Got the ‘Abo’ boots!” And he didn’t realise. I said to him “look, I’ll tell you now, you’re lucky you’ve said that to me. If you was to say that to another Indigenous person you would have probably got your mouth punched in.”

But they just assumed it was short for ‘Aboriginal’. It’s one of the most offensive words. And we can hear it in there (in the theatre) but if someone walked up now and called me an ‘Abo’ I’d get real defensive. In there you’re in a culturally safe space that’s all about learning but you come out the door…

SUE      This Dipper guy (Robert DiPierdomenico), he said it

AARON  Yeah, he said it to my cousin. Gavin’s (Wanganeen) mum and my dad are brother and sister.

ANNIE  You look a bit alike!

AARON Probably got similar chins, I think. They call it ‘the old Davey chin’.

LAURIE I always thought he was such a lovely looking young man. And so are you, you see. So there you go.

SUE    You know Dipper said “I didn’t mean it offensively because I’ve been called a ‘wog’ my whole life and I didn’t mean it like that.” What is the difference? Is there a difference?

AARON  I think it is because of the history behind it.

BETSY   It’s more derogatory. It’s much more derogatory.

AARON  I live in Oakleigh South and there’s a big Greek community and one of my neighbours walked up when I was down the street and he goes “hey Aaron, what did you think about the whole issue?” He goes “surely it’s not that bad. I used to get called ‘wog’ all the time when I played soccer.” I said “look, I don’t mean to be real negative on it but it’s a lot more different because we’ve had so many challenges.” It’s not to say that the Greek people haven’t but if they only knew half of the history. It is a form of ignorance as well. Everyone says, “be strong”, “be tough skinned” but…

BETSY   It’s challenging.

AARON  Exactly right.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

LAURIE That’s the other thing that I thought the play brought out as well. There’s a line in it that said “you’re walking in the footsteps of your grandparents for one thousand – “

All join in: One thousand and fifty generations. Yes. Yeah!

LAURIE For me, it wasn’t just about his life. It was the story of a people. It was everybody’s story.

SUE      Is that something that the younger people struggle with? That power of the Elders? Do they listen to the Elders, the young people now?

AARON  I reckon respect for Elders is probably the biggest value of our mob. I’m doing a bit of stuff now with the Koori Court as a ‘respected figure’. So I’ve sat in a room for three days in a forum and I’ve had all these old people – and I’ve always been told to respect Elders. So after we had a bit of a de-brief and they asked, “what did you take out of the last three days?” And I said “to be honest, I was pretty intimidated first day, sitting in that room. I didn’t obviously give too much because I didn’t feel it was my place to be speaking over people a lot older and more experienced. That’s just not how I’ve been brought up.” Your Elders are Elders no matter what mob you’re from. So you have all these old people sitting on the Koori Court and some aren’t even from the Wurundjeri land or Bunurong land. I’m from Darwin. I’m from NT but it’s all about respecting your Elders. Those young kids are real intimidated and they’re embarrassed because they’ve brought our mob into disrepute.

BETSY   AFL has done a lot.

AARON  Yeah. I walked in ten years ago as a real shy kid. I was always proud to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander but I’ve learnt so much in my ten-year journey. I can walk away and give back and really encourage guys to get to know about their own mob. If you could have seen me do an interview when I was in my first, second, third or even up until about five years ago, I couldn’t even string two words together. I always thought I was the shy kid but you just develop and when you’re placed in the role of the role model…. Now I say to the young guys “you can be someone” and to the people around them I say, “it’s about you reassuring them.” You keep telling someone they’re no good at something, they start believing it. If you start telling someone they’re good at something, they’ll start believing it.

SUE      See what this show brings out? It brings all of this stuff.

SFB      Doesn’t it? I don’t want to hold you guys here, and I know that you want to get over and congratulate Richard, so I’ll just get you to go around and say where you’re from and what you hope people will get from this.

AARON  My name is Aaron Davey. Recently retired AFL player, originally from Darwin but my father’s family is from the Kokatha tribe, southwest of South Australia, north of Ceduna. And my grandfather is a Torres Strait Islander man from the western islands up in the Straits.

I guess this show is all about education. You can take a lot of things from it and all you need is for one of the people in that room to go and tell their friends about it and it spreads. Culturally, it is a journey. We’re all on a journey. There was a lot more non-Indigenous people in there tonight than Indigenous so hopefully one day everyone will learn about our great culture. Which will be near impossible. But take what you can out of it and spread the word, whether it’s to your grandchildren or friends, and eventually we’ll get there.

BETSY   I’m Betsy Laurence. I live in Hampton, Victoria but from California originally. I’ve been in Australia for twelve years and have been fortunate enough to go out Bush and work in some communities for short times. I feel very privileged to have been able to do that. So many Australians have not had an opportunity like that. I think that seeing a show like this raises awareness for people. You’re bringing it to the people. You’re bringing that cultural experience of people’s lives to the general public so people can give back and get involved in Australian cultural history. Be more aware and open and help our fellow Australians.

SFB      We just did an interview recently with Julian Meyrick, who is a theatre historian. He said that Australian theatre has a deep fear of our past and I said that I think that is not just true of theatre. Australians in general are so horrified by our own history that we’d rather not confront it.

BETSY   Your history is very new and what’s happened to these lovely people is a recent thing. It is very raw. I think ‘how can we have treated people this way’ and ‘how can we still be treating people this way’. They are people. It takes one match to light a room.

Most people have wandered away by this point. Laurie whispers to me.

LAURIE Did you know that those two people (Aaron and Kyle) are really – he’s really big in the AFL and he’s an Olympian?

SFB      I had no idea.

LAURIE He was Vice-Captain of Melbourne Football Club. Very big deal.

SFB      Look at me, I’m the biggest theatre geek ever.

LAURIE Oh yeah, of course you didn’t know. Anyway what was the question again?

SFB      Your name, where you’re from, what you hope people will take from this.

LAURIE Okay. Got it. My name is Laurie Evans and what I take from this is that I just want to learn more about the Aboriginal culture. I wish that I had that culture and that history of 1500 generations fishing from the same pond.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

Richard centre stage, ‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

Kyle has come back.

KYLE    Kyle Vander Kuyp. I’m from Melbourne but I’m an Indigenous man from the Worimi and the Yuin tribes, New South Wales. From Richard Franklin’s show, I’ll take away how Richard kept getting up from any set back. Any time he got knocked down it was a matter of dusting off and keeping on going. The many things that he was willing to try and have a go at is something I’ll take away. We’ve also got to encourage our young ones out there to try things out. You’re not going to learn about yourself unless you come out of your comfort zone and make yourself vulnerable. Richard makes himself very vulnerable in all of the layers of his life. That’s how I relate to it.

Thank you very much to my participants. They were incredible generous and heart-felt. I apologise if I attributed things to the wrong speakers. Betsy’s Californian accent was much appreciated but there was some guess work going on there. 

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