ATF2013: David Milroy

by Jane

“It would be nice one day to think we had a theatre boom in WA with fly-in-fly out dramaturges” opened David Milroy, the first Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Theatre in WA “but I don’t see that happening in the next few days.”

2013 is the 21st birthday of Yirra Yaakin, a company that gave Milroy and his peers “the opportunity to tell our stories the way we want them to be told.”

“What is the definition of Aboriginal theatre?” he asked. “Can a non-Indigenous writer write an Aboriginal play? Is Is it about where a writer is writing from, or is it more than that? It’s more than that.”

“Who is telling our story, and why?”

When Milroy began in theatre, there were  plays where Milroy could see “Aboriginal actors on stage, but other people were pulling the strings” and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander characters were “written on the stereo-typewriter.”

Said Milroy, “cultural misrepresentation can be a dangerous thing for an Aboriginal actor to get caught up in.”

Yirra Yaakin gave an opportunity for “catch up theatre” – telling a history that hadn’t been told before and giving an emotional release for people who had never had their stories told before. “There was nothing better”, he said, than having a “mixed audience laughing and crying about different things.” Milroy told a story of a woman in the audience telling his character off for being too mean to his daughter – “that’s how real it was.”

With the plays the company produced now on the schools curriculum  that was something he never felt was possible. For him, it wasn’t about starting in theatre for the love of theatre, but because he thought these stories should be told and these people should have a voice.

Aboriginal people are about 2.5% of the population. Milroy said most Australians would have never had personal contact or relationships with Aboriginal people: their contact is from watching the football, films like Australia, and theatre companies.

“If aboriginal people made up 97.5% of the population would we be telling your story? […] And would we get it right?”

Now, said Milroy, we have a population of Aboriginal actors, writers, directors, producers and stage managers. We still have Yirra Yaakin theatre company, “and I’m beginning to feel the same excitement I felt twenty years ago.”

“We now have a great opportunity to get this right. I feel the way forward is through meaningful collaboration.”

Showing us images from the Western Australian desert, Milroy asked “how are you going to know the meaning to and Aboriginal person unless you ask?” To everything, he said, there can be a lot more to it than recorded history and the archives.

“It’s a beautiful culture, but it’s complex”, and everyone needs to be mindful of this when working collaboration in theatre. If the writer gets it wrong, he said, there can be a lot of issues within the community.  It’s important to keep in mind “there is no such thing as a generic Aboriginal. We all come from somewhere and are connected to our community” and “our ancestors are as alive today as they were hundreds of years ago.”

For everyone, he said, “humility and respect” are essential form both sides of the collaboration.

Milroy ended up with a “little indulgence”. Showing us an image of a wild fig tree and the bower bird that lives underneath it and the “little theatre” the bird built – “it’s not that different to what we do.”

He loves theatre, he ended, and he “looks forward to watching it grow in collaboration.”