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WAAPA’s Aboriginal Performance course is producing some of Australia’s favourite actors #australia #australia_news #ABC_News #Just_In


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July 14, 2018 05:06:54

If you were among the 786,000 viewers who watched the premiere of ABC’s crime drama Mystery Road in June, you might have found yourself admiring Meyne Wyatt’s work.

Wyatt played Cedric Thompson, the brother of one of the missing boys at the centre of the mystery.

But he is no stranger to Australian screens: in 2012 he appeared in box office hit The Sapphires; in 2013 he starred in Redfern Now (for which he was subsequently nominated for an AACTA Award and a Logie Award); and in 2014 he became Neighbours’ first Indigenous cast member.

Wyatt got his start in acting via a little-known course: the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) Aboriginal Performance course — a one-year acting program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Its alumni include Shareena Clanton (Wentworth), Isaac Drandic (Cleverman) and Shari Sebbens (Thor: Ragnarok, The Sapphires).

While Australia has no shortage of world-class performing arts institutions and there are other courses for Indigenous performers, WAAPA’s Aboriginal Performance course is the only one that focuses entirely on acting (Brisbane’s Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts offers a certificate in performance more broadly).

At the same time, the appetite for Indigenous stories is growing — as evidenced by projects like Cleverman and Black Comedy, The Sapphires, Leah Purcell’s Helpmann Award-winning play The Drover’s Wife, and Nakkiah Lui’s box office hit Black is the New White, which returned for an encore season and tour in 2018.

Indigenous theatre maker and actor Rachael Maza, whose theatre company was just awarded the Victorian Government’s largest ever single arts grant for a play about 19th century activist Louisa Briggs, says we need more courses like the WAAPA one.

“Why are there only two Indigenous-focused performing arts courses in this country?” she said.

“We seriously need more, because this is not an even playing field, we are not in a time [where] everyone’s got equal access, fair rights.”

Brand new day

WAAPA’s course emerged from a training program facilitated by Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company for the first production of Broome-set musical comedy Bran Nue Dae in 1990, and it has evolved and operated under various names since the late 90s.

“Although we take students from all over Australia, there is a common core in the starting knowledge that everybody brings to the course — such as the colonial history,” course coordinator Rick Brayford says.

“There’s a constant flow of stories that come out from families, clan groups and areas, that we’re able to take up and we’re able to write, produce and devise.”

A springboard for new talent

Wyatt grew up in Kalgoorlie and relocated to Perth for boarding school.

“When I finished high school I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I like acting’, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” the actor recalls.

After a chance encounter with Brayford, he enrolled in what was then known as the Aboriginal Theatre course.

“Once I did [that course], I started to see where [acting] could possibly go,” he says.

During the course, Wyatt was taught by industry professionals and had the opportunity to perform a wide range of texts — from classics of Australia’s Black Theatre movement to the European canon and contemporary plays.

“I think the Aboriginal theatre course gave me the confidence to be more forthright, I just gave everything a go,” Wyatt says.

“[And] I was more confident going in and auditioning for NIDA [the National Institute of Dramatic Art] and WAAPA.”

‘Black roles’

When Rachael Maza completed WAAPA’s three-year Bachelor of Acting in 1992, the Aboriginal Performance course didn’t yet exist.

“I reflect back on my three years, and I’ve heard many anecdotal experiences of people who have gone through NIDA or VCA [Victorian College of the Arts], or whatever it is, and it’s a brutal environment,” she says.

“They are not culturally safe institutions and it’s very tough.”

“I mean for instance often getting cast in the ‘black roles’ or the exotic [roles] — already the kind of stereotyping of the roles, of the parts, that you will be.”

Now artistic director of Australia’s longest running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company, Ilbijerri, she says that the mainstream institutions are still failing Indigenous performers.

“There basically needs to be some serious cultural awareness training right across all these institutions, because people are blind to their own prejudices,” she says.

“And while they continue to not even be aware of what they’re doing, in how they’re typecasting and narrowing the opportunities of certain students within these programs, it’s going to continue to perpetuate these stereotypes, or these limitations.”

In contrast, says Wyatt, WAAPA’s Aboriginal Performance course “nurtures anything and everything”, including giving him the opportunity to tackle Shakespearean roles.

“It has the potential to show and give confidence to blackfellas to do things other than just doing ‘black roles’,” he says.

Wyatt auditioned and won a place at NIDA with a Macbeth soliloquy performed in a Scottish accent.

“That was the thing that got me into the school … they weren’t expecting that,” he says.

Wyatt came into NIDA with a thick skin: “I’m from Kalgoorlie and Kalgoorlie is rough as hell. So no matter what’s going to be said to me, it’s going to be nothing compared to what I’ve grown up with. It was all water off a duck’s back.”

Nevertheless, he says support from actors also studying at NIDA (including Miranda Tapsell, Guy Simon, Travis Cardona and Shari Sebbens) was important.

“There was a little blackfella community there and we kind of looked out for each other,” he says.

Since graduating in 2010, Wyatt has played everything from Peter Pan to Shakespearean villains on stage, besides his aforementioned screen credits.

Pathways to performance

Maza is not just an advocate of WAAPA’s Aboriginal Performance course — she’s the mother of one of its current students, Ari Maza Long (whose father is Tom Long, another well-known Australian actor).

Halfway through the course, Maza Long has observed the confidence that could spell stardom for his peers: “Everyone who’s come into the course feeling somewhat nervous or whatever, just in three months’ time, it’s unbelievable how much people’s confidence has improved being amongst a roomful of Indigenous people.”

Maza Long has had a leg-up with two parents in the industry, but his mother observes that, “[there’s a] massive gap between those kids in the communities and those main stages and on TV and film”.

“What are we doing as an industry to create stepping stones for people? Courses like this fill such such a desperate gap,” he says.

She mourns the now defunct Swinburne University Indigenous Performing Arts course, whose graduates regularly appeared in many Ilbijerri productions.

Maza would like to see more courses like WAAPA’s, arguing that Indigenous performers need “a culturally safe place to build up one’s craft, to build up one’s strong sense of who they are and their confidence in their art. So that they can go out and be strong contenders and strong leaders in the industry.”

WAAPA’s Aboriginal Performance Course end-of-year performance is in November.

Ilbijerri’s Which Way Home is currently touring around Australia.

Topics:

arts-and-entertainment,

indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander,

theatre,

actor,

university-and-further-education,

perth-6000



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