Australian stories. Indigenous Stories. Men’s Stories.
Ian Michael knows the importance of telling one’s own stories. He is a proud Noongar man whose recent show HART opened on the 2nd of February in New Zealand at the Basement Theatre in Auckland. After a sell-out opening night he caught up with former Melbourne based Kiwi expat Dione Joseph for a chat on the work and its future.
There is a tendency to generalise experiences of those who live in Oceania but for those who have family, friends and have travelled not only between the various island nations that populate the Pacific people do realise there are some marked differences.
Of course there are also similar histories since the late 1700s. Colonisation brought with it an entire system of power and privilege that over years developed laws and bred policies that institutionalised racism, discrimination and in its wake, a swathe of inter-generational effects across health, education, language and culture. Local systems of governance were ignored and in the case of Australia the land was declared terra nullius – a decree only overturned in 1993. In Aotearoa New Zealand however despite the ongoing issues and challenges a Treaty between the Crown and tangata whenua (people of the land) was signed in 1840 and it continues to be a founding document of the state.
Sovereignty however has still not been recognised for Indigenous Australians and when we recall that it was only in 2008 that Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations it’s a chilling reminder that these changes are still so recent.
The lack of visibility is one of the key motivations that drive Michael to tell these stories. “It’s really important to hear these voices,” he says, “Often men don’t really want to talk about the things that happened to them and as this show is a verbatim work we don’t say what these men don’t say – because in actual fact, they don’t say a lot.”
The four vignettes that offer a glimpse into a semi-chronological life span of four men were developed through two already available testimonials; one that Michael did with a family member known anonymously only by the name of HART (which gives the show its name) and also his own story.
“My dad never told me much about his life until I was 18 years old,” he says, “Even then it was very vague and he’d keep saying the same thing over and over again until one day he was just able to open up.”
But even there, there are so many unshed tears between what is said and what is left in silence and this is evident in the play. “They don’t say they were molested, or raped or abused – they don’t say those things because it’s too hard. Men sharing these stories through their testimonies is the first step of healing, but being able to share those stories allows us as a community to heal and in turn allow other people to heal as well.”
“These four stories are very separate but my stories and my experiences sharing these individual narratives are a product of everything these men went through,” he adds, “Everything I do and every choice I make and how I’m treated is an effect of those legacies of the Stolen Generation and genocide and dispossession.”
It’s one of the key reasons Michael used verbatim theatre as the frame in which to share these stories. It’s still a very young show and opening night in New Zealand followed close on the heels of a three week season in Melbourne. He has plans on developing the script and potentially even developing it into an ensemble piece in the future.
“I’d like to meet and listen and share with more survivors of the Stolen Generations and have those conversations so that we could talk about their experience in detail. What did the mission look like, the day-to-day activities, focus in on the specifics of a day-in-the-life and move inwards with the story,” he says.
It’s been a wonderful ride for the young 26 year old whose gathered accolades at this year’s Melbourne Fringe and he’s delighted to be working with the talented team at She Said Theatre who have supported his journey. His emphasis was always to produce a work of verbatim theatre and its attraction has proved to be fertile ground for the narratives that he has brought together.
“The truth and the honesty of verbatim theatre is its hallmark,” says Michael, “It’s not fiction these are real human experiences – you cannot escape the truth.”
In a country where there are still some individuals who discount the experiences of Stolen Generations (and others who go so far as to say there is no such thing) Michael’s work sits firmly in a growing and bold space that will continue to take these stories further – in every way possible.
Hart is currently playing at The Basement, NZ, until February 6, 2016. Visit: www.shesaidtheatre.com