group photo of six performers in Moogahlin Performing Arts company smiling at the camera

First Peoples arts company shares unique insights with students

21 September 2021
Performance students observe how theatre is made
Moogahlin Performing Arts, the renowned Sydney First Peoples arts company, is in residence in the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies enabling students to observe the process of fine-tuning a script with actors.
Actor Phoebe Grainer in a reading of The Lookout

Actor Phoebe Grainer in a reading of The Lookout. Photo: Jamie James

Sitting in a room sharing stories comes naturally to professional theatre-makers. What isn’t natural is connecting via Zoom to begin the process of developing a script with the playwright, four actors, the director, two dramaturgs (creatives who help shape the script) and Elder-in-residence, Aunty Norma Ingram. 

That’s a lot of people in different rooms. But the storytelling shines through regardless. Moogahlin is a Yuin/Bundjalung word meaning to play, to fool about, and it is clear inside this theatrical Zoom room, something special is unfolding. 

Emerging playwright Dalara Williams (Gumbaynggirr/Wiradjuri ) is sharing an early version of her script The Lookout, a contemporary Blak love story set on Gumbaynggirr Country (North Coast NSW) with four actors on screen reading the scenes. 

The story follows Jack, a young man who has lost his job, his university scholarship and his girlfriend. He goes to a lookout to get away from his problems. Here he meets a mysterious woman. 

photos of actors in a Zoom session

Clockwise from left: actor Joseph Althouse, director Shari Sebbens, actor Aaron McGrath and emerging playwright Dalara Williams. 

Watching off-camera are the director Shari Sebbens, and Jada Albert and Jane Harrison, both dramaturgs.

In another “room” around 22 students are observing the process, listening to the actors discuss how they feel about the scenes, and the director and dramaturgs asking questions of the playwright.

“Watching this process has been not only informative, but also refreshing,” said Xavier Lynch, a third year Arts and Advanced Studies student. “In the context of COVID it seems as though all theatre doors are closed and we're left in the dark, but this process has offered us what feels like a behind-the-scenes look at a new piece, and a thrilling new piece at that.”

“What I expected to be a more quiet, reflective process has actually been the opposite; workshops have been filled with laughter, banter and tears, and we've been swept into the magic of a great ensemble.”

Director Shari Sebbens (Bardi, Jabirr Jabirr) agreed. “Developing a play is so practical, you can’t really learn it from a book or a lecture, you have to observe it, even if it’s over Zoom,” said Sebbens, who is also a well-known stage actor. “I wish I had this at NIDA!”

Script development

playwright and dramaturg Jane Harrison reading a script on a laptop

Playwright and dramaturg Jane Harrison at work. Photo: Jamie James

The students observing the script development are enrolled in Dramaturgy, a third year elective in the Theatre and Performance Studies major. The unit runs once a year and involves reading and analysing a script and later watching it develop with a professional theatre company in residence. 

Previous companies have included Griffin Theatre Company, which developed Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree in the Rex Cramphorn Studio at the university, a play that went on to win multiple awards and toured nationally. 

Moogahlin Performing Arts’ development of The Lookout is the first all-First Peoples group of creatives to be artist-in-residence as part of the Dramaturgy unit. The play was first developed at the Yellamundie Festival, part of the Sydney Festival hosted by Carriageworks in January 2021. This second stage of development at the university is a vital part of a two-year process to develop the play from page to stage.

photo of director Shari Sebbens

Director Shari Sebbens for Moogahlin Performing Arts. Photo: Brett Boardman

“It’s a very beautiful Blak love story that ends in tragedy,” said director Shari Sebbens. “As part of the development, the playwright needs to hear the words read by actors out loud, and then we talk about how to make the story clear. Dalara might need to hear it again and again and then go away and rewrite sections”.

“Observing work like this is invaluable for the students,” Sebbens said. “You get to see professional actors and creatives problem solving. For me in the industry, I watched for five years in silence because I didn’t know how to communicate – these students will know when it is their turn.”

First Peoples artists

photo of Dalara Williams

Playwright Dalara Williams. Photo: Jamies James

For Sebbens, the room is special because all the creatives are First Peoples. “Even for me, this is rare,” she said. “Being in an all Blak room gives us all a sense of joy and family, we have a shared language and a sense of community. There is a lot of laughter. When you take away the white lens it doesn’t feel alienating.”

Moogahlin is introducing the students to a new language to describe the process. Yellamundie is a Darug word meaning storyteller. Dumbaldhaany is Wiradjuri for one who shows/directs, and Yawarra is Wiradjuri for watching over or taking care, this is the role of the dramaturg. These words exist in language because they were, and continue to be, a part of life for First Peoples. 

There are two dramaturgs working on Dalara Williams' script The Lookout: Larrakia, Yanuwa, Bardi and Wardaman person Jada Alberts, a well-known actor, writer and director, and Murruwarri woman Jane Harrison, best known for her award-winning plays Stolen and Rainbow’s End, both of which are on the HSC Drama curriculum.

photo of Lily Shearer

Moogahlin artistic director Lily Shearer. Photo: Jamie James

“The way we interrogate a script is very different to the mainstream,” said Murrawarri/ Ngemba woman Lily Shearer, artistic director of Moogahlin, a company known to perform in traditional black box theatre spaces as well as by a riverbank.

“We come from a place where the story is embedded in our psyche, we can see between the lines of what’s being said or not said, and often the land is one of the characters. We don’t tell the playwright what to do, we ask lots of questions,” said Shearer.

Theatre and Performance Studies

photo of Assoc Professor Laura Ginters

Associate Professor Laura Ginters. 

Associate Professor Laura Ginters said many of the students enrolled in the Dramaturgy unit are theatre-makers themselves, creating their own shows for SUDS (Sydney University Drama Society) or the Sydney Fringe Festival. Others are studying to be drama teachers. 

“The students love it,” she said. “They are learning how to make the script the best it can possibly be and they love seeing professionals at work. It’s exciting going from a cold read of the play at the start of the semester to seeing actors engaging with the text and the writer actively working on it. They feel very invested in the process.”

Lily Shearer said the artists at Moogahlin value the energy the students give them. “We all love it, too!” she said. “We need these students to be joining the theatre ecology. It opens the door for them to enter the industry with in-depth knowledge of working with First Nations people. And for us, we want to pass on our knowledge. As Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison said ‘to keep your culture, you have to give it away’. We have to share it to retain it.”

Top Photo: Creatives from Moogahlin Performing Arts. Left to right: Akala Newman (Wiradjuri/ Gadigal), Lily Shearer (Murriwarri/ Ngemba), Liza-Mare Syron (Biripai), Ali Murphy-Oates (Ngiyampaa Wailwan), Stephen Wilson Barker (Murriwarri/ Ngemba). Photo: Jamie James

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