“We still live in a country that is fundamentally in denial of its history” – Rachael Maza on My Urrwai

Image by Jamie James

With Ghenoa Gela busy opening the national tour of My Urrwai at Castlemaine State Festival over the weekend, we had a chance to chat with Director Rachael Maza.

Rachael is a Torres Strait Islander, performer, director and the Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company in Melbourne. She’s a living legend in Australian theatre.

She caught up with our education expert Meg Upton to speak about her involvement with My Urrwai, process, collaboration and what it means to create a culturally safe space for making work.

Meg: How did you come to be involved in My Urrwai?
Rachael: Ghenoa was familiar with my work and had already begun talking to Performing Lines about the show and requested that I come on board. The other person Ghenoa really wanted was Kate Champion, whom she had previously worked with. Ghenoa felt it was really important to have a Torres Strait person in the room to work alongside. Kate and I worked very closely together with her.


Meg: How would you describe the style of this show?
Rachael: I would describe the show as multi-form. Ghenoa comes from a very strong dance and physical movement background and the way she creates work is through her physical language. So, coming to text and narrative storytelling is a new approach for her but she is an extraordinary actor and you would think that acting was something she had always done. So I would describe My Urrwai as physical, movement based theatre.


Meg: How did you all decide what stayed in the final piece and what had to be left out?
Rachael: If you had walked into one of our creative developments you would have seen the wall plastered with stories, thousands of stories that emerged through the generative and development process.

So it really was our task to cull the content and to really get to those stories that are the essence of what she wants to say. Ghenoa wanted the piece to be based on her own story but the question for her and us was which are the stories that she wants to tell, and which are the stories that provide the theatrical arm for what ends up being a one-hour show?






Meg: Something you mentioned earlier in the interview is the importance of being a TSI person in the room with Ghenoa. How significant was that to the process?
Rachael: It comes down to two principles: who has the cultural authority to tell the story, and being able to create a culturally-safe place. This means the artist can feel supported when they open up and their heart is exposed. Part of my role was to help create that safe space. Ghenoa understood this and so the creative team were based on who do you ask to be in the room.

Having Ghenoa culturally supported was critical to her process. She has a very strong relationship with Kate Champion who is a brilliant artist as well, but for this process there is no separation between Ghenoa and her culture.

Creating culturally safe spaces is something I often talk about and it is critical that we as an industry get to the point where work that is made by us has complete integrity as opposed to work that is made ‘about’ us. So the person whose story is being told has complete authority in the room about their story and its cultural implications.

When Aboriginal and TSI people make work there are two things at play. One is navigating our cultural responsibilities. We don’t just speak for ourselves, we also speak for our mob. The second thing is we artists and we want to make great theatre. With whitefellas, they just want to make great work and they don’t have the cultural load that comes with being a blackfella.

It’s not a burden that ‘load’, it’s what makes us whole and makes our work rich. I am hell bent on working with our industry so we get to a point where we understand why that is so critically important. It is about time, and about context, and there will be a time possibly when it is a level playing field: when that happens, then we will be in a position where anyone can play anyone and anyone can tell anyone’s story. We are still so far from the starting block, and we still live in a country that is fundamentally in denial of its history, is fundamentally racist, and we have a long way to go. That is why this way of working and the distinction we make in doing so is critical to moving forward as a theatre industry.


Meg: Is working in the way you do a ‘methodology’ for creating theatre and performance – fusing or integrating storytelling, dance, language and art?
Rachael: I innately understand the interplay between culture, movement, storytelling and visual elements. It makes absolute sense and has its own logic why those elements work together. I also understand the extraordinary story is never just story. There is an entire legacy and history of a story, and deep cultural resonances for a story. When you analyse a story just as a story then I feel you are examining it in quite a narrow way. Sometimes it doesn’t fit into a neat Western formula!


Meg: Would you talk about the story or stories in My Urrwai that Ghenoa tells? 
Rachael: We all come into a rehearsal room with an agenda. My agenda sits very proudly on my sleeve and I don’t hide it. I am really interested in hero stories – using western terminology – how someone navigates the obstacles of life. In this case, it’s as a blackfella from the Torres Strait, growing up on the mainland, having to tread between, yet be rejected by, both worlds – Ghenoa grew up in an extraordinary world! So how she navigated and came through this is, for me, a hero story. She may have been victimised at times but she is not a victim!

In creating My Urrwai, there are a couple of ways to think about story. There is part of the process that is the artist going on a journey to tell their story; then there is something that happens in the honouring or validating of that story through performing and sharing the story to an audience. This is empowering for the artist and is an extraordinary experience for an audience. That is particularly important for a non-Indigenous audience who walk away with a deep impression of this incredible woman.

Meg: What’s been your understanding of how audiences have received My Urrwai?
Rachael: A key question for me as a director is, ‘Who is your audience?’ and I often ask myself is, ‘Can you make work for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences?’ I believe if we are committed to getting the balance right between the two components of making theatre we spoke about earlier – bearing in mind that My Urrwai is specific to Ghenoa, her culture, her spirituality and her story (only she can play that role) – the performance then resonates on a universal level. There wasn’t anyone leaving the theatre who wasn’t impacted by that work. The feedback was phenomenal!

The scene in My Urrwai where Ghenoa is at the train station actually happened to her during the creation of the show! She told the story of going into a supermarket at Town Hall Station in Sydney and she had all her stuff in two large carry bags and two staff demanded that she empty them both out on the spot and onto the floor so they could check them. Then they just walked off! Then in the show itself, there is a scene where she is standing around at the station on her phone, like everyone around her, and she is the one who is told to move on! And it happened again a few days later. The fact that it kept happening as we were making the show meant we needed to include it. We realised that the audience needed to know what it was like to live in Ghenoa’s shoes, to understand her reality.

We played with those scenes a lot in rehearsal, to shape them so that she was almost in a room with blackfellas and this was lesson 101 about how to deal with unsafe situations. So, in staging some of the scenes in the way we did, everyone in the audience was invited to be part of the conversation – literally. We decided to treat the audience like a room full of blackfellas!


Meg: What else would you say about the directorial process for this show?
Rachael: Well I think I return to the discussion earlier about how important it is to create culturally safe spaces, and that we have authority and control over how the work is made. I will add that having Kate Champion in the room was great and we very much bounced off each other. She comes to the room with a really strong physical language and that isn’t my thing.

The point I want to make is that having creative and cultural authority in the room doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate if it is true collaboration. It means we talk stuff out and try stuff out. Ghenoa had a very strong voice in the room, and the collaboration was authentic between the three of us.


Meg: Have younger audiences seen the show and what has been their response?
Rachael: I haven’t sat in on an Education show but the conversation has been that the younger audiences have been fantastic, are very vocal, have many, many questions and are really engaged. Students are often the best audiences. They’re honest and have very good BS-meters. It gives you hope!

In everything we do, we acknowledge that we live on Aboriginal land and constantly learn from the wisdom of First Peoples.

Where we are and the history that precedes us informs how we work and how we move forward.