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In Conversation with Lynden Nicholls

"Facing Up required a collaborative approach from its first outdoor performance along the prime ministerial avenue to its present state of a performance able to be shown in theatres and school and community halls. " We chat with Lynden Nicholls, writer, director and producer of FACING UP - showing at Theatre Works 3-13 May.

Q: Facing Up is described as truth telling theatre. For those new to this form of storytelling, what can we expect? A: The Facing Up script is composed of direct quotations, abbreviated public statements and summaries of attitudes to Aboriginal people held by successive Australian federal governments from federation in 1901 to the present day. It presents a snapshot of the relationship between federal political decisions and opinions and the First Nations people of this country. Indigenous voices concurrently present their story of active protest and personal descriptions of life and treatment as a First Nations person.

These two narratives together create a powerful and shocking record of the history of one nation formally being created whilst many Indigenous nations were being destroyed. It is our history. It is historical and political truth telling as told through socially relevant theatre.

Q: What can you tell us about the creative journey you undertook to develop a work that is deeply connected to indigenous history?

A: The inspiration to create a work connected chronologically to Indigenous history came from my desire to enliven the bust statues of all 29 prime ministers that criss cross a pathway in Ballarat’s botanic gardens. I wanted them to talk. What better topic than Indigenous history, an important topic to present to all the visitors to Ballarat for the Biennale of Australian Art in 2018.

At first I wanted each statement made by successive statues to be a quotation by the prime minister. I scrolled through Hansard and it was impossible to meet that aim. So, I extended my research reach. The more I discovered the more I realised that I needed a concurrent historical narrative; that arising from the conditions and protests of First Nations people themselves.

The story is disturbing yet uplifting in the persistence shown over the past 123 years by the Indigenous people of this country.

I followed protocol and consulted widely within the Indigenous community of Ballarat regarding the selection of material. Everyone I spoke to was incredibly supportive of the project and stressed to me that a black fella could not have written Facing Up. The opinion was that they would have been seen as complaining yet again. My writing, as a white fella, would be taken more seriously.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the collaborators you have assembled for this work?

A: Facing Up required a collaborative approach from its first outdoor performance along the prime ministerial avenue to its present state of a performance able to be shown in theatres and school and community halls.

At first, as writer, I sought advice and permission from Indigenous people as to aspects of content. On reworking the show collaboration extended to involving my two First Nations actors and a Wadawurrung consultant directly in many of the design and staging decisions. Ballarat based designer Adam (Gus) Powers joined the team.

Our challenge was to create a theatrical set to support the script. Visual and movement based symbolic gesture arose as important with the Indigenous contributors keeping the design and staging ideas in check regarding cultural protocol. It was a learning experience for us all to work so closely together, forging a path that respected and presented many Indigenous stories alongside formal political statements. Gus brought a wealth of experience to the task.

Wadawawurrung woman Tammy Gilson made some props and Nina Black Cockatoo from Queensland contributed to the costumes.

Q: How have audiences responded to Facing Up so far?

A: The response has been phenomenal. I can confidently say that everyone who has seen Facing Up since 2018 has been emotionally moved. Along the avenue post-performance the audience response was one of shock. People stood in silence with tearful faces then started talking in small groups.

Response to the stage version of Facing Up has been equally strong from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences. Ballarat Grammar school is using Facing Up as the basis of their first term’s study across subject areas and the Ballarat and District Aboriginal Coop is combining with Child and family services to present Facing Up to their staff during Reconciliation Week.

I sent Michael Cathcart, ABC Radio National presenter of The Stage Show, a copy of the script at his request. This is his response.

"This script is a powerhouse! Great stuff. I love the way you've dramatised the unrelenting activism of the past 120 years - and the way you've shown how Indigenous political action has gradually shifted the thinking of prime ministers. It shows how activism can lead to real change. It's gladdened my heart."

Dr Fred Cahir Associate Professor in Aboriginal History offered me advise on researching the script. He was blown away by the show and uses aspects of it in his teachings at Federation University. Here is a short snippet of his response to Facing Up.

"The compelling performances of the Aboriginal creatives in this theatre production were just – brilliant. The clever weaving of verbatim theatre principles (which ‘produced’ an authoritative script) with captivating song and drama…ensured a knock-out production that lingers in your mind long after you exit. I believe Facing Up should be experienced by many people more broadly. It stimulates deep reflection on and prompts research into Australia’s identity as a nation which espouses a fair go for everyone."

Dr Fred Cahir, Associate Professor in Aboriginal History Q: Who would you most like to invite to Facing Up?

A: Facing Up is socially relevant theatre appropriate for everybody, especially in this year of the referendum on The Voice. The invitation stands to everyone to come along and catch an historical snapshot of the journey of the last 120 years. It presents history we should all know, our shared history.

This work address highly topical community concerns. It tells of the highlights

and lowlights of Indigenous protest and struggle since 1901. The general knowledge in the community of this history is minimal. information that can be difficult to fathom and talk about.

By Lynden Nicholls 3-13 May | Theatre Works BOOK HERE


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