Collaborating to build a more cohesive community – why First Nations stories and safety are important for Theatre

Australian society and sport are inextricably intertwined, including in the struggle of acknowledging and remedying systemic racism. A new play performed by VCA students refracts the Adam Goodes story through community football, exploring this interrelation and reflecting a more culturally safe approach to theatre-making.

Zacheriah Blampied (left) and Michael Cooper (right) in ‘37’ dressed as football players, sitting on a bench in the locker room.
Zacheriah Blampied (left) and Michael Cooper (right) in ‘37’. (Image: Gregory Lorenzutti)

In May 2013, Australian rules football catalysed the nation into a confrontation with its own culture.

Adam Goodes’ response to structural racism, and the ugly years that followed as he was hounded out of the game, is a story that speaks to the heart of Australia’s ongoing struggles with its racist history and present.

As Dr Nonie May puts it, “The booing of Goodes was a moment in which this country’s systemic, historical, and persistent racism was brought to the forefront of our social consciousness.”

Almost a decade later, 2022 has brought high-profile investigations and exposure of systemic racism at cornerstone AFL clubs like Hawthorn and Collingwood. The treatment of Adam Goodes has solidified as a watershed moment in Australian sport and society.

In the play ‘37’, performed by Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) students in October 2022, this pivotal story is refracted through the lens of an amateur footy club.

Written, directed and choreographed by First Nations people, and produced with a First Nations-led rehearsal room, ‘37’ also reflects the increasing recognition of the importance of fostering creative spaces which are truly culturally safe.

‘They exemplify the best of our industry’

Named for Adam Goodes’ playing number, ‘37’explores the story of the Cutting Cove Currawongs. A regional team whose coach has just signed a couple of young Aboriginal players from out of town, the Currawongs are now in the running for the flag – but they may have invited a reckoning bigger than they saw coming.

Highlights from VCA performance of ‘37’. (Videography: Khorus Media)

The play was directed and written by the acclaimed team of Isaac Drandic and Nathan Maynard, respectively, and choreographed by Jacob Boehme. In the program notes, Isaac Drandic writes:

“'37' is another work in the First Nations theatre canon that has something to say about the world in which we live. It speaks to the state of affairs in this country now known as Australia.

“We as First Nations theatre makers have been wielding the weapon of theatre for half a century, using it to bring attention to the things that matter to us.

“The collaboration with the students, key creatives and the VCA, and the spirit that has brought this work to where it is now, is the collaboration and spirit I hope we as a country will harness to build a more cohesive community.”

In the same notes, Isaac also praises the VCA students who worked on the production:

“I cannot praise the actors enough for their contribution to this story and production. They are one of the very best ensemble groups I’ve ever had the pleasure of directing. Their integrity and care for each other and the story they are telling has been key to the show's life,” he writes.

“I feel like I’ve met 11 young men who are clearly allies of First Nations people in the ongoing fight for social justice, social change and conciliation. The world needs gentlemen like this. Our beloved theatre industry needs gentlemen like this.”

Education and industry

In many ways, ‘37’ is an example of the VCA’s guiding philosophies, not least of which is the active collaboration between students and industry.

The real question of not changing, of not looking at outreach and inclusion and cultural safety, is one of not being a dinosaur.

This doesn’t end at plays that are written and performed for the first time by VCA students – it also includes theatre companies bringing in VCA Acting and Theatre students during creative development of their works.

Dr Sarah Austin, Lecturer in Theatre at the VCA, says this is a relationship with benefits that last for decades:

“There’s this process of demystification of these companies and these processes, and in turn the companies get wisdom from these young people studying to be the theatre artists of tomorrow.

“That relationship between the industry and the VCA is a really important one, with that sense of fluid and reciprocal exchange. It’s something that we’ll see results from for 50 years.”

Group of people dresses as football players, centered around one player jumping up in the air catching a football.
Students in the VCA performance of ‘37’. (Image: Gregory Lorenzutti)

Underneath the educational and creative benefits of collaborating with industry, though, ‘37’ also represents one example of the VCA responding to the need for cultural safety in creative spaces at a time when the whole industry is recalibrating its approach to inclusion.

“We work very hard to think about how we might need to adapt faster, particularly for our work in de-colonisation and de-centring that Eurocentric understanding of theatre and performance,” says Sarah.

“We’re moving towards a more culturally safe understanding of what it means for those of us who are making work on stolen land. How do we do that as artists? How do we invite people into the institution, in a way that makes it clear that this is a space for them?

“It’s incredible to have an organisation like Wilin and that kind of cultural leadership to help us wrestle with those questions.”

Cultural safety helps create an environment for artists to be brave, and brave artists make thrilling work.

‘To be able to thrive in a brave space’

Georgina Naidu, Lead in Acting at the VCA, explains the importance of cultural safety from a creative perspective:

“As artists we seek to be open, truthful and emotionally connected. It’s extremely difficult to access these elements when feeling unsafe,” she says.

“Cultural safety for me as an artist is about being safe to be myself – to be seen, heard and considered equally to all others, which allows me to be brave and open and vulnerable while creating and performing work.”

Students in the VCA performance of ‘37’. Two groups of 3-4 interlocking arms on stage.
Students in the VCA performance of ‘37’. (Image: Gregory Lorenzutti)

As Georgina puts it, the VCA is interested in each student as an individual artist: their background, their lived experience, their beliefs and their vulnerabilities. This awareness of each student’s story helps create a sensitivity among the student cohort and the VCA’s teaching practices.

From there, Georgina says, “The next step is integration. How do we consider the lived experience of these students/artists? This guides us when finessing curriculum and, in particular, when selecting the texts and guest artists we bring in to work with the students – such as the selection of the play ‘37’ and the team.”

The final step is building on this integration to create a safe and brave space that empowers students. But Georgina is particular in pointing out the difference between an environment that fosters courageous work and one which engenders exploitation:

“Cultural safety helps create an environment for artists to be brave, and brave artists make thrilling work.

“There is no trauma mining in this environment – rather, there’s empowerment. To be able to thrive in a brave space means that our students can dive into the work with abandon.”

Sarah Austin says that at heart, the VCA should be a home for amplifying those stories – the ways of accessing ceremony and voice and song and dance – which students bring with them into the institution.

“The industry is looking for those stories that we have not yet seen,” she says.

“The real question of not changing, of not looking at outreach and inclusion and cultural safety, is one of not being a dinosaur. The risk is if we don’t transform what we do and how we do it and who participates in it… Theatre will die of old age, because that’s not where the future is.”

“Right now that’s what we’re teaching our students: that when you go into the industry, you create it. The industry is not a static thing. You go in there and you transform it.”

Discover Acting and Theatre at the VCA. See photos, video and full program notes for ’37’, an MTC Next Stage Commission supported by the Vizard Foundation.