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Re-imagining a new normal

Monday, 03 August 2020


For over 30 years, Dr Rachael Maza, a proud Yidinji and Meriam woman, has been a trailblazer and visionary in Australia’s Indigenous arts sector.

Since graduating from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in 1992, Dr Maza has carved a distinguished career in Australian theatre, film and television.

In 2008, she became Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company, Australia’s leading and longest-running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company.

Based in North Melbourne, Ilbijerri creates, presents and tours theatre that is creatively controlled by Indigenous artists. However, when COVID-19 struck all that changed.

A self-confessed “old-school” performer Dr Maza initially found it challenging to adapt to the idea of theatre going digital, particularly giving up the tours to regional centres and grassroots activities performed in community.

“It’s about being in the room, building those relationships and you cannot do that on a computer. In both those areas I’m not compromising in adapting to our theatre company going digital,” says Dr Maza.

Nevertheless, along with her “savvy young team”, Dr Maza and Ilbijerri have been able to successfully move many of their programs online. In fact, Ilbijerri is about to launch its own radio plays called ‘BlackWrights’.

“We’ve had a fantastic response and I’m so over the moon excited. That’s going to work very well, writers working with dramaturgs all that can happen across these online platforms very easily,” says Dr Maza.

Another welcome discovery has been the way older members of the Indigenous community have embraced the new digital platforms.

“I’ve been amazed how well people have adapted to this medium, particularly elders. I thought this is going to create a huge divide between those who are computer literate and those who are not, but it’s been quite the opposite,” explains Dr Maza.

With her trademark sense of humour, Dr Maza jokes, “I mean, I’m sure there are those who are struggling, like my mother.”

It is this sense of humour and resilience that has served Dr Maza well as she has passionately advocated for Indigenous Australians to have the right to self-determination in all aspects of theatre.

“That simple principle of First Nations being self-determined in all aspects of the making of the work, in the way the work tours, in the way we work with our presenting partners in engaging with our audiences,” says Dr Maza.

For instance, Dr Maza says Indigenous voices must be heard in the telling of First Nation stories.

“A white fella when he tells a blackfella story will often tell the story of tragedy, as victims of dysfunction. It will be with all the best intentions to shock the white audience and it will elicit the response that all these fellas have it so bad.

How a blackfella will tell that story, he will complete that circle to tell a story of resilience, strength and determination, there’s that positive up tick,” explains Dr Maza.

While some in the arts sector are lobbying government for things to go back to normal, Dr Maza imagines a brighter future for the Indigenous arts sector.

“The way we’re talking to the government, we’re saying ‘we don’t want things to go back to normal, we weren’t even at the starting block. Here’s an opportunity for us to be thinking strategically and innovatively about the long-term sustainability of the sector.’”

Dr Maza is the inaugural recipient of the ECU Community Alumni Award, recipient of an ECU honorary doctorate in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the arts and last year was recipient of the Australian Council Award for Theatre.

Highlights of her many acting credits include her long association with Company B at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre, her roles in The Sapphires for the Melbourne Theatre Company, Holy Day for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and in the award-winning feature film, Radiance.

Her advice to those looking to forge a career in theatre is to “go for it.” “There is no doubt when I graduated from WAAPA my understanding of how the sector worked was quite a long way from what it is now. The best advice I would have liked to have given myself was ‘don’t wait to be discovered - go and discover it yourself’. Be bold, be brave and go and make it happen!  AND be humble: ONE NEVER STOPS LEARNING!!!”


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