Moogahlin co-founder Liza-Mare Syron ensures there is “Nothing about us without us”

Lily Shearer, Moogahlin Co-Founder & Co-Artistic Director, Liza-Mare Syron, Moogahlin Co-Founder & Senior Artistic Associate, Yellamundie Festival 2021. Photo by Jamie James.

Lily Shearer, Moogahlin Co-Founder & Co-Artistic Director, Liza-Mare Syron, Moogahlin Co-Founder & Senior Artistic Associate, Yellamundie Festival 2021. Photo by Jamie James.

Biripai woman, Co-Founder & Senior Artistic Associate at Moogahlin Performing Arts, lecturer, director, actor, teacher, dramaturge and award-winning academic – Liza-Mare Syron’s motto is “Nothing about us without us”, ensuring Aboriginal voices are heard when decisions are being made.

For International Women’s Day 2021, Liza-Mare shared how Moogahlin empowers First Nations playwrights and performers to tell their stories, and how we can all be more flexible in our thinking regarding performing gender on stage.

As an Indigenous Scientia Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in the School of Arts and Media at the University of NSW, your current research focuses on Indigenous language revival in theatre scripts. When did you start having an interest in this and why?

According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATISIS), prior to European invasion, more than 250 First Nations Australian languages including 800 dialectal varieties were spoken on the continent. Today, approximately only 13 Indigenous Australian languages have enough young people speaking them to sustain the language into the future. It is a sobering thought.

While most discussions about language and preservation focus on extinction, dictionaries and digital records, I am interested in how technologies of liveness can – like theatre and performance – enable First Nations languages to live. I believe that that theatre plays a significant role in the revitalisation of languages. Also, that the process of writing and speaking language shifts other aspects of theatre making, including the rehearsal context as well as acting and directing.

What noticeable positive changes have occurred in ways that Aboriginal women are being portrayed in theatre scripts?

In this regard, I would like to speak to the rise of First Nations women playwrights in Australia. Primarily because I am not interested in responding to how other people represent us in their plays, but how we represent ourselves.

First Nations women playwrights have been writing their stories for the stage for over thirty years. Since the early works of Eva Johnson (What do they call me?), Cathy Craigie (Murri Love), Ningali Lawford (Ngngali), Deborah Cheetham (White Baptist ABBA Fan), Leah Purcell (Box the Pony), and more recent works by Jane Harrison (Stolen), Maryanne Sam (Colour Blind Casting), Kodie Bedford (Cursed), Jada Alberts (Brothers Wreck), Andrea James (Sunshine Super Girl), Nakkiah Lui (Kill the Messenger), and Kylie Bracknell (Hecate). Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive, yet it highlights the depth and breadth of First Nations women’s stories that are available to audiences.

Through the play form, First Nations women playwrights have been communicating their experiences as First Nations women, their relationship to family, community, ancestors, and to land/country/place. There is much that we can learn about the Aboriginal women’s experience in Australia by reading, listening to, or witnessing these stories written by First Nations women playwrights.

Challenging gender stereotypes and biases in Aboriginal theatre would be similar to challenging them in mainstream theatre. For our readers, can you tell us what the difference is?

When it comes to stereotypes and biases, I would like to speak to the challenges of addressing alternative gender representations on our stages.

As First Nations performance makers, we often have to consider culturally appropriate ways of developing and presenting works, especially those that deal with men’s or women’s issues. This is because our contemporary approaches to making theatre is often informed by culturally and historical performance practices. It is not that we should challenge these approaches, but that we could be more flexible in our thinking regarding performing gender on stage in an ever-increasing gender-neutral world.

With all the roles you have academically, on advisory boards and with your work with Moogahlin, how do you balance all these commitments and still have time to spend with mob, and of course, rest?

LOL, interestingly last year’s COVID-19 social distancing restrictions taught me a lot about a healthy work life balance.

My commitment to the sector through these various appointments has always been to ensure that we have a voice at various tables. This aim is informed by the following statement, “Nothing about us without us”. So, when it comes to my area of interest – First Nations performing arts practice – I have, many times, stood up when needed to contribute a voice from the sector to the many discussions and decisions being made about us.

To keep myself sane, I kayak, play tennis, ride my bike, and swim. I haven’t seen my family much this last year, but I am looking forward to catching up with them this April.

How is Moogahlin continuing to empower Aboriginal playwrights and performers?

Our vision is transformation through cultural arts. Moogahlin empowers First Nations playwrights and performers to tell their stories by providing development and presentation platforms across all of projects including the Yellamundie Festival (a national platform), Baimame’s Ngunngu Festival (a NSW regional platform), Koori Gras (with Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras), and Moogahl Live (digital). We have produced four Sydney Festival productions of new works including Fire Bucket (2017), Broken Glass (2018), The Weekend (2019), and The Visitors (2020). We ensure First Nations creative leadership across all Moogahlin projects. We also invest in artist and sector development by fostering new talent in key creative, administrative, and production roles, as well as sector run workshops.

In future, where do you see Aboriginal female voices and stories represented on stage?

I would like to see Aboriginal female voices and stories represented on stage, in venues owned and run by First Nations artist and performance makers, as well as on country, or anywhere that a story needs to be told.

Find out more about Moogahlin Performing Arts Inc.

Image: Lily Shearer, Moogahlin Co-Founder & Co-Artistic Director, Liza-Mare Syron, Moogahlin Co-Founder & Senior Artistic Associate, Yellamundie Festival 2021. Photo by Jamie James.
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