September 2009 - November 2009: Issue 32

People: Careers in Arts

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Interview with Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu

Interviewed by Alison McLaren

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunuping is an indigenous Australian musician, who sings in the Yolngu language. Gurrumul is from the Gumatj nation, his mother from the Galpu nation, both First Nation peoples from North East Arnhemland, in the Northern Territory of Australia. A former member of Yothu Yindi, now with the Saltwater Band, Gurrumul's solo excursions highlight his amazing talent as an award winning singer, songwriter and musician. Gurrumul has been blind since birth.

Alison:
What is the background of your career development and artistic practice?
Gurrumul:

I was brought up traditionally, by elders, family, clan leaders, and by the wider Yolngu community, to know my Yolngu culture, identity and “dreaming”. I was born blind but found music to be a love from a very early age. This was encouraged by my family. At 16 I was invited to join a “supergroup” called Yothu Yindi. I toured the world with them, as a guitarist, keyboard player, backing singer and occasional drummer. At 25 I formed my own band “Saltwater” and we have gone on to make three albums. This was a popular band but since the release of my own album “Gurrumul”, it has become more of an extra or side project that I now do.

Alison:
Have there been critical organizations or opportunities that have assisted in the development of your career?
Gurrumul:

The Yothu Yindi Band, and Skinnyfish Music have been the two major organizations that have helped me. I work with people who I am close to, and I have a very close relationship to Mark and Michael at Skinnyfish Music. This has given me the opportunity to have such a success in Australia with my own album.

Alison:
What are the challenges and benefits to working as a singer and songwriter who is blind in Australia?
Gurrumul:

I don't find any challenges really. I rely on other people to work with me, but I write mostly on my own or with my family. We rely on outside help only when we need to record. I don't however see this as a challenge. The only challenges are simple practical ones that everyone would face, and the fact that Yolngu is a very sharing culture. So on the funny side sometimes my guitar goes missing with one of my brothers or my keyboard has been taken.  

Maybe one advantage is that I get to immerse myself in music rather than being too distracted by things that I could see, such as television.

Alison:
How important is collaboration for artists with and without disability?
Gurrumul:

I am guided around when I walk by a person. My whole life is a collaboration so to me it is life, and it is crucial. Also Yolngu people are very inclusive and community focused so we always do things together. Having said that, I don't “collaborate” musically with many profile artists, but might in the future. I have a friend, Ego Lemos, from East Timor who I do a little bit with, and a group from Melbourne called Blue King Brown but that is because I like them and have a relationship with them.

Alison:
How would you describe the exchange between your performance and international audiences?
Gurrumul:

It is universal. The same feeling happens in every country I go to and play. I get standing ovations, and some people cry when they listen to me. When my album went well in Australia people said it may be because of the Prime Minister's apology. But now it is being bought in Britain and Germany and other international countries. I think it is just a universal music album that has very broad emotional appeal and not just a compassionate factor because I am an Aboriginal musician and singer.

Alison:
What has been your finest hour throughout your career?
Gurrumul:

I loved playing at The Garage in London with Yothu Yindi, but probably playing at The ARIA awards doing “Bapa” on national television.

Alison:
What do you hope to unfold in your future?
Gurrumul:

I would love to meet and maybe have a jam with Mark Knopfler.

Geoffrey Gurrumal Yunupingu - http://www.gurrumul.com/flash.html

About the Writer:

Alison McLaren is the Audience Development Officer at Accessible Arts, the peak arts and disability across New South Wales. Alison is responsible for the strategic development of increased access for audiences with a disability.

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Interview with Back to Back Theater Artistic Director, Bruce Gladwin and Actor Scott Price

Interviewed by Jane Trengove at their rehearsal space in Geelong Victoria

Back to Back Theatre is a contemporary theatre company based in the regional Victorian centre of Geelong, just outside Melbourne. In its 21-year history, Back to Back has forged its own unique relationship to theatre, developing an original, distinctive artistic voice and a working process that supports its ensemble of actors with intellectual disabilities as its creative core. Back to Back produces new work in Geelong over extended timeframes and tours in Australia and internationally. Back to Back works with community members predominantly with disabilities, both locally and internationally. The Company offers ongoing programs and develops one-off workshops and residencies.

Jane:
Bruce, can you tell me a little about the evolution of the company?
Bruce:

Well, the Company started in 1987, at the time of de-institutionalization of people with an intellectual disability here in Australia. There were resources around for engaging people with disabilities in the community and a number of local artists took up the opportunity, working in music, theatre and visual arts.

From its beginning, the Company created professional employment conditions for the actors with disabilities. We have pursued arts funding through agencies such as the Australia Council for the Arts and Arts Victoria, and we make every effort to create really great art – that is the fundamental principle of what we do.

We maintain an ensemble of seven actors with disability. Part of my job as Director, is to [mentor] their professional development to maintain their interest in the company and their creative work. Their overwhelming response to this was that they wanted to tour overseas. So we went about that in a strategic way, by creating a scale of work that will allow us to tour internationally.

Jane:
How do you structure the Company to provide employment for the actors?
Bruce:

Well, the Company started in 1987, at the time of de-institutionalization of people with an intellectual disability here in Australia. There were resources around for engaging The Company operates as an employment service with some core funding from The Federal Department for Family and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

Jane:
Does this cover the wages for the seven actors?
Bruce:

No… we can’t use that money to pay the actors. All the projects are funded as initiatives of the Australia Council for the Arts or Arts Victoria, plus philanthropic or whatever. When the actors are engaged during a season of performances, we pay them an above-the-award rate. And then during the ‘in-between’ times, the actors go back onto their disability support pensions and we pay a retainer on top of their pension.

Jane:
Will Back to Back Theatre ever have an artistic director with a disability?
Bruce:

When I joined the company one of the actors, Sonia (Back to Back actor), was working as an artistic associate with the Company. I see her as an associate director in a lot of ways...

The process of appointing someone new is one where the actors audition the prospective director. It is a fairly open process and there would be a distinct advantage if the candidate had an association with the company previously and was known to the actors. But in my head I can’t imagine who will be the next artistic director because I think I have such an investment in staying here myself (laughs).

Jane:
And do Back to Back ensemble actors get employment opportunities to work outside of the company?
Scotty:

Well, I would like to host my own TV show. And I have been in a TV program, City Homicide and I have just worked on a police training DVD.

Bruce:

Also Simon had a role in the recent Australian movie Noise, and Brian does a lot of work as an “extra” in commercials and Sarah had a career before she joined Back to Back, working with WEAVE Movement Theatre and La Mama Theatre. And Rita is a visual artist who shows and sells her work quite widely. Mark has done a bit of TV and has been asked to work in a theatre show next year with a small ensemble with some really great actors.

Jane:
Bruce, what about the Company’s outreach program?
Bruce:

Well we do a number of projects with the immediate local community and at the moment we are working on a long-term project with fifteen young people who have disabilities. Different people come through the group for skills development and they stay with us for a year. It’s like a company B and we have just done a really beautiful adaptation of Frankenstein.

Scotty:

I have been in some community works – I was in Pod Seven.

Jane:
Is Pod Seven part of the outreach program for the company?
Bruce:

Yes, it is like a residency. And we are running a new one at Nelsons Park, which is a school for prep to year twelve kids – a consolidated school. Scotty, how do you describe Nelson Park?

Scotty:

It’s a school for kids with mild intellectual disabilities.

Jane:
How does the residency work?
Bruce:

We go in to the school once a week for two terms without a meta-objective of putting on a school production. Instead we will be the principle artists bringing in a range of artistic collaborators to ‘hang out’ at the school, to see what develops. We are trying to respond to the kids and the school in an instinctive way, developing the idea of small showings and using different spaces and locations in the school as places for performances.

Jane:
You have placed a Director’s Manifesto on your website?
Bruce:

When I started working with Back to Back eleven years ago, I was struck by the fact that the Company had this ‘label’ of working with actors with an intellectual disability. The actors had that label, and it defined the company – but I found the work incredibly intelligent – and so it just never sat comfortably with me. So, really the Manifesto came out of me trying to find a definition of intelligence. It’s been a really useful Manifesto, we constantly go back to it and refer to it, and it’s stood the test of time.

Jane:
Scotty what you think Back to Back is best known for?
Scotty:

I guess, some funny work, and I guess some of the best international community work.

About the Writer:

Jane Trengove currently works at Arts Access Victoria as the Access Program Manager. Arts Access Victoria is the leading arts and disability organization in the State of Victoria. Jane's responsibilities are to develop strategies to increase participation of people with disabilities in the cultural activities both as artists and audiences in arts venues around Victoria and Australia. Jane is a professional visual artist and is represented by Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, Victoria.

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Interview with Janice Florence, Artistic Director of WEAVE movement Theatre

Interviewed by Jane Trengove

WEAVE Movement Theatre is a diverse Melbourne based dance/movement Performance Company comprised of people with and without physical disabilities and Acquired Brain Injury. WEAVE's work subverts audiences' expectations and challenges conventional ways of seeing dance performance and disability. WEAVE formed in 1997 through an Arts Access Victoria project and continues today developing high quality performances under the artistic direction of Janice Florence, a dance artist who is a paraplegic.

Janice, to support herself, has a second career in the disability sector and has fought long and hard over many years advocating for change in the systemic discrimination of people with disability in Australia

Jane:
Do you think your previous experience and focus on body and movement helped your rehabilitation [following your accident]?
Jane:

Definitely…in rehab I did things that would help me that I knew from my dance background.

After all this happened – the accident and rehab - I went back to dance classes. I already had good networks and contacts in the world of improvisational dance and those teachers took me back straightaway into their classes.

The next thing was creating the State of Flux dance group with two other dancers. Our aim was to research, teach and perform contact improvisation. We ran State of Flux for ten years, teaching and performing and we actually created a whole ‘contact community’ which is still operating in Melbourne and [that as a dance form] has spread to the rest of Australia.

Jane:
That is remarkable …and then you received an Australia Council Grant?
Jane:

Yes we received a grant to go to the UK and work with Candoco Dance Company. Then in1997 Candoco came to Australia for the Fringe Festival and I was hired with another dancer to teach a twelve-week series of master-classes with the company and participants with disabilities. After the master-classes finished the group wanted to stay together and perform. That's how WEAVE began, and I fell into the leadership role for WEAVE and as well as being involved in State of Flux…

[In WEAVE] we do use a lot of different contemporary dance forms. We use improvisation to find material and then we make that into the performance. In WEAVE there is such a variety of experiences amongst the group - there are those with dance backgrounds and drama backgrounds, and people who like to make “characters”. So we have a bit of a mix of theatre, character, dance, physical theatre and text, and this is happening in a lot of contemporary dance, too, not only the disability field.

Jane:
Do you think that there is still largely resistance in the dance field itself towards different abilities or different bodies, specifically different bodies?
Jane:

Oh definitely! If you attend any dance performance, what do you see? You see young people with conventional bodies, although I think it’s changing a bit. Someone like me might be accepted into a graduate diploma course … but I can’t see it, because they haven’t got that breadth of vision yet – if ever.

Maybe companies like WEAVE might get some legitimacy in the end - and this has definitely happened overseas - and then dance schools might re-look at who they accept. I think by inviting choreographers to work with WEAVE is a process by which our work may become legitimate in the eyes of the public and the dance community.

Sometimes I feel a bit oppressed by all that “having to be a disabled artist” thing and while I understand it and I totally identify with a lot of disability issues, I sort of don’t want to be restricted by putting myself in that category.

Jane:
Employment in the arts as a dancer – has that happened for you?
Jane:

As the artistic director for WEAVE Dance group, I have to do all the organizational work and I have become an arts administrator, which takes away from my time to be creative. I am now being paid one day per week for this work, by a local council…

My main income comes from my work in the disability sector. I came to work in this area because I experienced prejudice directed at me from a manager when I worked in a college library. [So] I took a job at Paraquad (services for people with a physical disability) and it was a bit like “falling into the arms” of the disability sector, where I felt accepted, made a lot of new contacts…I now work in an organization focused on adequate housing for people with disabilities. I feel very strongly these issues, so while this work provides me with financial security, I guess it also gives me a chance to do something about [advocacy for access to the built environment].

Jane:
Does this reflect or connect to your non-traditional approach to dance, a non-traditional acceptance of “the hierarchy” – a societal hierarchy where people are supposed to “fit”?
Jane:

Yes, and that’s why I was attracted to the improvisation method of dance, before and after my disability.

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