Meet Kyle J. Morrison, Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company and a leading voice in the Australian arts community. Through the Woodside-supported Noongar Shakespeare Project, part of the Company's Next Step Program, Kyle and his team are passionate about continuing to build Indigenous theatre and culture throughout Australia.
A seasoned stage and screen performer, Kyle's insights into the role government and corporate partnership shoulders across the arts is both contemporary and thought-provoking. We sat down with Kyle to discuss his role at Yirra Yaakin (Noongar for stand tall), his ground breaking work with The Noongar Shakespeare Project and the role that theatre - specifically, Indigenous theatre - plays in the global cultural landscape.
Q. What is your history with Yirra Yaakin?
Kyle: I took over the artistic direction of Yirra Yaakin in 2009 with the ambition and the aspiration to create a strong, vibrant, autonomous voice for Aboriginal performing arts in Western Australia. Through partnerships and the development partnership with Woodside, we've been able to really grow the company, stabilise the industry and to create a number of quality artists who are going to take our art form into really interesting places in the future.
Q. With that private support, does that allow the opportunity to take chances you wouldn't normally be able to pursue?
Kyle: Absolutely. When I first started at Yirra Yaakin we had a lot of investment from stakeholders that wanted us to tell stories that they wanted to be told. Now that we've been able to attract a good share of Western Australian funding from the Department of Culture and the Arts, and the Australia Council for the Arts, we've been able to look at productions like So Long Suckers from last year, and the big risky project - which Woodside has been right by our side for this whole time - is our Noongar Shakespeare Project.
So, with our Noongar Sonnets that we took to The Globe, it was a risky idea to translate six of Shakespeare's Sonnets into Noongar, and then to perform it here in Perth and in London; and the chance we took on that, and the chance Woodside took on us to develop that, allowed us to really invest in the idea, really invest the authenticity of Noongar language and the strength of our cultural paradigm within that language. As part of NAIDOC Week a number of our artists are performing the Sonnets, and these are artists who have been taught the Sonnets in Noongar language through Woodside's assistance. Not only are Woodside taking chances in the types of arts and art forms that we're looking to evolve, but were also able to reinvest in one of the oldest cultures in the world and to kind of create a modern and contemporary expression of this ancient and traditional culture.
And that's the beautiful thing, we wouldn't have been able to do this - we wouldn't have been even able to attempt this over the last couple of years - without the slow and steady, incremental, bit-by-bit building of our industry. The partnership between Yirra Yaakin and Woodside will see our languages, our Noongar language, strengthen over the years to come.
Q. Can you tell us a little about the Next Step Program?
Kyle: One of the key things that has been wonderful in our partnership has been the Next Step Program. Now, Woodside specifically came on board to help Yirra Yaakin to develop its next generation of theatre makers, and the evidence that you can see from that has been amazing. The people that have been involved through this partnership has allowed our company to actually start taking some of those chances.
Now, the majority of Aboriginal work that's directed in Australia these days is done by West Australian directors, which is [laughs] just awesome.
But that just means that we're doing stuff right here in Perth. The Sonnets program will inspire a whole next generation of not only theatre makers but cultural and language speakers in Noongar country. And the Next Step Program is feeding the national industry for quality Aboriginal creatives.
Q. Do you feel the Next Step Program does open up further opportunities for the Indigenous community - especially those pursuing a career in the theatre?
Kyle: Absolutely. I've got five first cousins who all played AFL - all within a year or two of my age group. So, we all grew up together playing footy a lot, and as kids it was the only real path from my experience - either football or politics. I come from a family that's highly political or highly sporty. I'm the artist [laughs]. And so, it's about being able to encourage this idea that you don't have to fight politically, or you don't have to be a successful footballer to be recognised in this country.
Q. What is the cross-over then between something like Shakespeare and Noongar language and performance?
Kyle: A lot of Shakespeare's work is based on either old philosophy from Greece, or Egyptian, or Charlemagne, and some of these old spiritual ideas and philosophical ideas are kind of throughout his plays. In As You Like It, there's a moment there where it's about nature, and being one with the earth, and that's a very approachable and accessible theme for our culture. And with Macbeth, there's something really beautiful about rejuvenation and that cathartic, kind of, taking-care-of-the-land, shall we say? For example, when we burn country, it's a cleansing, it's uplifting, it's a beautiful spiritual thing that we share with the land.
There's a kind of eternal quality to the storytelling and I actually think that Shakespeare was connected to the old European Dreaming. The way we approach Dreaming is not dissimilar to ancients would have in Europe.
Q. How important is it to the community that we have projects like the Noongar Shakespeare Project? For the community at large, but also for young Indigenous artists.
Kyle: We're training ten actors to not only perform the Sonnets, but to also have a real authentic understanding of Noongar language, in its entirety. It's also important for our people to hear our language - the importance of it is unquantifiable. The first folio of Shakespeare's works, being the plays, the poems, the sonnets, the prose, all of that is in one book; and that document has been the most significant document for the stability of the English language for 500 years. So, ambitiously, if we can create a first folio in Noongar, translating three or four of the plays, as many of the Sonnets as we can, alongside the reference for English - Noongar language should last another 500 years. And that's really the most ambitious thing I'm working on - to make sure that in 500 years people can speak Noongar language authentically.
Q. Is this all about preserving the language?
Kyle: As artists we get to make some really interesting art. We get to explore our art form, we get to grow what is a contemporary expression of Noongar culture through performing arts as well. We get to take a risk, and that can ideally inspire a whole generation of Aboriginal artists. Artists that are going to see authentic representation of their people, of their paradigm, of their culture, and that, ideally, will then see more people want to do these kinds of things, to want to tell our stories.
Q. So, if we look back on this in, say, 50 years time and you can look at what you've created, what Yirra Yaakin has created, and what you've been a part of, what is the ideal outcome of all this?
Kyle: Ideally, there is a strong Aboriginal theatre industry here in Perth, and if not Yirra Yaakin, then there's a major arts organisation run and managed by the Aboriginal community.
Language is a strong component of that - and not just Noongar - but as many of the West Australian languages as we can carry on. I would love to see in 50 years time that they'll be doing Euripides and Sophocles in Noongar, and they will be translating Beckett and Chekhov into Noongar. Or writing full Noongar works, contemporary, new stories all in Noongar, which some of our artists are already wanting to do. And for Western Australia to lead the First Nations world in performing arts...and we're already not that far off. I've seen how they are going in most of the world and Australia's doing really well - Perth particularly.
For more information on Yirra Yaakin's Next Step Program, visit yirrayaakin.com.au