Troowolway man Nathan Maynard’s play The Season, premiering this week at the Sydney Opera House as part of the 2017 Sydney Festival, has been a long time in the making. In some ways, it began at an Indigenous scriptwriting program a couple of years ago, but it’s also been guided to realisation from a lot further back by family mentors.
There are stories threaded throughout from Maynard’s childhood in northern Tasmania, and older stories still – traditional stories that have carried over millennia. The play is hotly tipped to be a festival standout; it’s a decidedly more direct path to recognition than is usual for a first-time playwright, particularly a young Aboriginal one.
Maynard hasn’t written anything like The Season before. In fact, he’s barely written a sustained work. He’d danced and done a little acting, but has now come to love the writing process. ‘This is what I want to do for a living now,’ he says.
In a hotel room overlooking Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, where rehearsals for the play were recently held, Maynard was playfully evasive when it came to explaining what The Season is about. ‘It’s a story about connection to land, culture and family. How complex family can be and how complex communities can be. It’s really character driven. It’s got a layer of birds through it.’
Maynard’s obscure layer of birds refers to the mutton birds that flock to nest on a fleck of island in Bass Strait off the coast of Tasmania. Later, The Season’s director Isaac Drandic (Coranderrk, Blood on the Dance Floor) elaborates on the significance of the mutton birds for me:
It’s a beautiful, beautiful story. Nathan talks bout the birds when they fly, how they migrate, their pattern, their journey around the world. They fly something like 80,000 miles up over the Pacific, around Japan up to the Arctic regions and back around in a figure-eight all the way back down to Tasmania. And they go back to the same burrows, with the same partner. There’s like five million, 10 million of them and they all go back to the islands off of Tassie. And there’s this great line in the play where Nathan describes the birds flying in perfect chaos.
This line also informs Drandic’s directorial process with the play. ‘I wanted to create chaos in the rehearsal environment, with the cast,’ he says. ‘Chaos gives the actors an opportunity to explore the dynamics between each other. There’s something about a family when they’re chaotic, when things are happening like they are on this island. There’s something really perfect about chaos that only a family can give us.’
The script presents a portrait of the Duncan family going ‘birdin’ (a traditional cultural practice of harvesting mutton birds) for five weeks on isolated Dog Island. The cast includes a mix of acting experience with Trevor Jamieson (The Secret River), Tammy Anderson (I Don’t Wanna Play House), Luke Carroll (Australian Rules), and Kelton Pell (The Gods of Wheat Street), being joined by newcomers Nazaree Dickerson and James Slee.
For Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch, who along with Drandic observed Maynard develop the script at the 2015 Yellamundie National First Peoples playwriting program, The Season is a family drama about traditional cultural continuity in a contemporary setting.
‘The idea of something that’s been going on for thousands of years still happening now, and the family dynamics involved: joy and cohesion and tensions, it was really familiar to me,’ says Enoch. ‘It’s perhaps unfair on Nathan, but he reminds me of what Jack Davis was writing early on. He’s writing our family dramas, our cultural continuity, our lingo. Celebrating them. Showing the world what is a very unique perspective.’
The Season will be the first play to graduate from the Yellamundie mentoring program to premiere at the Sydney Festival. And being Aboriginal-written, Aboriginal-directed and Aboriginal-produced, with an all-Indigenous cast, is a milestone Enoch is proud to be involved with.
‘I’m interested in new voices and new ways of working,’ he says. Enoch has been bold in advancing both of these aspects in the festivals Indigenous-produced content. In addition to The Season, the Indigenous program includes the Bayala language workshops and the 2017 Yellamundie playwriting festival, and will present Jacob Boehme’s Blood on the Dance Floor, Vernon Ah Ke’s exhibition Not an Animal or a Plant, the all-star event 1967 – Music in the Key of Yes, Katie Beckett’s Which Way Home and the one-man play Huff, by Cree First Nations playwright Cliff Cardinal.
‘It’s by no means the largest Indigenous program the festival has had, but it’s got a different kind of mix of things,’ says Enoch. ‘I think the big thing is about diversity now. By putting a whole range of projects together that mark out some broad perimeter that Aboriginality can exist inside of, it’s offering more than a tick-the-box example, or a single way of thinking of our world. We’re pulling Aboriginality out in lots of different directions because we are more diverse. And no-one else gets to define who we are. We get to define who we are.’
Maynard also believes there’s a growing appetite among festival audiences for more diverse Black stories: ‘They want to see inside stories, what’s inside the families. I think these stories will be received well and really appreciated. We’ve got over 50,000 years of stories. Stories from the beginning of time, so it might take a while to tell them too. And if we’re all still only telling whitefella yarns from a couple hundred years ago, [well that’s no good, because] we all need our stories.’
The Season premieres at the Sydney Opera House drama theatre on Thursday 12 January at 7.30pm, before touring to the Melbourne Festival later this year.