The last few years have proved that Aboriginal people definitely do have a place in comedy, and Yorta Yorta man Jason Tamiru is one of those at the frontline, fighting for amplified Aboriginal voices in comedy and theatre. Producer at the bold and envelope-pushing Malthouse Theatre, Jason dropped in on a Zoom class with our Comedy students to chat all things industry, "real diversity", and how you need to break from convention to create positive change.
What was the comedy scene like when you first started?
Something that was really lacking was my own people, and it's bringing a smile to my face now because my people are really funny, like extremely funny. You go anywhere together and we're always laughing all the time because humour is so inside of us. I always said my people, Black fellas, we're the funniest people in the world, but we're not here. We're the ones who have got to break that ice because people are usually distanced to us, but we're not visible in comedy. When I started working in this space, I started to roll up my sleeves and I was on a mission to do something about this.
What do you think was stopping more Aboriginal presence in comedy in the first place?
Our structures, at times, don't connect with mainstream structures. They're really foreign to us and we forever have to compromise our structures to fit into this mainstream. Sometimes that too much or threatening, and for the majority, which was reflected in Black Comedy, we weren't engaging with it. In fact, the model wasn't engaging with our mob.
Working in both worlds, speaking to comedy managers and my people, I was able to work out a model based on this idea of engaging within the community, and this opened the door for Black fellas to come to the comedy world.
Once we got in there, comedians started popping up. A lot of comedians come through Deadly Funny, a national comedy competition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander comedians. The system started to support our needs. After giving us those skills, those people who come through the program become leaders back in their own communities and they're able to MC our community events, and more.
Comedian Ghenoa Gela at Deadly Funny 2017 (Ph: Jim Lee Photo)
You're also a producer at Malthouse Theatre. Could you describe what happens there and what makes Malthouse different from other theatres?
Malthouse's brand is to be a little more edgy, more risque, different to others. There are boundaries—a conservative, comfortable, and easy way of doing things—but if you want to look outside the ring, go further past the boundary, explore different methods. You need to be risky. Be brave and open to suggestions and different ways of doing things.
Believe me, we have a lot of debates and discussions about what should come on stage and what shouldn't. But ultimately we try to push the boundaries, and how it's done is all about the team that you work with, because if you don't have that team, it's going to backfire!
I've got a good instinct and I contribute a lot of that to my culture; you tap into this invisible, magical place. That connection is where you tell a story and get a response from.
First, we get stimulated by an idea and artist. I want the artist to challenge the system, normality, the conservative theatre structure and spaces. We make decisions on instinct, that hunch that happens within you artistically. I've got a good instinct and I contribute a lot of that to my culture; you tap into this invisible, magical place. That connection is where you tell a story and get a response from.
There are a lot of Aboriginal communities and nations in each state; when you are choosing Aboriginal artists, do you try and involve artists that are from their particular community?
Yes, definitely. For example, we held a play called The Shadow King, which was an Aboriginal interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear. We had people from Yolngnu, Arnhem Land, which is right up at Darwin. We had people from Western Australia, Noongar people; Nungas from South Australia; Murri people from Queensland; and we had Victorians. It's about land divided: we had dancing, singing, story.
We have to respectfully navigate through the story with all of us in the room. We're talking different languages, you're not allowed to sing certain song lines with this group. Then you've got another didgeridoo beat from Yidaki—you're not allowed to play that Yidaki beat with that group. This is how complex our culture is. This is real diversity.
What is it like to create work when you know there is a Black and non-Black audience watching?
What happens with a lot of Black theatre or Black storytelling is like a cup of cordial. You put cordial in your cup, you put water in it and it tastes alright. But you water it down too much, it might look okay from a distance, but it tastes like crap. Sometimes that's what happens in a lot of Black stories that go through mainstream networks—they have no feeling in them. Ultimately, we're doing our work for Black audiences. And people who are outside our community are also seeing us for who we really are and realising that how the media has portrayed us is not right.
Do you think we can get to a point where Aboriginal representation in comedy is more commonplace?
Absolutely. Humour is used to bring in a new audience and also stimulate the same audiences that are out there. But once they come into our environment, these other stories are going to come around.
These days, our marches are bigger than ever. It's the same in comedy: they want to hear our stories, they're starting to watch it.
Especially the young people, they're much more open and supportive of who we are. We used to march by ourselves and people would be hurling abuse at us for standing up. These days, our marches are bigger than ever. It's the same in comedy: they want to hear our stories, they're starting to watch it. People are investing in it, so there's also a pay-off in it. And once we get to that place, there's no doubt people will turn to us for more stories, like Babakiueria. That's who we are, that's what we do.
How can artists be good allies to fellow Indigenous artists right now?
There's a mainstream model out there that works for some, but it's keeping a lot of people out. That's the key to all budding creators and arts workers out there. Show them another way of doing things and once you get a success rate, you're bringing new air and new energy. It transforms and stimulates everybody, and this reflects in how the show is performed and how it's supported. We've got to listen to people and understand that if someone's not responding, they might be uncomfortable with it.
Don't be afraid to learn and go support different artists. When there's events on like NAIDOC Week or rallies, come along. If you see any Indigenous artists playing gigs, check that out. Engage with us; we're not bad people. We've been portrayed as people who are just angry all the time, but when we're marching, of course we're angry for a reason.
You have to think to yourself: Do I want to be conservative or do I want to change something and make an impact in the world? To make an impact, you have to do something different and doing something different is, at times, being by yourself, insecure, frightful, and definitely alone. But, believe me—because it happened to me—one day, people start digging you.
This interview was transcribed from a student lecture for the Comedy course.