Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Puppetry as Cultural Exchange in Indigenous Communities

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Puppetry as Cultural Exchange in Indigenous Communities

Article excerpt

Sandy McKendrick is an independent Perth-based performer, designer, puppeteer and artistic director of community arts projects. She has undertaken projects in Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania and East Timor and in numerous parts of northern Australia. She has worked in collaboration with organisations such as the Perth International Arts Festival, the City of Fremantle, Arts WA, Arts Katherine, Barking Gecko Theatre, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Bizircus and Yirra Yaakin Noongah Theatre. Her own company, Sandpiper Productions, has also created several productions, most recently a work-in-progress showing of Turtle and the Trade Winds, which explores the tales of northwest coastal communities of Australia which are linked by their culture to the seafarers and fishermen of Indonesia. The collaborative project explores the culture of the sea turtle through dance, puppetry and video; it promotes the cultural significance of the turtle that is shared by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Australia and Indonesia.

In this conversation, which is based on a paper given by McKendrick at the second National Puppetry Summit in Hobart, 2006, we focus mainly on eight projects undertaken in Australia and its territories - some in remote communities and some closer to the city of Perth.

I have had the good fortune to be involved with community puppetry projects in regional Australia and southern African countries and I will give a brief insight into a few of these projects, focusing on the environmental and cultural backgrounds of each. There were many similarities between the African projects and those here in Australia, with geographic isolation and limited resources being the two most challenging factors. Most of these communities had a strong tradition of oral stories; it was these stories, plus issues such as health and loss of culture, which formed the basis for many of these performances.1

Projects in remote communities

GM: Let 's start in the Northern Territory, where you have worked with Tom E. Lewis on his home ground.

SM: The first project on which I collaborated with Tom was in the Katherine region in 2001. It was called Werr Dinh Dinh Marn (Lily Ponds) and was a community performance that included townsfolk and Indigenous communities. The performance involved dance, puppetry, song, large-scale puppet lanterns - as well as dyeing, weaving and cooking - and was based on the theme of water and flood in and around the Katherine area. The processional performance was located seven kilometres from town on the banks of a large billabong. This was a significant birthplace for many local Indigenous women. The lush billabong was a year-round source of water and aquatic food, with large flocks of birds on and around the billabong filling the shady ring of mature paperbarks. It was a magnificent bird sanctuary filled with lotus lilies. Two of the puppets made during workshops were manipulated in the performance by traditional owners Jesse Brown and Judy Daley Waters. It was an extremely poignant piece about the loss of traditional lands and access. They emerged from behind the trunks of the paperbarks to perform by firelight to a narrated poem. Tom and I had worked with quite a few of the communities around Katherine at that stage, so we were familiar with each other's skills. Tom has quite an interest in puppetry, so it was really nice incorporating the two; he had a good understanding of what was possible in performance.2

Interest in continuing puppetry performance dealing with community health issues resulted in Long Tticker, Slow Yarn in 2003. Each of these projects developed through the inspiration or realisation of an idea from a previous project. Then follows extensive discussion prior to the commencement of the final performance. They take months of negotiation; they don't just spring out of the blue. This correspondence is often taking place while you are working full-time on other projects and is often an unpaid but critical development stage of any project. …

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