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Creating Art Part 1: The makers’ view of First Nations theatre and dance

Aug 10, 2020


Creating Art Part 1: The makers’ view of pathways for First Nations theatre and dance is the latest study in a series commissioned by the Australia Council with the aim of supporting the First Nations arts sector to connect more Australians to First Nations arts experiences and grow opportunities for First Nations artists.

Conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the research provides vital insights that can inform the recovery and future sustainability of the First Nations arts ecology.

Based on in-depth interviews with 45 dance and theatre makers, Creating Art Part 1 explores First Nations artists’ experiences realising work; maps pathways for works; and highlights opportunities, challenges and calls to action.

Calls to action include:

  • a strategic whole-of-sector response to the skills gap in off-stage roles
  • resourcing for mentoring and cultural consultant roles
  • development of pathways for First Nations companies
  • greater recognition of the diversity of First Nations performing arts.

Creating Art Part 2, a report to follow, will provide quantitative benchmarks for the First Nations performing arts sector as it was prior to COVID-19. This evidence will be important in ensuring First Nations arts do not lose their hard-won visibility as a result of the pandemic.

“In this time of uncertainty, we must continue to challenge assumptions, grow opportunities for First Nations creative control and decision-making and empower First Nations creators to self-determine the future of their cultural inheritance.”

– Lydia Miller, Executive Director Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts

The First Nations performing arts industry supply chain and Australia Council research


Art Market Audiences Society
Creating Art Part 1 Showcasing Creativity
Building Audiences National Arts Participation Survey

Creating Art Part 1: Key insights

  • Building Audiences, Showcasing Creativity and Creating Art Part 1 all highlight the need to break down stereotypical ideas about First Nations arts, among both audiences and presenters.
  • They also highlight the need to build opportunities for First Nations decision-making and creative control to ensure appropriate presentation of First Nations performing arts in Australia.
  • First Nations artists make a powerful contribution to the performing arts industry, including challenging industry ideas about First Nations people and communities. Many dance and theatre makers strive for industry success.
  • Prior to COVID-19, the demand for, and impact of First Nations companies’ work and role in Australian arts was growing.
  • There is an opportunity for a strategic whole-of-sector response to building skills and pathways to employment for First Nations people in stage management, design, technical production and producing roles.
  • Mentors are critically important to First Nations dance and theatre makers at all career stages. Artists called for an increase in resourced mentoring opportunities and resourcing for specific cultural consultant roles.
  • Festivals are a powerful platform for reaching new audiences for First Nations arts, but artists often need to self-fund development of work to get it stage ready.
  • Connection to community is a vital and inherent characteristic of the work of First Nations artists. Community engagement requires investment in sustained effort.
  • International First Nations networks are strong. There are ongoing needs for formal and informal networking opportunities and for funding for international development activity when it can resume.
  • Prior to COVID-19, First Nations dance and theatre makers were touring work internationally to great acclaim. There is an opportunity for greater realisation of the export value of First Nations performing arts.
  • Demand and opportunities to create First Nations performing art works for schools are thriving and tourism and corporate work are also areas of opportunity.
  • It is essential that this work is developed from a cultural base to ensure diversity and authenticity, rather than reinforcing stereotypes. First Nations creative control is needed and there is an opportunity for strategic national branding.
  • Long-term funding is critical to developing a broad range of First Nations dance and theatre work, including riskier and more diverse work.
  • First Nations dance and theatre makers are creating their own opportunities, pathways and structures. They are committed to continuing conversations and overcoming barriers for the benefit of future generations. 

‘We’ve got the oldest culture on the planet. It is ours but we want to share that, we want to share that with you, with all Australians regardless of their background and hopefully that creates a stronger future.’

– Research participant, Creating Art Part 1

Case studies:

Case study: Creation of the work Bukal by JUTE Theatre Company

Case study: Creation of the work Bukal by JUTE Theatre Company

Image credits: JUTE Theatre Company – Bukal Dare to Dream Remote Tour and Residency Program. Images by: Raw Lens Media Co (from video). Filmed during Cape York Girl Academy residency.

Bukal is a First Nations theatre work developed as part of JUTE Theatre Company’s Dare to Dream program which produced new theatre works by, about and for First Nations peoples.

The process of taking Bukal from an idea to audiences illustrates insights highlighted in Creating Art Part 1, which may be useful to other non-indigenous companies providing pathways for the creation of First Nations work.

PJ Rosas – Profile of a First Nations stage manager

PJ Rosas – Profile of a First Nations stage manager

Image caption: First Nations stage manager PJ Rosas. Credit: Paul Furse at Frontrow Photography.

PJ Rosas is a Yidinji Mbarbrum man whose people are originally from the Atherton Rainforests. He has worked as a professional stage manager for over 20 years and has toured nationally and internationally with major companies, with theatre and music festivals.

There is currently a skills gap in filling First Nations-specific stage management, design and production roles. Profiling and celebrating the achievements of trail blazers, such as PJ, is an important part of efforts to create pathways for First Nations people into these roles.

While career paths in the arts are often varied and disrupted, for First Nations creatives there can be added complexities as they negotiate expectations about who and what they represent, responsibilities to ‘mob’ and working with cultural integrity.

Original inspiration and motivation

PJ discovered a love for the performing arts early in life,  particularly through experiences in high school:

‘I did always like the arts, I did a couple of little shows in high school and always interested me, performing stuff. We did a couple of little shows, one of them was My boomerang won’t come back where I played the main character with three other Indigenous boys. We did that little performance, and we did a dance piece at school when I was young. We did that, and just a few of us boys knocking around music classes and just making up our own songs and dance and stuff and I guess that’s where it came from really. High school… and Sunday School!’

‘My main aim will be to find some young person out there, just to let them know that this is what you can get out of being a stage manager, or production manager in companies… Live theatre is magic.’

– PJ Rosas

Diverse pathways and impact of training

PJ had a range of jobs, particularly in Indigenous education and employment, working with the Abstudy program in Northern Territory and CES in Katherine. He got to know many people who lived in Aboriginal communities across the territory.

His transition to a career in the arts began with studies in Melbourne in the late 1990s and an Indigenous focussed course at Swinburne University.

‘The course was called “Acting, and small businesses and community events program”.’

’How I got into stage managing was that a lot of the other students wanted to be a dancer, actor or on stage. But because of my people skills, working for the government and being the oldest in the class I was like the uncle, or dad and grandfather. So being the eldest in the class I kind of fell into stage managing.’

Finding this role which seemed to fit, led to his first job working on a theatre production which had a First Nations focus:

‘My first show I worked on was called Marngrook – about the AFL football which is the Aboriginal word for AFL which is Marngrook – so we did a piece on that – about the old white guy who invented the game and how he did that. Then I was asked if I wanted to go on a tour with another show (non-Indigenous) to the UK – three-month job and that was my first overseas tour.’

His training didn’t end there though, and when he came back to Australia after that first international tour, PJ won a scholarship for the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) to do production management.

For many First Nations creatives, specific First Nations arts programs, pathways, and people in positions within those programs have been very important:

‘… when I got back from overseas, I won a scholarship for VCA to do production management. Christian Thomas was a pretty famous artist – and he was running the Indigenous section of Victorian College of the Arts. He approached me, he heard I was back in town and suggested I put it for it and I won it.’

First Nations  theatre ecology and productions

After his first big break and further training, PJ found himself being invited onto shows and his name and reputation spread rapidly. He was working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous creatives and involved in a range of significant productions.

‘After I did the VCA course I got interviewed by one of the local magazines and I happened to come in at that time when there was a lot of collaboration a lot of plays being written by non-Indigenous and Aboriginal collaborators and that’s how I got a lot of work – there were so many Indigenous plays coming out.  As soon as I finished that one I’d go on to another one, and then another one. My name spread around and I worked for a lot of different companies over the years.’

‘Then the big one, there was more, but then Jane Harrison’s Stolen came out and that’s when I worked on more Indigenous shows such as Harry’s War and No way to forget, and with ILBIJERRI. I scored a lot of work with ILBIJERRI for their productions.’

PJ was also engaged to manage the First Nations involvement and artists on some productions where the producing company was not Indigenous-specific. One of these was for Marregeku’s Legs on the Wall. This production spanned the country with artists in Sydney and Broome. On this and other productions he has played an important role in helping the collaboration work:

‘As soon as I walked in and they introduced me to all this traditional mob who were out from bush way, they up in territory and WA and those places, you could see how happy they were to see a black face.’

What is it like being a stage manager for First Nations performance work?

‘I enjoy working with our mob – there’s always a lot of laughter and a lot of comedy and mob talking silly. As a stage manager, I like working with non-Indigenous actors and directors as well.’

‘I think black content needs a black director, including when being produced by non-Indigenous companies.’

Responsibilities as a First Nations creative and arts worker

What PJ has often found is that whether or not he has been paid to take on a cultural liaison and consultant role, that is one he has often found himself in, especially when working with non-Indigenous companies. Being an Indigenous arts worker often comes with additional layers of responsibility and expectations:

‘Sometimes you become the cultural liaison person and you are working across a lot of different jobs. I can think of productions where traditional people were brought in – I was their baby sitter, their cook, I was meant to be stage manager but I ended up backstage changing their costumes and all that kind of stuff and I ended up doing a 10 minute cameo in their show!  It was like they were using me for all these different areas.’

In situations where First Nations people have been away from home, or introduced to new places, situations and ways of working, PJ has often had to negotiate difficult territory in maintaining cultural safety for the First Nations artist, as well as professional standards:

‘Sometimes I’ve had traditional fellows come down to Melbourne and they’re opening the show and they get into alcohol and stuff, and that can become an issue. I told them to go home and clean themselves up or there was no way they were going on my stage.’

‘I pull them aside and have a good yarn, and then the next day or two they come back and they’re good. I talk to a lot of them outside of rehearsals and that and ask if there’s anything wrong.’

‘As a stage manager you’re looking after everyone. There’s things you’ve got to do and abide by, and it’s like protocol for the company and for our people.’

What do you hope to see happen in the future?

PJ is keen to not only see more black shows on stage but also more black production, design and technical practitioners as well.

When JUTE scouted the country to find other First Nations technical and design professionals and another Indigenous stage manager for their mainstage production they found the field was tiny and those they could find were extremely busy. PJ would love to encourage more young First Nations people to consider careers in these areas, particularly stage management:

‘My main aim will be to find some young person out there, just to let them know that this is what you can get out of being a stage manager, or production manager in companies, the travel, you get to go everywhere. It’d be nice too, if we had a young person, an up and coming person who could work under me – we could both learn from each other. Me because of the digital age, and him or her who’s got those skills that they can pick up pretty easily. They could teach me some things too, it’d work both ways I guess.’

PJ believes there is a role to play for those companies who work in schools to help identify and mentor young people, and that professional companies could do so as well, perhaps providing a specific mentor program for young First Nations people in areas such as stage management, production and design:

‘I think we need to work on those pathways coming in like with the JUTE Dare to Dream work – you establish that connection with kids out there in schools.  Schools out on community, schools don’t have a drama teacher, so us going out there is their way to say – all right this is what people do – they act, they dance, they sing – and they’re seeing it live, and seeing that it’s their own people, and it’s not a bunch of white fellas doing stuff. Then target some of these kids, and see if you might be able to bring them down for more training. And the company can support people by providing upskilling, learning more about theatre and how a production is put together.’

What is your final statement about your career and the power of creating live performance art?

‘I love live theatre, I love the action of live theatre, the performance of live theatre, I love the lighting, the sound, the set so that for me, that gave me the biggest thrill… seeing these things develop and seeing a production being developed through rehearsals, work in progress stuff, and seeing it come alive, and all of a sudden there’s the performance. That’s my biggest thrill, looking and seeing stuff that I’ve worked on and been performed in live theatre… The biggest thing I take away from it is the happiness, the enjoyment of doing theatre. Live theatre is magic.’

PJ Rosas interviewed by Yvette Walker, profile by Susan Davis.

Creating ‘Experience’: Career trajectories and the development of new First Nations work in the performing arts, by Susan Davis and Yvette Walker

The Bukal case study and PJ Rosas profile are based on research conducted by Central Queensland University that sought to understand the experiences of First Nations performing artists, technicians and creatives connected to JUTE Theatre Company’s Dare to Dream program.  The Australia Council supported this research to complement Creating Art Part 1.