Colour-blind casting, humour as a trojan horse and tearing down colonial statues are just some of the topics covered in the first episode of new 3-part series The Whole Table.
Emily Nicol

20 Jan 2021 - 7:45 PM  UPDATED 20 Jan 2021 - 7:45 PM

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the impact of Covid-19 on the arts industry, National Indigenous Television (NITV) and the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) have joined forces to bring forth a timely discussion, with some of our most powerful and visionary voices from the arts world, to yarn about the state of our creative institutions and what the future might look like for First Nations artists.

Hosted by Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires, Top End Wedding, Redfern Now), and helmed by panellists Wesley Enoch, Nakkiah Lui and Rhoda Roberts, each episode invites different guests to the table including Academy Award winner Taika Waititi, renowned actor Miranda Tapsell, celebrated musician Adam Briggs and actor and Archibald Prize winner Meyne Wyatt.

In tonight's premiere episode, the group have a look at the past and it's effects on the current state of our arts institutions.

Sebbens opens up the discussion with a question on the statues and commemorative objects that reflect Australia's colonial past. 'What do these monuments represent? Are they reminders of a shameful history, or a celebration of colonisation?'

"(a statue is) one person's perspective. I'm interested in what's not being told.

Outgoing Artistic Director of Sydney Festival, Wesley Enoch offers that the permanence of statues isn't something that is aligned to Indigenous values. Though he doesn't advocate for statues being torn down, he states that there needs to be room for the Indigenous history to exist in the same space.

"(a statue is) one person's perspective. I'm interested in what's not being told.

In recent discussions around commemorating the 100th birthday of beloved poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal with a statue, Enoch pondered on whether that was the right way of honouring her legacy.

"That's not our way, putting up a statue. How do we actually celebrate in our way, make sure that our storytelling is happening on the public record. Because these statues for me, they are a hardening of history."

In response to Enoch, Nakkiah Lui says that for herself, there was a kind of feeling of catharsis watching the tearing down of a statue in the UK during the Black Lives Matter rallies.

Talking to NITV, host Shari Sebbens says that in her first hosting gig, she had to draw on a different kind of listening skill to helm the robust discussions had throughout the series.

"If I had it my way, the series would just be like a livestream for 24 hours," Sebbens says with a laugh. "Everyone that we had on is has so much to offer from their own experience that speaks to the broader community."

Academy Award winning director Taika Waititi, a Te Whānau-ā-Apanui creative from Aotearoa, features alongside actor Miranda Tapsell in tonight's episode. Both artists who studied formal theatre, reflect on not being able to connect with the western classical theatre canon they had to study.

 "My relationship with the (canon) was kind of like an arranged marriage." Waititi says.

He and his friends at University were never cast in the traditional productions, though they wanted to and so made their own, starting to write, produce and feature in their own creations.

"That's where I really learnt how to write for film and how to direct and make our own costumes and be in our stuff and direct each other.. that's how I really learnt to do everything, through being rejected." 

Waititi also touched on 'colour-blind' casting. Having First Nations actors cast in 'normal' roles, not in a stereotype or supporting role. 

"I've always wanted to cast Maori. I don't know how else to describe it, but there's just a feeling, there's a vibe on your set (with First Nations actors). I like having people who think like me and who have had the same life experience around."

"It's all about relationships. My work environment is so much better when there are young people, people of colour and a decent amount of women on set or in the writers room." Waititi said.

Enoch says that he doesn't believe in colour-blind casting at this point. 

"I don't know that the audience is advanced enough, not to see colour."

It's not often you would get time with any of these panellists, but all of them, at the same table, offers a rare glimpse and insight in to some of the classic works and experience of our most celebrated First Nations actors and creators.

Rhoda Roberts offers generous insights behind the scenes of Radiance, and major hit, Bran Nue Dae, while Nakkiah Lui talks about the longevity of First Nations writers in Australia and how many don't get beyond one or two pieces of work. 

The Whole Table premieres Wednesday January 20 at 8:30pm, as part of NITV’s Always Was, Always Will Be programming slate.