A Matter of Style – Origins of Drama and Theatre – Indigenous Australian Songdrama, Totem and Dreamtime Drama
A Matter of Style – Origins of Drama and Theatre – Indigenous Australian Songdrama, Totem and Dreamtime Drama
The purpose of this blog is to explore and give some practical insight into different theatre and drama styles, periods, forms and practitioners. It will give information and practical lessons on theatre styles, forms, performances, staging conventions, acting and performance styles, plays and performance texts, staging conventions, costuming, directors and playwrights.
This blog is written for a broad range of readers. Firstly for those at university and college studying drama and theatre. Secondly for high school students studying IB Theatre, A Level, AP, HSC, VCE, Senior and Middle School Drama and Theatre Studies school students. Thirdly for Drama and Theatre teachers and those training to be teachers in this area. Finally, actors and professional theatre practitioners will find this blog useful to hone or improve their skills or to delve into new areas of theatre that they have not ventured into yet. It provides information, material for research and practical exercises for the study of drama and theatre as part of a World Theatre context.
Some of the work in this blog derives from a set of articles I wrote on theatre styles for Drama Victoria’s ‘Mask’ magazine during the 1990’s, a book I edited entitled ‘Drama from the Rim’ and books I have written such as ‘Australian Indigenous Drama’ and ‘The Dramaturgy of the Australian Theatre Director’.
There are many different theories about the origins of drama and theatre. I subscribe to the theory that drama and theatre had its origins storytelling, myth, ritual, dance and ceremony. Early societies passed down knowledge and history through ceremonies. They also saw a connection between the performance of certain actions by a group and the development of certain responses. A lot of interesting work and observation has been done in this area by anthropologist and mythologist Joseph Campbell. He saw that beyond the social and cultural functions of these rituals in different cultures, these rituals seemed to have fulfilled three basic concerns – those of pleasure, power and duty.
We know that these rituals probably started very early in human societies. Some date the earliest theatre to the Ancient Egyptian rituals and dramas which accompanied sending pharaoh’s to the underworld and the ‘Pyramid Texts’ dated about 2800 to 2400 BC. I will come to these rituals later. I would like to contend that the origins of drama can be traced back to earlier traditions in the peoples of Africa, India and Australia. Since it is an area I am more familiar with, I would like to start with early Australian Indigenous Drama which can be seen to date back to about 50,000 years ago.
Indigenous Australian Songdrama – The Great Father Spirits
Around 40,000 - 80,000 years ago, peoples from the Asian region crossed by land bridge to what we now know of as Arhnem Land. The stories of the Great Father Spirit and the journeys of these peoples and their encounters have been passed down in a form that can be best described as a hybrid artform.
"I suppose it goes back to the traditional kingship of art form, the storyteller will dream the story and pass that on to the song man and the song man will adapt that and the didj player will hear that song and he will get the rhythm and the dancer will get all those art forms and display and celebrate that through the physical spirit and the visual artist is part of that process by taking in the whole bigger picture. It is a beautiful thing. (Stephen Page 2007 in Casey 2012, p.17)
Indigenous Australian Songdramas deal with the first stage of creation - the activities of the Great Father Spirit. Often the oldest indigenous stories are kept in a half-spoken, half-sung songline form such as those used in the Whale Arrival Story of the Thurrawal tribe of New South Wales or The Three Brothers Story of the Gullibul clans and of course the stories of the famous gwion gwion or jenagi jenagi cave painting dancers (known to some as the stories of the Bradshaw Cave Dancers).
These songdramas conjure up and re-enact events of the past capturing the moods, feelings and oneness of spirit. Some examples of songdramas include stories of the Father Spirits of Baiame (from the Sitma-thang clans of the High Plains), Mungan Mgour (from the Kuranda of Queensland) and Bunjil (from the Kulin and Wotjobaluk). In her magnificent 2007 book Singing the Land – The Power of Performance in Aboriginal Life, Jill Stubington illuminates the connection of songlines and song drama to the relationship of indigenous Australian people to their history, spirituality and social structures and traditions as evident in song cycles and ceremonies.
The songdrama form is one that attempts to set the thoughts and actions of significant long ago events, people and animals into the ever present. In some ways, the indigenous songdrama is like the Hindu songdramas and dance dramas in that they attempt to conjure up the form of the ancient spirits almost like deities (Reed 1993: 17-19). Often phrases and images are repeated, and emphasis is placed upon the conjuring up of images through the almost exclusive use of the voice: its tones, intonation, rhythm and volume. These rituals are often led by songman (the singer, keeper and composer of songs) a skilled performer with an extensive repertoire of stories and vocal range and skill. A number of songdramas and the musical accompaniments are referred to in Neuenfeldt’s wonderful book The Didgeridu: From Arnhem land to the Internet.
The songdramas of the legends of Baiame often give the subject Baiame, qualities such as Creator, Benefactor and First Seed (Reed l993: l7, 32, 53). The songdrama usually attempts to deal with everything in terms of metaphors e.g. instead of telling someone that your great grandfather came from Norway to Australia, you may say: ''My Grandfather is the devourer of all the seas and oceans'' or '' My Grandfather - the Whale of all seasons. The songdramas are always told proudly and intensely, perhaps this is why some European historians and anthropologists have remained sceptical about the knowledge which lies beneath these stories told in this form of narrative. Songdramas are not just an ancient form used for ancient rituals but can be used in a modern context and within historical approaches to address specific stories and ideas from specific areas or places. Often older indigenous languages are kept alive through songdramas because they keep flourishing the stories, rituals and languages of traditions which are ancient.
Totem and Dreamtime Drama
The second order of Australian indigenous creation is dealt with in the totem dramas, where '' ... the ancestors ... recreate themselves in the spirit form in the bodies of animals and human beings who retain the mystical animal qualities inherent in the ancestor's…” (Reed 1993:67). Many of the stories that Westerners identify as dreamtime stories, come from the totemic ancestor stories that tell of how the empty featureless landscape was sculptured by Great Spirits. These totem dramas, enact the very probable encounters of the First Australians with giant mammals such as Genyornis (the giant emu), the monster Kadimakara and the giant kangaroos known by many names. Often Totem dance dramas involve using the totem of an animal or as the central focus point to dance dramas and rituals and symbols are often painted on the face and body of participants.
The totem drama is highly ritualistic and these stories and their enactment are often linked to dances, sung stories and body painting that is linked to specific initiation and ceremonial occasions. In this sense, Australian indigenous totem dramas tend to be parochial, “… dramatizations of portions of legends ... tied down to definite local centres with each group…” (Strehlow 1986:4). Although the totem dramas of different indigenous tribes vary in content, the forms, conventions and symbols of these dramas remain remarkably consistent. A number of examples of totem dramas are evident on the 1983 Film Australia video Aboriginal Dance – Three Dances by Gulpilil and Five Dances From Cape York.
The painting of bodies with different earthen paints and colours to enact spirits, can be seen as an early form of costume, the creation of specific chanting rhythms for the aspects of different spirits and the use of a central spatial focus usually embodied in a physical symbol like the tnatantja pole (of the Aranda peoples), act as a stage design feature helping to make the totem dramas highly symbolic.
“Among the Arunta, the men of the witchetty grub totem perform ceremonies for multiplying the grub which other members of the tribe use as food. One of the ceremonies is a pantomime representing the fully developed insect in the act of emerging from the chrysalis. A long narrow structure of branches is set up to imitate the chrysalis case of the grub. In this structure a number of men ... sit and sing of the creature in its various stages. Then they shuffle out of it in a squaring posture, and as they do so they sing of the insect emerging from the chrysalis.'' (Frier in Frazer 1987: l 7)
Indigenous totem and dreamtime drama like songdrama is essentially done as a sung story but unlike songdrama it involves the use of specific movements, a specific setting or built set for the drama and the enactment by actors of various parts of the drama. In totem drama the group tells the story and takes on the qualities of the creature or plant that is the subject matter for the drama. The actions are usually involve mime and exaggerated movement and frequently act out part of the story being sung. Often animals are the central characters in the dramas enacted.
Sometimes totem drama attempts to predict or create a situation that people would hope for in the near future. A totem drama or totem dance can sometimes be given as a gift to another tribe. Gestures of a tribe’s totem or respect for another tribe's totem, beliefs or land, can be expressed or given, especially when entering another tribes place or land.
Many examples of rituals of respect, welcome and healing rituals (such as those of Murray River tribes and clans shown in the Ringbalin film and project) are performed by various Indigenous peoples. Frequently, in modern times, people in contemporary Australian cities and towns are privileged enough to have members of local tribes and clans perform their own welcoming dance or ceremonies at festivals, conferences and special meetings. Totem drama can also be filled with many dramatic conventions such as stage design features, costume and makeup. Amongst many tribes, putting ochre on the forehead, the hands and the chest shows they are open to receiving or sharing, while others throw earth into the air or pick up a pebble to introduce themselves and ask for a good welcome.
Brief Timeline of some early Indigenous Australian Drama
64,000BC Indigenous peoples arrive in Australia, some evidence of early storytelling rituals seems to point to storytelling even from this period.
54,000BC Evidence from a rock shelter in Arnhem Land (400 km east of Darwin) suggest body decoration used in dance and storytelling.
30,000BC Fireplace evidence suggests rituals and dancing attached to storytelling traditions in Lake Mungo NSW and Keilor, Victoria.
Indigenous remains around the now extinct Willandra Lakes system (Mungo National Park, NSW) show evidence of spiritual and creative aspects to storytelling traditions and dance.
20,000BC Sites at Wentworth Falls (NSW) and Koonalda (S.A.) suggest art, body decorating and storytelling are linked in more formal rituals.
18,000BC Art at Ubirr in Kakadu National Park (Northern Territory, 300 kms east of Darwin) depicts now extinct animals, the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), and Zaglossus (the long-beaked echidna).
11,000BC Landbridge between mainland Australia and Tasmania is flooded. Some songlines and dreamtime stories of both Victorian indigenous peoples and Tasmanian indigenous peoples tell the story of this event. It is believed that some of these stories may have been passed down continuously from this time.
7,000 BC Evidence of Rainbow Serpent Creation Story from the Kunwinjku peoples of Western Arnhem Land. Earliest visual evidence of Indigenous belief in and representation of the Rainbow Serpent which becomes a continuous creation story and belief system in many Australian Indigenous cultures.
3,000BC Cave paintings dated around this period suggest the adoption of tribal and clan totems and the actual use of totems in rituals.
1,000BC Evidence in a number of cave paintings suggests the use of didgeridoos and body painting used for rituals.
Lessons and Practical Exercises
Indigenous Australian Songdrama Practical Exercises and Discussion
Indigenous Songdrama Exercises
1. Imagine a relative, friend or event that although long past, has shaped the way you are and what you have become. Facing a partner, attempt to tell the story of this relative, friend or event. Tell your partner the story using metaphoric rather than literal language.
Remember to tell the story in almost song-like tones: dwelling on the sounds and words you speak. Allow most words to find the rhythm and tone that makes them song-like.
Also remember to let your voice and thoughts do the work (so try to cut hand and facial gestures to a bare minimum).
2. The group starts a tapping rhythm or chant. In turn each member of the group sings a short story about where they come from. You can centre it on a person, a description or an event. Try to inject some energy and drama to the songdrama. Remember that you can be metaphoric, reality is not as important as giving the 'sense' or 'feel' of the place. The group keeps the rhythm or chant going until each person has shared their story of their 'place'.
3. Get some members of the group to sing a children's song, popular song or ballad in
their native language or dialect or in a different language or a language you don't know. The rest of the members try to learn the song or part of the song.
Indigenous Totem Drama Exercises and Discussion
1. Think of a plant or animal in your neighbourhood. Think what is important or particular or what you would hope to happen to this animal or plant in the future (e.g. I hope the young ducks in my local pond/creek grow bigger and fatter and learn how to fly or I hope that the magpie with the damaged wing is able to fix his wing and learn to fly again). Using some natural material such as sticks, leaves or branches; create the setting for your drama. Now create the performance. Create the rhythm of your creature first with your feet, then with a simple arm or body gestures and then with a simple chant or the repetition of one word (e.g. ''find the food'' ''fly''). Start to build the momentum of the chant and gesture. When you wish to change or progress the action of your drama, change the rhythm that you are beating out with your feet first, before you change the actions. A game can be made out of changing the rhythms.
2. Let every member of the group find their own space in the room. Define your space through placing a set of pebbles or some earth on the ground around your space or 'place'. Think what your animal totem for your space or ‘nation’ will be. Create a rhythm and simple sequence of repeatable gestures, actions and/or movements for your nation. You should include some actions which reflect your totem animal. You may want to extend this and tell a story or create a short one minute totem drama that shows your totem and also tells a story about the totem. Now one by one, visit or enter someone else's 'place' or ‘nation’. You should do a ritual before entering another's space. You could pick up a stone or some earth or sand doing an action with it. Once the other person enters your space, show them your ritual or movement and perhaps even teach it or part of it to them. The visitor may also want to share their totem dance or drama.
Many indigenous peoples believe that animals, animal spirits and totems give meaningful direction to individuals and groups. They believe that all living things deserve respect. To what extent does a society disconnected from animals and nature loose its sense of direction and respect?
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can be identified by their totems. Totems can be an important part of cultural identity. To what extent might totem dramas and dances be important to both protect an animal and create a sense of identity for a group of people? Do dance and drama from European cultures have any similar functions?
Indigenous Totem and Dreamtime Drama
· Totem drama is highly ritualistic
· These stories and their enactment are often linked to dances, sung stories and body painting
· It often involves painting of bodies with different earthen paints and colours to enact spirits
· Uses specific chanting rhythms for the aspects of different spirits
· Uses a central spatial focus sometimes with physical symbol like the tnatantja pole
· Totem drama songs and dances are still shared today as seen in the film of ‘Ringbalin’ where a number of indigenous people and clans share their stories and dances to dance the lifeblood back into the Murray-Darling River.
You and students can even download the Ringbalin phone app to hear the stories and take the journey:
Totem and Dreamtime Drama Exercises
· This can be done in pairs, small groups or in a large group
· Think of an animal or bird or feature of the place or landscape in which you live
· Develop a simple gesture or action which shows this animal, bird or landscape
· Say the name of the animal, bird or landscape feature and do the action
· Now show and say the name of your totem and the whole group repeats it back
· You can start to add a chant if you want to build the momentum of the chant and gesture.
· You can even define a space through placing a set of pebbles or some earth on the ground around your space or 'place'. Think what your animal totem for your space or ‘nation’ will be. Create a rhythm and simple sequence of repeatable gestures, actions and/or movements for your nation you can even have students create a sacred space and have someone visit and share in the space.
· An extension to this involves looking at the hills, mountains, rocks or any geographic features that are outside and through using one geographic feature thinking of an animal which that feature could represent
Rainbow Serpent Myth Story
Here is a Rainbow Serpent Creation Story from the Kunwinjku peoples of Western Arnhem Land (origin about 7,000BC). A common activity I use is Reader’s Theatre with students using Dreamtime stories. I normally chose more than one Reader’s Theatre narrators
Far out in the Dreamtime, there were only people, no animals or birds, no trees or bushes, no hills or mountains. The country was all flat.
Goorialla, the great rainbow serpent, stirred and set off to search for his own tribe. He travelled across Australia from South to North. He reached Cape York where he stopped and made a big red mountain called Narabullgan. He listened on the wind and heard only strange voices speaking strange languages.
“This is not my country. The people here speak a different tongue. I must look further for my own people.”
Goorialla left Narabullgan and his body made a deep gorge where he came down. He travelled North, stopping every evening to listen on the wind for his own people. He travelled for many days and his tracks made the creeks and the rivers as he journeyed North.
His next resting place was at Fairfield where he made the lily lagoon – Millilinka. Goorialla turned his great body round and round but the ground was too hard to make it deep.
One day he heard a voice singing on the wind. He heard, “Haaa! Haaa!”
“That was my people singing,” said sad Goorialla, “They are holding a big Bora.” As he travelled North, the singing became louder and louder…
THE STORY CONTINUES…
Traditional Indigenous Dance and Mime
· Primary and Secondary students alike love to learn Indigenous dances and animal moves. The following mimes and movements can be taught on their own or done with an audio or videoclip such as:
Some other activities can be based around using the work of Oodgeroo Noonuccal's (also published under the name Kath Walker) poem Ballad of the Totems (see Oodgeroo Noonucal 2008) or her short story Kill to Eat (in the anthology Global Tales Naidoo 1997).
Further Readings and Resources on Indigenous Songdrama, Totem and Dreamtime Drama
Aboriginal Dance – Three Dances by Gulpilil and Five Dances From Cape York (video). 1983. Film Australia. Sydney.
Berndt, R.M. & Phillips, E.S. 1973. The Australian Aboriginal Heritage: An Introduction Through the Arts. Ure Smith. Sydney.
Casey, M. 2012. Telling Stories. Australian Scholarly Publishing. Kew, Victoria.
Bungalung (short film). Morton-Thomas, Trisha (indigenous director). CAAMA. 2007.
Marshall, A. 2004. 'Singing your own songlines: approaches to Indigenous Drama' in Mooney, M. (ed.) & Nicholls (ed.) Drama Journeys:Inside Drama Learning.Currency Press. Strawberry Hills, Sydney.
Mathews, R.H. 1905. Ethnological Notes on Aboriginal Tribes of N.S.W. and Victoria. White Publishing. Sydney.
Mullins, B. 1989. Aboriginal lore: a pictorial review of ancient aboriginal life, ritual and culture, as recorded in the marks they left on the land. Shepp Books. Hornby, N.S.W.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal's (also published under the name Kath Walker). 2008. Ballad of the Totems from the book My People – A Kath Walker Collection.
Neuenfeldt, K. 1997. The Didgeridu: From Arnhem land to the Internet. John Libbey & Co. Sydney.
Reed, A.W. 1993. Aboriginal Myths, Legends and Fables. Reed. Chatswood, N.S.W.
Strehlow, T.G.H. 1986. Aranda Traditions, Melbourne University Press. Melbourne.
Stubington, J. 2007. Singing the Land – The Power of Performance in Aboriginal Life. Currency Press. Strawberry Hills.
Woolgoodja, S. 1976. Lalai Dreamtime. Aboriginal Arts Board. Canberra.
Useful Resources for Teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in The Arts and Drama
ABC Australian Broadcasting Commission TV Documentaries Unit. Frontier Stories from White Australia’s Forgotten War. Bruce Belsham [Dir.] Video (1997) DVD (2007). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQE75wmRgZo
ABC Australian Broadcasting Commission. 2005. Buried Alive: Sydney 1788-1792 Eyewitness Accounts of the Making of a Nation. ABC Sydney. Sydney. (DVD)
ABC Splash Education Website
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures
Sample Curriculum Maps
Australian Children’s Television Foundation. 2009. My Place for Teachers. ACTF. Sydney. (Website). http://www.myplace.edu.au/home.html
Drama Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Guidelines
Drama Teachers Network
Indigenous Lesson Ideas – Play ‘Stolen’
Eckersley, Mark. (2012). Australian Indigenous Drama. Tasman Press. Altona.
Australian Indigenous Drama Blog
Haddon, A.C. 1898. Torres Strait Islanders (short film). Australian Government Film Archives. http://aso.gov.au/titles/historical/torres-strait-islanders
Miers, J. 2008. Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories website.
NSW Department of Education and Communities Aboriginal Perspectives in the Creative Arts
Aboriginal Perspectives in the Creative Arts
Aboriginal Dreaming Unit
Resources for Teaching Primary Drama with Indigenous Units and Activities
Exploring the worlds of K-6 Drama: Ancient Anna to the Cloth of Dreams (book and video) 1999
Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives Resources Page
Queensland Government, Department of Education and Training
EATSIPS (Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in schools)
The National Curriculum - Knowing the Truth about Australia's History
Questions and Fact Sheets
NSW AECG Aboriginal Education Unit. 1987. A Lesson in History: 1788-1988. Sydney. (Video). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cydE-O-CJT8
South Australian Curriculum Standards and Accountability Framework
A number of Australian Indigenous poems are available for use at:
Yarra Healing. 2012. ‘Unit 7 Changing Lives Changing Ways’ on Teaching and Learning page (Website). CEO Melbourne (Catholic Education Organisation, Melbourne). Melbourne.