Patyegarang: Dramaturg's Notes

"I think it would be much more appropriate to say that I have been the kā´maturg on this project."

There is a word in William Dawes diaries, a Dharug word, kā´ma, which means ‘to dig’ and, although we use the German word dramaturgy to describe the way in which I have been working with Stephen Page on Patyegarang, I think it would be much more appropriate to say that I have been the kā´maturg on this project. I have been Stephen’s digging tool and reflecting pool and sometimes his Shakespearian fool in this creative journey to honour and imagine into breath these respected ancestors, Patyegarang, the Eora and William Dawes.

The Dawes diaries are held in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and I obtained permission to see them while I was in London in 2012. They are small, fragile little notebooks and yet to hold them in your hands is to be struck by the potency of their link to Australia’s still untold histories. Their content wraps around you like a fine thread of animal gut stretched into use as a fishing line, a durable strand of linguistic and cultural knowledge that sings of the land and culture of the Eora in contact with the British colony.

The diaries were ‘rediscovered’ by Australian librarian Phyllis Mander-Jones when she travelled to the British Isles to conduct a survey of manuscripts relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, the results of which she published in 1972. When I looked through her papers, held in the National Library of Australia, I was struck by the enormity of her task and the way in which she was indeed the first kā´maturg for Patyegarang, digging through the British archives to find and list these previously uncatalogued items, the ‘Grammatical forms and vocabularies of languages spoken in the neighbourhood of Sydney.’

But in our discussions about the world transcribed into these notebooks by Dawes, Stephen focused not on the words, the grammar, of these books but on the manner in which the stories had been set down and the rich information that exists ‘between the lines’. What interested him was the way in which Dawes, quite quickly, abandoned a simple exercise in translation of words and instead set down the entirely different context, cultural understanding, and relational perspective with which language was employed to describe the ever-changing, living world of the Eora.

As significant as the notebooks were as an insight into the humour, tension, intimacy and depth of the friendship between Patyegarang and Dawes, of infinitely greater potency to the process of imagining the story of Patyegarang was Stephen’s long legacy of cultural knowledge gifted to him over the entire history of Bangarra from the many elders and countrymen and artists and ancestors with whom he has worked. In our discussion of ‘incidents’ from the notebooks, Stephen would frequently draw parallels with his knowledge of other cultural instances of ‘chosen messengers’ like Patyegarang, knowledge which might explain why the Eora reacted in a certain way that Dawes had observed. It was inspiring for me to witness this ‘transfer’ and ‘translation’ of cultural knowledge, as if Patyegarang was speaking directly to Stephen through the notebooks and he was catching and understanding details that Dawes had simply chronicled. Like a contemporary Dharug elder looking into a painting made by a colonial artist and seeing significance in details that the artist was perhaps not even aware of, I watched and documented as Stephen drew from Dawes’ meticulous, scientific chronicle a rich and playful and deeply authentic language of movement and land and spirit with which to embody Patyegarang’s world on stage.

As the frame of the work emerged, Stephen directed me to imaginatively expand and dramatically render scenes in the diaries which spoke to him and which sparked into life the emotional and abstract nature of the exchange between Dawes and the Eora, sifting the words on the page to find generosity, cleverness, strategy and humility in this approximately three month relationship between Dawes and Patyegarang.

It is significant that, in Bangarra’s 25thyear of existence, Stephen has chosen to conjecture about an ancestor from Sydney’s past, to imaginatively bring to life an ancestor of the land on which Bangarra works, to translate into ceremony and dance a woman whose story he has been preparing to tell, in a sense, for all these 25 years. It is sacred work which can uniquely be done by a company and artists who dedicate their life and their art to such sacred cultural undertaking. It is my privileged fate to have been called to work on this project and I acknowledge Susannah Rayner at SOAS and staff at the National Library of Australia in doing so.