Cultural gold/Colonial desire: First Nations stories and the non-Aboriginal theatre maker

Author: Kay Nankervis

Nankervis, Kay, 2024 Cultural gold/Colonial desire: First Nations stories and the non-Aboriginal theatre maker, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact with the details.


My desire as a settler-colonist playwright to include First Nations experience in my work was the genesis of this research. But questions about my own playwriting soon gave way to broader issues of australian theatre affecting First Nations cultural rights and artistic expression. As such this work uses testimony and case study to illustrate what happens when non-Aboriginal theatre makers engage with First Nations stories and portray First Nations people.

Most new knowledge comes from conversations with eleven theatre makers discussing their experiences of creating stage stories about and for First Nations people. I also examine receptions of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River: that work exemplifies how colonial history is depicted on stage when made for White audiences.

I have developed a four-pronged theory framework to interpret this data: (1) critical Whiteness and colonising habits of those operating as White, (2) artistic freedom, (3) First Nations nonmaterial/cultural capital (FNCC) incorporating Bourdieu’s Capital, Habitus and Field, and (4) meanings of culture/Culture: to distinguish between artistic pursuit (culture) and Culture as an integral code for being human.

Through these lenses it emerges that First Nations theatre, made under First Nations control and authority, is Culture and Culture-making in the profound sense of that word. This contrasts with the meaning of culture to describe the arts role that non-Aboriginal theatre fulfils for settler-colonists. This understanding distinguishes between First Nations theatre, which constitutes First Nations Culture, and theatre depicting First Nations people, which is not First Nations theatre or Culture.

Meanwhile, the artistic freedom and cultural safety of First Nations theatre artists and audiences remains less certain than that of their settler-colonist counterparts. This is so even as non-Aboriginal artists and audiences increasingly recognise and desire the cultural value, and thus one or more forms of capital, inherent in First Nations stories. This White recognition, as desire, extends to capital embodied by Indigenous people who have authority and knowledges to stage those stories.

As First Nations Culture becomes visible as capital, new and continuing problems of settler-colonist behaviours are activated. These include White theatre maker strategies to access artistic capital embodied in First Nations people and Culture. Thus, Bourdieu’s Capital reveals movements of First Nations theatre capital out of First Nations control into that of non-Aboriginal artists—for use in settler-colonist narratives. In these instances, First Nations theatre capital (FNCC) is transformed into colonial capital.

Conversely, Bourdieu’s ideas also reveal movements of theatre capital in positive collaborations between First Nations and non-Aboriginal theatre makers: White creative capital, such as funding, dramaturgy, euro-theatre traditions, spaces and, sometimes, playwriting labour, is deployed under First Nations control to make First Nations stories and Culture. In these collaborations White capital transforms into First Nations capital because of how, for whom, to what purpose and under whose control it is deployed.

However, notwithstanding such positive capital exchanges, this inquiry finds that First Nations theatre artists and communities in australia will not have genuine artistic freedom until their collaborations are a free, Sovereign choice rather than a colonially structured capital necessity.

Keywords: First Nations theatre, theatre studies, Australian theatre, Critical Whiteness, academic freedom, theatre collaboration, Indigenous theatre, Aboriginal theatre, Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre, academic freedom and race, cultural Sovereignty, Indigenous performance, Australian performance studies, Australian drama

Subject: Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2024
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Chris Hay