Jane Harrison

Cybec Electric | Jane Harrison

Interviews /

Jane Harrison, a Muruwari descendant, gained prominence as a playwright after her first play Stolen premiered at the Playbox Theatre in 1998, followed by seven subsequent seasons in Melbourne, plus tours to Sydney, Adelaide, regional Victoria, Tasmania, the UK (twice), Hong Kong, Tokyo, Canada and New York. Her play Rainbow’s End premiered in 2005 in Melbourne and opened in Sydney in 2009, with a return season in 2011 starring Lillian Crombie and Christine Anu. Jane won the 2006 Theatrelab Indigenous Award for Blakvelvet and contributed a chapter to Many Voices: Reflections on experiences of Indigenous child separation published by the National Library, Canberra.

For Cybec Electric, Jane Harrison presents a powerful and imaginative response to the beginnings of modern Australia in The Visitors.

What is The Visitors about?

The Visitors is a reimaging of the arrival of the First Fleet from an Aboriginal perspective. Imagine seven Aboriginal men, in fine suits, contemplating the arrival of 11 giant ships. It is 1788 and the seven Elders need to decide whether to let the occupants of the ships come ashore – or not.

When did you start writing plays?

I have been a writer forever, but started my career as an advertising copywriter. My first play, _ Stolen_, took 6 years to complete and premiered at the Playbox (now Malthouse) Theatre in 1998 as part of the Melbourne Festival. Since then I’ve written half a dozen plays, some of which have toured extensively, and also written academic pieces and essays. I combine my artistic practice with other work in the community sector.

What inspires you to write? What inspired you to write this play?

Writing is one way for me to make sense of the world; to problem-solve issues that might not be easily understood in other realms. I write primarily for an Aboriginal audience, to have their (and my) experiences explored and acknowledged on stage. To shine what I hope is a beautiful light on that perspective.

As for this particular play, I read once that every country has something which it hasn’t yet resolved. For me, Australia’s unresolved issue is terra nullius. I have been fascinated with first contact stories for years. Of course, all encounters have been written from the non-Aboriginal perspective; this was a chance to ‘read between the lines’ and also let my imagination take off.

And I just love the idea of seven Aboriginal men, styled up, on stage. That is a powerful image for me.

What can an audience expect from a semi-staged reading of this play?

Those gorgeous, talented Aboriginal men, for one! Directed by the indomitable Leah Purcell (Redfern Now). I do like the idea of Leah being in charge ….

Of course it is a reading, without the bells (ship’s bells) and whistles (signals to the neighbouring mobs). It will be stripped back and simple but hopefully the story and relationships will cut through powerfully.

You are well known for your earlier plays, most particularly Stolen. Will this play also break new ground for Australian theatre?

I really hope so! For over seven years this story has mainly existed in my head, so I am fascinated to see life breathed into it through the director and the actors. They will bring their energy and nuances to the script. Even though it is fictional, it is grounded in historical events, that are part of our shared history, so hopefully the narrative will resonate with audiences. I really just want people think a little bit differently.

Jane Harrison’s The Visitors is one of five plays included in Cybec Electric. The play will be presented at Southbank Theatre on 6, 7 & 8 February, under the direction of Leah Purcell.

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