Wesley Enoch’s office is not the kind of office you might expect from the artistic director of one of Australia’s largest theatre companies. In one corner sits a tiny desk, computer and chair, facing the wall. Down one wall is a blackboard full of ideas for future seasons and strategies. Down another is a bookshelf of plays, Australian theatre history and dramatic theory. In the centre of the room sits a worn dining table with chairs all around. This is where Enoch does the majority of his work.
“I actually get energised by being busy and meeting other people,” he says. “I like to be able to sit around a table, talk to other people about ideas, consider the world, and think, share and have conversations.”
Enoch grew up in Brisbane and is of Murri descent. His first major breakthrough as both a playwright and director was in 1995 with The 7 Stages of Grieving, a one-woman play co-written and performed by Deborah Mailman, which explore various forms of grief in Indigenous communities. It toured internationally and had several return seasons. He went on to win acclaim with Black Medea and The Story of Miracles at Cookie’s Table, along with countless other productions he’s directed, and he took over the role of artistic director at Queensland Theatre Company in 2010.
Black Diggers, directed by Enoch tells the largely untold story of Indigenous Australian ANZACs, celebrating the ANZAC Centenary. It opens this week as part of Sydney Festival before travelling to the Brisbane, where it will be part of QTC’s mainstage season and the Brisbane Festival. It’s the latest in a recent series of large-scale theatrical works which involve Indigenous artists.
Enoch hopes Black Diggers will bring audiences in their droves and spark greater interest in Indigenous stories. He’s heartened by the success of plays such as The Shadow King and The Secret River; which although not an Indigenous show uses an Indigenous presence. But he believes there’s a need for greater ownership of Indigenous theatre by Indigenous artists.
“There’s a sense that those large scale projects are happening, but often it’s not within the control of Indigenous artists – so we’re starting to see a lag between what Indigenous artists can make and are thinking about making versus what the companies are allowing to happen. I’ve been arguing for almost ten years, and it goes on for decades before me, for a national Indigenous theatre company.”
Despite some recent stage success stories and Enoch’s personal success, he says producing Indigenous work is still an uphill battle.
“If I look at the generation before me – Lydia Miller, Rhoda Roberts – they all hit these glass ceilings they couldn’t get beyond. I think my career is an example of being able to get beyond some of those limitations. We’re now seeing a range of mainstream work happening, led by Indigenous artists, but the resources are quite low. Ilbijerri’s entire annual budget is about half of what we spend on one show at QTC.”
Enoch is concerned more broadly about the diversity of voices in Australian theatre. While he sees some companies, including Griffin, under the direction of Lee Lewis, bounding ahead in this area, he feels there needs to be a closer look at what we’re actually seeing onstage.
“The stories are middle class, they just happen to be more adventurous in form. I think about Miss Julie at Belvoir; beautiful work, but it is pretty much a continuation of that story, just in a different form. There’s this adventurous theatre aesthetic that everybody talks about, but actually it’s what was being done 30 or 40 years ago, just in a new context. You have to marry these new form voices with new content voices as well.
“For me, there’s a point where it’s fashion, rather than substance. You put it in a glass box, put mics on people, put it in a white space and that’s what makes it interesting, whereas I’m a storytelling person. I’m naturally attracted to new and interesting voices. Is it that there’s a new fashion in town, or is it actually adding something new to our cultural storytelling and discussion?”
In addition to Black Diggers, on Monday nights from April to August, he’ll be interviewing Indigenous artists in Belvoir’s 20 Questions. Already locked in are Jada Alberts, Lisa Maza, Rachael Maza, David Page, Leah Purcell, Miranda Tapsell and Ursula Yovich, but Enoch is hoping to attract some high profile guests from the music world, including Jessica Mauboy and Dan Sultan.
“Behind every successful Indigenous artist, there’s a story of their family, their life and growing up that often people don’t know about. There’s sometimes, when you scratch the surface, a whole range of obstacles people have overcome to achieve that position. Yes, you can say every artist has to do that, but 20 Questions is actually talking about Indigenous experience in this country and what motivates people to be these artists.”
The scope and volume of Enoch’s work, both within Queensland Theatre Company and as a freelancer is astonishing. He’s constantly involved in meeting after meeting, rehearsals and jet setting around the country. But there’s calm within his energetic demeanour. When asked how he deals with being one of the busiest people working in the arts, he scoffs, “Who isn’t busy?”