Ian Michael’s ‘HART’ gives voice to silenced Stolen Generations
Running as part of the massive lineup for this year’s Darwin Festival, HART is an original verbatim theatre piece co-written by Ian Michael and Seanna van Helten. Crafted using testimonials from the Stolen Generations, HART explores the darkest parts of Australia’s history, drawing on silenced stories of Indigenous children who have been forcibly removed from their families. Directed by Penny Harpham, HART offers its audience a poignant and compelling insight into the effects of Australia’s treatment of our First Peoples that continue to echo into our present day.
We chatted to co-writer, award-winning performer and Noongar man, Ian Michael, ahead of the show’s opening in Darwin.
The idea for HART’s core concept came to Michael in early 2015, after he became disturbed by a discussion he’d had with a friend who worked in child protection. Shocked by the level of children being removed from their family homes, Michael set about researching the current policies surrounding the protection of children, particularly those of Aboriginal descent, and found them eerily similar to those in place during the period that resulted in what is now known as the Stolen Generation.
“Sadly, these policies are continuing. Children are being taken away at higher rates right now than ever before,” says Michael.
“I quickly discovered that these were just the same policies as back then but with a different name, and I remember talking to her saying, you know, what can we do?”
Michael, an actor and WAAPA graduate, had never written or produced theatre before, but in cooperation with co-writer van Helten, he began interviewing survivors of the Stolen Generations. The two of them gathered several testimonials that would eventually form the entirety of HART’s script.
“We chose verbatim because we wanted it to be the truth – the most truthful truth,” he says.
The play follows four men and their varied experiences of being stolen, ranging from the 1930s through to the present day, with Michael’s own personal story forming one of these plot lines.
“HART was the first piece of theatre I ever made, and it was a difficult piece to make, but it had to be made and it had to be told,” says Michael.
Michael says a strong motivator for HART’s creation was also the significant lack of public discussion surrounding the high rates of removal amongst the young Aboriginal population, driven largely by white politicians who are extremely distanced from the issue itself.
“It’s not really a conversation. I mean, things are being said, but nobody’s being asked what they need,” says Michael.
“Things aren’t taken by a case-by-case basis, it’s just ‘you’re an Aboriginal kid, this is the policy, and we’re going to take you away.’ There’s no conversation with the families or the communities.”
The show has now been playing for over two years, and in that time some of HART’s content has evolved. The production often uses recent sound grabs from politicians discussing the issue in the public eye, and these audio bites are updated to reflect the most recent rhetoric.
“We’ve got speeches from the 1960s and 70s, and then things that happened five or six months ago,” says Michael.
“It’s really heartbreaking, and kind of horrible, that these sound grabs are still so similar every time.”
“Whether you’re black or white, the struggle for family is individual . . . but these people aren’t coming at [the issue] with a sense of empathy or education, it’s all just the same.”
HART began its original run in Melbourne in 2015, playing to a tiny theatre that sat no more than twenty people. Since then, the show has toured all over Australia and New Zealand, and has been viewed by thousands.
“It’s evolved a lot in it’s production value and also for myself as a performer. I feel I’m able to go much deeper with the stories and really communicate both their darkness and their lightness,” says Michael.
“It’s a piece of theatre that’s been able to grow and expand, and it’s become a really beautiful [show] that hits on the truth, and that’s what I always wanted to explore with it.”
Michael says he hopes that every audience member walks out of HART feeling empowered to do something, however small, about this highly complex and difficult social issue.
“The end of the show is like a call to action,” he says.
“You’ve heard the stories, you’ve heard the past of these men, and now they’re talking to you as who they are now, and they’re telling you that we can’t keep letting this happen.”
Michael also hopes that HART might play a role in a shifting theatre landscape that offers more visibility to both the stories of Indigenous peoples and also Indigenous actors.
“There’s not enough black stories being told in theatre. It’s shifting, but it’s shifting very slowly. There’s a lot of independent artists like myself that are starting to create their own theatre, because our stories aren’t being told,” says Michael.
“You look at main stage theatre company’s seasons and there’s that one Aboriginal show – or sometimes none – and there’s a lot of Aboriginal theatre-makers that are getting pretty fed up with it . . . It’s really frustrating when you look at a program and you don’t see any black faces.”
“Our screens and our stages just don’t represent the world that we live in, but these pieces need to be made. These stories can’t not be told anymore.”
Following it’s run at the 2017 Darwin Festival, HART is set to arrive in Sydney early next year, with plans to tour around the country later in 2018. Get tickets to the Darwin run here.