For everyone Telling our own stories: a school musical forging First Nations connections

Clifton Hill PS students perform in Ngulu-Nganjin: Everyone’s Voice in Woiwurrung. Photo supplied.

Clifton Hill Primary’s most recent school production was an ambitious project that forged connections with First Nations cultures across the country. 

Putting on a school musical is a serious undertaking. But devising and writing the production as well? A task with one too many late nights in the multipurpose room. So, why not just deliver the well-worn tropes of little orphan Annie and ‘the rain in Spain’ as generations have done before?

“I remember years ago going to see the David Williamson play Emerald City,” recalls Roslyn (Roz) Girvan, musician and classroom music teacher at Clifton Hill Primary School. “And there was a line that stuck with me – to paraphrase: ‘If we don’t tell our own stories, we will always feel that life is lived somewhere else’.

“I grew up with Pooh Bear and everything British, and over the years I’ve thought more and more about the importance of telling our own stories.”

It’s this drive that has seen Roz and her colleagues create a number of home-grown musicals over the years. One of the most popular focused on Lennie Gwyther, a boy from Leongatha who, in 1932 at the age of nine, undertook a solo 1000-kilometre trek with his pony from Leongatha to Sydney to see the opening of the Harbour Bridge.

As legend has it, when Lennie’s father broke his leg, the boy took over responsibilities on the farm. Offered a reward for his work, Lennie asked his dad if he could attend the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

“By the time he got there he was famous, because the local papers had covered his story, and he got to be part of the parade over the bridge,” exclaims Roz. “He even got to meet the prime minister and Don Bradman!”

This year, the musical Ngulu-Nganjin: Everyone’s Voice in Woiwurrung required a lot more research, and the resulting production was a different type of Australian story.

“I wanted to do something that was fun and involved an Indigenous theme in some way,” says Roz.

“Kate Denborough (Grade 4 teacher and renowned choreographer) came up with an idea, loosely based on the book Are We There Yet? by Alison Lester, except that it’s a school road trip – with no bus driver and no teachers,” laughs Roz, “instead of a family road trip.”

After obtaining permission from Lester, Kate and the team began fine-tuning the premise. They wanted the students on the road trip to learn First Nations language and to come in contact with various Aboriginal communities around Australia. This meant communicating with those communities to access stories, language, songs and, of course, permission to use them.

“The thing that really bonded the team – and helped us get through all the work – was a desire to make connections with First Nations cultures and to bring that into the school in a positive way.”

Roz Girvan

Teachers (L–R) Sophie Gammon, Roz Girvan and Kate Denborough. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“I knew we’d need Indigenous partners, and we wanted to pay them, so I contacted [Victorian MP] Richard Wynne’s office about getting a grant. With the support of his office, we ended up getting a grant through the Koori Outcomes division of the Department of Education,” says Roz.

Several communities were then contacted. “Kate and French teacher Sophie Gammon put in hours making community contacts and researching language. They contacted Elders from communities around Australia, including Terrence Coulthard, who with Josephine Coulthard has written a book about Adnyamathanha language and culture. Terrence ended up singing us a song over the phone that we recorded and taught to the kids for the play,” says Roz.

Having previously worked with the Mungkarta Homeland School in the Northern Territory, Kate contacted them for permission to use some Alyawarr language and story. Wathaurong/Ngarrindjeri playwright Glenn Shea also assisted in the writing process, along with some Yawuru contacts from Broome who were connected to a family at the school.

With research in hand, Kate wrote the ambitious script, which involves the characters coming into contact with five Aboriginal communities and their language, as introduced in the play by Australian birds and animals.

“We’d brought actor, comedian and school dad Johnny Leary in to support the production also, and it was his idea to have the animals teach the Indigenous languages,” Roz says.

“I really enjoyed being Yari (whale in Yawuru language) and having a microphone so close to me!”

David, 10

While Kate was writing the play, Roz got busy writing the songs with a team of students. “We invited interested children to apply for the team and then worked with two to three kids from each class. I couldn’t believe how productive we were!” But she insists that the overall process was a whole-of-school effort.

An art teacher worked with a group of kids to produce paintings for the projected backdrops, another art teacher made the props, a former parent and actor directed, parent volunteers made the costumes and teachers rehearsed scenes with their class.

It was, not surprisingly, “a nightmare of coordination”, says Roz, but quickly adds: “The thing that really bonded Sophie, Kate and I as a team – and helped us get through all the work – was a desire to make connections with First Nations cultures and to bring that into the school in a positive way.

“We also wanted the kids to connect with local Woiwurrung language and were rapt when Wurundjeri woman and cultural consultant Mandy Nicholson gave us the name of our play.”

The school delivered two performances of Ngulu-Nganjin: Everyone’s Voice in Woiwurrung, each launched with a Welcome to Country by Wurundjeri man Daniel Ross and culminating in a finale with musician and Butchulla man, Birdz, rapping with the kids.

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