‘You can’t shy away from truth telling after you’ve witnessed The Visitors’: How a theatre production can provide a means for healing

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‘You can’t shy away from truth telling after you’ve witnessed The Visitors’: How a theatre production can provide a means for healing

Credit: Daniel Boud
Words by Will Brussen

Lily Shearer (Murrawarri and Ngemba), Artistic Director of Moogahlin Performing Arts which alongside Sydney Theatre Company is putting on a national run of The Visitors.

She sits down with Beat Magazine to have a yarn about how The Visitors is a powerful tool of truth telling, and in turn the healing that comes from this.

The Visitors, written by Jane Harrison and directed by Wesley Enoch, explores how colonisation and invasion of the First People of so-called Australia still reverberates in society today, through a fictionalised story that is rooted in historical events.

The Visitors at The Round

  • Moogahlin Performing Arts and Sydney Theatre Company
  • The Round – Theatre
  • By Jane Harrison
  • Directed by Wesley Enoch
  • Fri 26 Jul 2024 at 7.30pm
  • Sat 27 Jul 2024 at 1.30pm

Explore Melbourne’s latest arts and stage news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

The Visitors is set in 1788 at the time of the tall ships arrival. As they arrived into what is today known as Sydney, “the clan groups of the Dharug people of the Sydney Basin region, call a meeting at an unusual time of the year”.

Shearer sets the scene for the show, “it’s an emergency meeting to see what they’ll do about these tall ships sailing into the harbour, and they’re ready to go to war. I liken it to a land council meeting, there’s debate and negotiations then they have to come to a unanimous decision. So they’re having this meeting and really honing in on whether to let the visitors land or tell them to go back.”

Shearer then shares the rhetorical question that underlines the play but also alludes to something bigger, “visitors leave, right?”

The Visitors, whilst rooted in the events of the earliest days of colonisation, in many ways still echoes true to the modern context, as the impacts of what happened at that time is still felt by many. Shearer goes on to say how powerful the narrative of The Visitors is, “each time I see it, I find a different piece of the narrative that gets me thinking about it all. I don’t dwell on the what ifs because we do know what happened after they came ashore, but what if seeing this show now in the 21st century, the light bulbs finally goes on.

“I think it’s really important to think, and I hope, I really hope that Australians that see this work, First People and mainstream Australia that they think, how do I work with my local community? To make it better for all Australians?

“This is an important story for all Australians. Even without a referendum, without a treaty still, and with everything that the visitors took away from us and our people, because we’re still dealing with the atrocities from the invasion, removal and assimilation.” It is a catalyst for reflection on the ongoing impacts of colonisation in this modern context.

The Visitors national tour dates

The Visitors bridges the past and the present masterfully, “Jane has cleverly allowed us free access to the play. She has included Dharug Dhalang (language) from the Ngurra (Country) [where it is set in Sydney]. She has allowed us to move characters from being male to female and non-binary, but she will not allow us to not have them in suits.

“Every character is wearing a suit. Because it’s the archetypal characters that Jane has written about. The characters are the archetypes of the society we live in today. We’ve got the philosophers, healers, scientists, economists, the tool making people they were in society BC (Before Cook) and they continue to be in society AC (After Cook). Also that she has got all the characters in suits with no boots on which is again, really important.

“The story is from our perspective. It reinforces that we have all these people in our society, in our community. Before [colonisation] we weren’t savages, we weren’t barbaric. We had a system of how we’re all connected to of course the biggest mother of all, Mother Earth, who sustains every human being on this planet.

“Land can sustain us with food, shelter, clothing.  They just brought the wrong food to this land and the wrong animals. We already had animals that we could get our protein and iron from. I think this play has the power to change everything including people’s eating and health, if the audience really dig deep.”

The Visitors provides a means of truth telling in an accessible way, however, Shearer emphasises the importance of deep listening as an audience member and as a vital element of truth telling. “The Visitors is the floodgate for truth telling. You can’t shy away from truth telling after you’ve witnessed The Visitors. You can’t pretend that these things didn’t happen. Whilst things have been swept under the carpet, these atrocities did take place.

“It opens the dialogue with our mainstream counterparts to have those deep, meaningful conversations, that is truth telling. You can have those honest, open dialogue and yarns about what really took place and what is still taking place.”

Shearer illustrates the power of truth telling in theatre, by sharing a story, “Jane’s first play Stolen is on at Sydney Theatre Company… I took a young person from my community, who has never had the opportunity to see a lot of theatre in her life. She had only seen one show and never seen a blakfella show. So I took her to see Stolen, I re-traumatised both of us. However, it made you think about, who are we telling our stories for and what are the messages? What is the truth telling that we want to open up? How do we move through this together to make change?”

Shearer is asking some big questions here but theatre and in particular plays such as The Visitors have the power to ask these questions in a way that can be brought into wider society. Igniting much-needed conversation, and hopefully firing up action.

“The ripple effect is you might come away and just talk about it with your family and friends. That then ripples out to further family and friends then they talk about it with their family and friends. So it has all these little ripple effects.

“The conversations happen and then the healing can begin. We’re just scratching the surface, but it allows us to do that. It gives us the tools, by deep listening. It gives us tools to be able to have those conversations to start to heal.”

Find out more and buy tickets here. See all national tour dates here.

This article was made in partnership with The Round.