Blayne Welsh

Blayne Welsh is a First Nations (Wailwan) theatre maker, Fulbright Scholar and current PhD candidate through Monash University. His father is a living member of the Stolen Generation.

About Blayne Welsh

Blayne is a First Nations (Wailwan) theatre maker and PhD candidate. His father is a living member of the Stolen Generation, and subsequently Blayne’s creative and academic practice has a strong focus on the revitalisation of cultural practices in new ways, which are relevant to the contemporary world while being firmly based on First Nations ways of Knowing, Being and Doing. Blayne argues that these three form an inseparable continuum from an Indigenous standpoint, and this worldview can be of tremendous service when approaching methodologies surrounding working alongside First Nations communities. To achieve this understanding, and articulate how modern theories relating to Decolonisation and the Indigenous research paradigm can be put into praxis, and the ways praxis can feed back into our understanding of these philosophies, Blayne’s thesis focuses on the Kings, Brothers and Heroes project, a verbatim performance project acting as a resource to serve the truth speaking agenda of the survivors of the Kinchela Boys Home (A community to which Blayne claims membership). The verbatim methodology is adapted from the work Blayne did during his time as a Fulbright visiting scholar at NYU Steinhardt’s Verbatim Performance Laboratory, under the sponsorship of Joe Salvatore, and has been adapted to be in greater harmony with First Nations ways of working while also serving as a method through which non-Indigenous performers are guided through a practice which cultivates Deep listening and approaching the world more relationally.

Prof. Stacy Holman-Jones (Monash University)
Assoc. Prof John Bradley (Monash University)
Prof. Joe Salvatore (New York University)


On Informit

Welsh, B. (2018). The Hepatitis C Trilogy: A case for Indigenous theatre as a contemporary manifestation of traditional healing business. Australasian Drama Studies, (73), 20–41.

Video Transcript

How would you introduce yourself and how you came to be a theatre maker and PhD candidate?

I’m Blayne Welsh. I’m a Wailwan man and I am the son of a member of the Stolen Generation. My journey to research, like the river, was winding. During my 20s I was involved, as a lot of our young fellas are, in a drug scene, and that all came to a culmination a bit over 10 years ago in my late 20s. And I moved down to Melbourne and I was recommended by my cousin to go to the Steiner seminar and do their program – it might be healing for me and while I was there I ended up playing Lysander in a Midsummer Night’s Dream and we were doing drama activities… and the amount and capacity for drama to heal was really apparent to me. It was such a such a healing force for me doing that so I decided to follow that along with the question that I’ve always had in my mind since I was much younger, which is how can I serve my mob? How can I help the mob, and I saw so much capacity in drama for doing so, so I went to uni thinking that I would you know become a Drama teacher. You know, I can go back out to Coonamble work in a high school but I sort of realized I wanted to go further than that and that led me to here and now and the work that I’m doing.

Can you share briefly what your PhD is about?

That’s a big question obviously and I’m midway through so it still has room to form and shape, but largely what my PhD looks at and explores, and it’s a reflection of my own personal story and exploration, is understanding what the underlying philosophies are that my ancestors held and the way that that is put into praxis and practice. So the device, in my … The device I use I call ‘the Ancestor’, so the ancestor is a construct I’ve created, a literary construct that allows us to – allows me to – in a little bit more deeper way, think you know what would it have been like to be a person seeking knowledge in a world that text… the concept of text doesn’t even exist where you have your body and your embodied presence in relationship to the living space around you, and how those processes and how some of the activities we used to do specifically in the PhD on Theatre, around the performative practices: how those performative practices also serve the purpose of being research tools and methodologies, as well as being tools to you know articulate to heal. So, I’m trying – my PhD is trying – to find my PhD dissertation is going to be really about finding those connections in practice in a way that I can employ and put into practice through my own work.

Is your PhD related to the Fulbright scholarship you were awarded in 2019?

When I started my PhD the first thing I wanted to do was recreate the men’s initiation ritual – the one men’s initiation ritual I feel that would have been and I still am going to seek to do that, because one thing that kicked off this investigation process is there was pictures taken in the 1890s of our my ancestors initiating young men. And being that I come from a place of disconnection around identity, I recognized how important a ritual or a ceremony like that can be to secure identity that rather than having to go through a process of, as we always do, you know: who’s your mob, what’s your last name, where you’re from… it can just be a simple gesture or a word or a sentiment that would only be known by somebody else who’s been initiated and instantly you’ve got that connection. I thought that’d be a really valuable tool but what I came to realize as I was approaching it is that that’s a big job and that’s a journey not just for me and I don’t have that authority, so like with many researchers we narrowed the scope and I was trying to work out, okay, what ritual practice can I use my contemporary theatre skills to try to revitalise. And I had met Joe Salvatore at NYU when I was on an Aurora study tour and he runs through the Verbatim Performance Lab, but what actually got us having – what connected us and caused us to have a lovely long conversation was talking about ritual – he was also interested in rituals. So the Fulbright came along I actually didn’t really anticipate or plan to go to New York, the head of Aurora called me and asked me if I wanted to apply for the American Australian Association scholarship and maybe go over for six months maybe find something to do so I did that and he also put me into the full bride so I applied for the Fulbright, and lo and behold I got both of them. so I went over there to work with Joe and the Verbatim Performance Lab and when I encounter verbatim performance and particularly Joe’s practice which is so care focused: the care for the spoken word; care for the original speaker and care for the text moving forward in time I was I I felt like I was just watching and when I was watching a black fella at work with that so you had that same ethics and consideration around it and immediately I also made those connections to Bungaree and the Grand Corroboree and the way he was described as a person who could just mimic people so precisely um and that made me draw again these connections back to thinking about the Ancestor and asking why, Bungaree, why are you doing this, why this mimicry? What’s the purpose that it serves? And I started to say yeah that’s a verbatim research and performance practice by embodying the whitefellas and the governors the way it did – it’s a way of understanding, it’s a way of building empathy and a way of trying to seek to establish connection and dialogue in the context of the whitefellas’ environment which for the settler, as you mentioned, you know back then we were the objects of study. It was a peculiar artifact, but for me now looking back at it with this lens I see that there’s so much more that was going on, not just there but the corroboree – the reasons for doing the performances… I started seeing drama therapy in there, so it was that connection of verbatim performance and particularly through Joe’s work that I recognized that yes, this is the practice I can focus on. I can focus on trying to revitalize our oral tradition in a way that works in our contemporary world and that hopefully future generations can pass on the practice I’m developing and we can revitalize our own culture in our own way, yeah.

Can you elaborate a bit more about verbatim performance method?

So verbatim performance as the Verbatim Performance Lab defines it is the precise, the precise portrayal of an actual person word for word, gesture for gesture, so you’re seeking to replicate the speech patterns and the gestural patterns. Now I’m mainly focused on speech patterns in my work but also gestural patterns in the context of VPL and how it’s used over there. It’s actually in itself a research methodology so for example um something that we’re working on with Joe is looks looking at bias… so bias in politics. So what we can do for example, Joe restaged the debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton but swapped genders, or ‘guess the candidate’, which is one that I was privileged enough to be present and work on, they took we took the all the Democratic candidates for president, took some of their speeches and we just played with race and gender swapping them around and then presented to people via an online portal and said you know, can you guess who this candidate is based purely off their policy. But then also Joe – I missed this part – but Joe also took it to a school and we had a sort of mock primary election to see who these – they’re all boys you see – who the boys would vote for first checking who they vote for prior to the speeches and then checking afterwards who they’d vote for with them not being aware of who the candidates are that are speaking or just seeing their physical body. So it’s a research tool; it has the capacity for a research tool. But not just in so far as biases and from an audience perspective, but also as performers. Accurately embodying speech and vocal patterns can be very, very educational for the performer discovering those patterns – the patterns of conversation, the patterns of speech, but also the break of those patterns. And when you’re physically embodying that, it’s all well and good to sort of watch it on screen and go, oh there was a pause there, but when you physically embody that pause it really jumps out to you… and so much else does. So it’s a great research tool for an in-depth analysis on you know political speech, any sort of speech and then of course the opportunity to empower voices that haven’t been empowered. And of course you know you look at the work of Anna Deavere Smith who you know is part of the same school of verbatim performance, she goes in great detail about empowering voices challenging the primacy of the Queen’s English on stage and you know the African-American dialect, Korean dialect – why can’t we bring those forward as well… uh that’s yeah.

How do you intend to adapt or use verbatim theatre in an Indigenous context?

So in Indigenising, decolonizing whatever term you’ll use for the concept looking at this process, a lot of the work’s done in the context of working with Joe because he already actively thinks about a lot of the things we need to think about. So parts of the process I’m looking at are for example when we go into the stage where we learn the lines when we were working with Joe, generally the first thing we asked the actors to focus on is purely on the cadence, purely on the rhythm and pattern of the speech itself we’re not really interested in trying to get that vocal quality or impersonation going and then Joe would layer that work deeper and deeper building up on vocal quality etc etc to reach a point of an appropriate presentation. So for me that calls back to and makes connections to some of the practices that oral traditions uses so for example a chant chanting is very common amongst you know Indigenous peoples who use oral traditions as a means of you know story and memory and effectively… But that’s what effectively what we’re doing when we’re doing that first layer of line learning is we’re doing a chant and we’re chanting along with this person’s voice which also can induce semiotic satiation, which also provides a distancing effect for the performer as well especially when you’re dealing with harsh and you know traumatic content and then in the next layer when we get to the voice quality I call that the song. Well that’s – I think that’s more of just a… it’s likely of a direct connection but also a connection to song being so important for oral traditions and introducing the musicality so that’s in that sort of practice there. The other factors that are important are considering you know I’m representing you know a living Aboriginal person and having someone portray them so part of the big question going into my projects is how do we do that appropriately and correctly. And first and foremost that’s led by the community and the person themselves, but then other things like you know generally speaking you would anonymize the voice that you’re portraying if you’re using this as a research tool, but that’s antithetical for me to the purpose of what we’re seeking to do, in that we need to be able to see and pay respect to the original speaker, so they have to be visible and present on stage as well.

Can you talk about your plan for the Kinchela Boys Home project?

Well this is, this is the specific… it’s also this is the practice so I’m a practice based researcher so the practice that I’m using is a sort of focal sort of test bed is creating a verbatim performance work based on the history the oral history from the survivors of the Kinchela Boys Home. So when my father was taken he was only a baby and went on a different path, but his two eldest brothers, Uncle Widdy and Uncle Barry, they were taken to the Kinchela Boys Home so this is a direct family history for me. So it’s very appropriate and very important for me now: at the Kinchela Boys Home they were referred to by number not by name, they were victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse and of course every problem was solved with violence. They were made to fight each other, box each other so you can imagine what type of adult emerges from a place like that and then you think about and connected to the stereotype of what our black men are like, it makes a lot more sense. So I’m approaching this again as for me it’s a revitalization of my own oral tradition: this is my family history so it’s the most appropriate way to share this story, share these knowledge is human to human, spirit to spirit, heart to heart and that’s why theatre is I feel more superior and appropriate a methodology or a practice to apply to an Indigenous setting than something like say video or film, because the other aspect that’s really important and of the big five Rs that people hear about, responsibility is a big one. And that’s the responsibility for what happens to the text afterwards because we’ve been victims of violence in the archive all along – you know the letter my grandmother signed saying that she can’t care for her children so please take them away… I don’t think she could read. But that’s put in the archive as a justification for colonial violence. So we’re hyper aware of the damage that they can that can cause so I’m hyper aware of the responsibility I have to hold and protect these spoken words these Uncles and survivors going forward potentially generations in the future. So part of that process also involves one documenting and understanding this process so that in future generations high schools and university students can themselves engage with the text in a deep way going through a process of deep listening that I’m articulating as part of this process – walkabout way which is effectively heuristic investigation, taking care of their safety of course safety and care but then that way the students will be able to deeply embody it, respect it and there’ll be conditions and law that comes along with the rights of the play to ensure that we, that the Kinchela Boys Home maintains control maintains that authority and that it doesn’t become some dissected, it’s it’s not some piece for deconstruction it’s not just a play; it’s ceremony and it’s business, but it also provides this great opportunity for non-Indigenous people to engage in these sort of practices as well.

What is your vision for how this practice could be applied in an education context?

So the object like the objective and the result of the development process which is where my research practice is occurring is that we’re developing what you would call we refer to as an ethno-drama, which is a script based on… a precisely transcribed script based on the spoken words of the Uncles survivors themselves, community members, family members and some of the white voices that’s around us. So once we have that script developed ready to go and we also have an understanding of the limits of the performance that the Uncles would be comfortable with because we become… it can be very uncomfortable for people when a non-Indigenous person portrays in a very tight verbatim way the speech patterns of an Aboriginal person, so we won’t be going that far but where we find that limit and that line that’s going to be decided by the Uncles. And all of those conditions, all of that thinking, all of that process also then goes into an accompanying educational guide so it’s an educational and directorial guide that will come with the rights to the play and they’re expected to be adhered to, but what that offers and collectively it offers a resource for educators to engage in a really challenging part of our history here in Australia, but with non-Indigenous students. Okay, by doing this process with the uncles we’re also creating permission for you know 20 years’ time a 15 year old white girl at a private school in Melbourne can sit in the process of deep listening with my Uncle Widdy and speak his words as he spoke them to the original performer and enter into the deep empathetic relation that happens when you embody somebody, like any performer knows, if you’ve played a character that character tends to stick with you.

What kind of ethical structures and protocols are you using in the research process with the community?

Well the advantages is that we’re in a unique space working with the Kinchela Boys Home uncles because they started their healing journey close to 20 years ago already and have had a lot of opportunity to sit and to talk, so it’s a little bit more safer where say somewhere like say Cootamundra Girls Home who have just sort of only more recently begun going through this process. I would never go into that space and do this sort of work. That’s just not appropriate – there’s too much healing to be done, but because the Kinchela Boys Home has that infrastructure there, we can do this in a more safer way. Additionally speaking all staff members have mental health first aid training; whenever we had these gatherings we have a nurse on site at all times so the Boys Home itself already has that infrastructure to support the Uncles and support them in safety and that infrastructure then also extends the performers because we really do need to think about the care for the performers participating that they’ll be engaging with this story in a deep way for the first time. So parts of the methodology that are layered in to help support the research because one point I argue until the cows come home, is that we talk about Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing – those three things are a continuum – philosophy and practice both merge into one. So throughout the process there’s integrated both safety nets but also research tools so the choice of ensemble for example was I think of it as a relational and positional ensemble; each ensemble member was chosen as they represent a certain positioning in a certain lens on the process and so they themselves will become co-investigators and offer insight onto some of the considerations and challenges that future teachers or educators or directors may face when working with different parts of the community whether it’s a refugee migrant community, young man, young woman, trans person… and that becomes a positional research methodology that I based off the work of Sean Wilson. So Sean Wilson’s work researches ceremony is sort of fundamental to my approach in indigenising and/or decolonising the process so everything becomes integrated. So the positional ensembles there, the use of the chant and the use of… The chant again creates a distancing effect – I’ve practiced this myself with example texts and artifacts both from family members who I’m connected with but also people like say Lang Hancock talking about doping the water supply so that half castes breed themselves out… Very, very challenging piece of text to work but as you’re going through the chant that meaning that in fact sort of just fades away and disconnects and all you’re left with is just what’s being spoken, what sounds are being made, when do speech patterns break. So there’s a distancing mechanic there that allows and facilitates a little bit more safety in that process for the performers themselves. As well as all the usual things – active debriefing, etc etc. The other factor in the methodology that I think is really important when working with community is that I’ve been, I made my intentions known I was going to create a play with the Uncles probably close to six or seven years ago. And in that time I just would go to every event that was happening just to sit with everyone, just to be with everyone because even though I’m family I still need to do that work building that relationship that every researcher has to do in an Indigenous community. The other thing I did was I created a mini version of the play that I’m going to create, and I put that on in the theatre up there in Kempsey with staff members being the speakers. And the reason I did that is because I have a real problem with the ethics of artists particularly say even in the theatre making crowd, wanting to go into a community make a theatre piece with the community, but the community has no context of what theatre is, what the art form is. They’re not necessarily familiar with it; you need to make that familiarity and the other thing that’s layered in there is part of the process as we work in devising is we’re also going to be educating the uncles and the survivors about what theatre is and how they make it, so that I can absolutely maximize the agency that the survivors have within the creative process or genuinely becomes their work and I think, I argue that’s the only appropriate way. I know capitalism doesn’t always allow us to spend the amount of time that it takes, but that’s what I guess I’m here to argue for yeah.

Thinking broadly about current Australian Indigenous research, what do you see as some of the most exciting work underway?

Yeah so I guess it sort of it comes back to Wilson, and Wilson has these wonderful, he has the Indigenous stages of Indigenous research. Coming from when we were objects of study through an assimilationist phase where Indigenous researchers in the academy would just try to fit in and do that that’s where a lot of our old fellas are now. That work in primarily in education in the academy, but then always then aren’t going on and leading towards decolonization and articulating our own Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies. That’s what really excites me is looking at who people who are asking the question of, who is an Indigenous researcher? How are we how do we conduct ourselves as Indigenous researchers and particularly I’m fascinated and excited with people that are working and putting that into practice because textuality is not something that our researchers ever used before or ever needed, granted that’s what we use today. But I’ve seen and I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve made mistakes myself you know back when I was doing Honours in that you can read all these wonderful information about how to work in Indigenous communities, how to research appropriately is the guidelines. That’s great and then have no sense of how to actually apply it in practicality. You know, the simple functional requirements of you know, get a lap mic instead of having all your sound equipment because that influences the yarn that influences the agency… So yeah I’m most I’m what I’m excited about is yeah more and more black fellas really having the opportunity to speak in their voice in dissertations in research having in the capacity to challenge aspects of the academy as well because in a way textuality is also a gatekeeping system. You know there are people out there who are beautifully intelligent – there are elders who could tell you what would happen to an entire landscape if you removed one insect, but they’ll never ride an essay. And for so long we’ve been diminishing that knowledge because it doesn’t come with this sort of textual credential which I kind of find it hilarious now with Chat GPT coming out everyone panicking that people are going to be, we might have to do oral examinations again. It’s like, good because that’s more of a test of knowledge than sending you away to really construct and craft your argument rather than just being able to speak to it. So insofar as the academy goes, like I said some people like Wilson, you know I rave about you know obviously Linda Tuhiwai Smith, everyone that’s working in decolonizing and challenging the primacy of the Western system, the primacy of structuralism post-structuralism, but that’s why I really like [Shawn] Wilson’s work above all because he goes about saying, look here is our… here’s our relational epistemology: as long as you have that philosophical framework underneath and it’s underneath all of your practice whether it’s research, artistic… doesn’t matter, if you’re holding that philosophical framework then it doesn’t matter what methodology you choose because it’ll either be in alignment with that; in harmony with that or it won’t be and then you won’t use it. As opposed to going into deep dives and methodologies and trying to pull out those underlying belief structures, just take this philosophy this basic philosophical framework that you know I’m articulating through you know the framing of the Ancestor, and then look at whatever methodologies around you and choose what you want to use choose what you want to work. I mean I like to always say, you know Pemulwuy used a gun. You know, he didn’t turn around and look at it and say well I won’t do that, that’s not appropriate. But you use whatever tools are available to you that supports and serves your work and if you’re holding that philosophy then that’s also going to be supporting and serving the Indigenous research agenda of the particular community that you’re working with as well because it’s all encoded and built into those philosophies.

How do you think these developments will affect Australian society going forward?

Well, we’re empowering voices in the Academy that weren’t. So that can only serve as a good thing, but also really understanding the responsibility and the potential for violence in the archive because you know, one beautifully well-intentioned researcher might have gone to the Top End say and done a wonderful paper around you know the concerns we face with alcohol abuse but then that paper that gets taken up by a politician and they start an intervention. So it’s really that awareness of the responsibility we have because when we have an oral tradition we always have that context, we all have says the teacher that gives us that knowledge, and that knowledge is gate-kept by the elders to the point where the young person is ready to receive it. But when you don’t have text and someone’s sitting down to you to share knowledge then that becomes a place of reverence. You really understand why we did do deep listening because it’s so important to hold that because we had no other way to hold it. But because it comes with that context it means that it’s always going to be safe because there’s a person to give the context around the knowledge. But with text it can be decontextualised left and right – that’s something I really hope that the work that’s happening will shift our considerations around that a little bit. And my goal – like my overarching goal for me going forward – is I want to indigenise everyone because the planet’s dying and we’re all Indigenous to somewhere on it right but if we don’t start adopting these underlying philosophical frameworks that result in sustainability, that result in thinking about ‘we’ not ‘I’, but understanding that I is part of we, if we don’t start to adopt that in both our social structures but also our economic structures, if we don’t start to move back towards more for a more organic natural framework of living… well I mean the planet will be fine but we won’t.