A pure, white butcher bird soars through the air, startling a flock of chatty budgerigars, and tempting a couple of nervous wallabies from behind some rocks.
So begins How Languages Came to Be — an ambitious, large-scale puppet show, starring 50 Aboriginal children from the WA city of Kalgoorlie-Boulder.
(Books and Arts)
Thirteen-year-old Alkira Dane plays the butcher bird, manipulating a pair of giant feathered white wings as she moves across the stage.
“It opens the show, and wakes all the animals up for the day,” she said during rehearsals.
Students from Kalgoorlie-Boulder rehearse for a puppet show exploring the birth of language. (Supplied: Tjuma Pulka)
The show tells a language creation story — how Aboriginal people were given the gift of language from the birds.
“It’s part of what I think is really missing from our youth these days,” the show’s creative producer, Stephanie Beck, said.
“Especially myself, I don’t know my language very fluently. I don’t know a lot about my culture, and I think that’s something that should be changed, so it’s not lost.”
WA Kalgoorlie-Boulder student Lalirra Dane poses in costume as a baby emu. (ABC RN: Claire Nichols)
While the story of the show is positive, the project itself has tragic beginnings.
The creative team came up with the concept in the days after the death of an Aboriginal teenager, killed while riding a stolen motorbike in August last year.
The boy’s death, and the charging of a white man with his manslaughter, sparked an angry protest in the streets of Kalgoorlie, and brought the city’s underlying problems with racism, crime, and youth engagement to the fore.
“With the social unrest, we thought it was a good opportunity to fund a project in Kalgoorlie for a bit of community development,” Ms Beck said.
The project started with a “culture camp” — bringing a core group of students to the coastal town of Esperance for team-building and story-telling.
The students were encouraged to draw pictures and share ideas, sowing the seeds for what would eventually become a full-scale production.
Students went on a camp in Esperance to collaborate on the production of the show. (Supplied: Tjuma Pulka)
“We’ve come from a camp where we made little models of the puppets,” Alkira said.
“They were only a few centimetres in size, and for them to come out a few metres long and tall, it’s very cool.”
The opening night of How Languages Came to Be kicks off NAIDOC Week at the Goldfields Arts Centre in Kalgoorlie.
At rehearsal, the older students tried on their costumes, while the younger children — some as young as three — grabbed their budgerigar puppets and formed a line.
It was the first time the cast has rehearsed all together, and apart from a couple of missed cues, it was looking in good shape.
“I 100 per cent have to acknowledge the hours they’ve poured in to it. They’ve had school and training commitments as well,” Ms Beck said.
“Having this many people here still in the last week leading up to it is just really great evidence that this type of engagement works in community.”
The production gives Indigenous children a chance to celebrate their language and culture. (Supplied: Tjuma Pulka)
After the run was over, the children practised their bows, joining hands and grinning as Ms Beck and puppeteer Karen Hethey whooped and cheered.
Alkira got the last bow, raising her white wings in the air.
“I’m just so happy and excited for the show,” she said.