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'Compelling force' Ursula Yovich inaugurates film, tv, theatre-focussed NAIDOC Week Lecture

Ursula Yovich at lectern at NIDA

In a NAIDOC Week premiere, singer, songwriter, actor and playwright Ursula Yovich delivered a special address for the film, tv and theatre industry at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).

Widely lauded for her work as an actor, playwright, singer and songwriter, Ursula grew up in Darwin and Maningrida. Her work in Barbara and the Camp Dogs, which she co-wrote with Alana Valentine and starred in, was described as ‘[ripping] open a chasm of pain’, ’plumbing gut-wrenching truths’ and ‘compelling empathy’ (Canberra Times).

Her address inaugurated the new NAIDOC Week Lecture series, specifically targeting creative practitioners in the film, tv and theatre industries. It is planned to be at least a decade-long commitment from NIDA, with a new, original commissioned lecture presented by a First Nations leader in the arts and culture sector every year.

Dalara Williams, Ursula Yovich, Ariel Long
(L–R) Inclusion Liaison Officer and 2017 Acting alumna Dalara Williams, Ursula Yovich and second-year Acting student Ariel Long at NAIDOC Week morning tea for Indigenous staff and students.

‘Inclusivity shouldn’t be something we have to think hard about,’ Ursula told the audience. ‘We shouldn’t be thinking about quotas or ticking boxes because that’s seen to be doing the right thing – we should be thinking in stories and connections.'

NIDA CEO Liz Hughes says, ‘I’m incredibly excited about launching this series. We really want to highlight important First Nations voices in the Australian cultural sector and ensure that they are heard loudly.

‘I’m delighted that Ursula Yovich, an incredible artist, is the inaugural speaker of the NAIDOC Week Lecture Series at NIDA. Across her body of work, it is immediately apparent what an important voice she is.

‘Her authority, her integrity, her knowledge and her magnetic presence make her an extraordinarily compelling force – whether on stage, screen, through her writing, or any other medium.

‘The way she engages with performance and connects with an audience is immediate, I encourage everyone to hear her deliver the very first NAIDOC Week Lecture.’

NIDA CEO Liz Hughes, Ursula Yovich, Umina Shah-Munro
(L–R) CEO Liz Hughes, Ursula Yovich and second-year Acting student Umina Shah-Munro at NAIDOC Week morning tea for Indigenous staff and students.

In her lecture, Ursula demonstrated the value of diversity and inclusion through two powerful, personal stories – one from her childhood, and one from her present.

Growing up, she told the audience how she would wake up at 6am on weekends to watch ABC’s music video program, Rage. Despite her deep love of music, Ursula said, ‘I never felt that I could become a singer because that career path was not for people like me – definitely not for a small-town Aboriginal girl.

‘I was from the kind of people that the news depicted as criminals, alcoholics, down-and-out long grasses that needed to be removed from the city because they were an eyesore.’

One morning, the young Ursula switched Rage on and saw Whitney Houston for the first time. She describes the colossal impact this had on her and what she thought was possible in her life.

‘I just came from a café in Marrickville called the Vesbar. My agent Naomi met me there. I love going to this café, it’s just up the road from my place. I go there in my pyjamas sometimes. It’s owned by a first-generation Vietnamese man by the name of Van. He grew up in Cabramatta. He’s a real larrikin. A lot of people are drawn to this café because the staff, and Van, are warm and friendly, and they make you feel like you’re part of the family.

Dr Sandra Phillips and Ursula Yovich
Ursula Yovich at lectern for inaugural NAIDOC Week Lecture Series at NIDA; NIDA Board Member Dr Sandra Phillips speaking from Queensland on screen behind.

‘Now there’s this one man in particular that everyone kind of developed a soft spot for. He was a customer. His name was Gary. Gary lived in a shelter in the neighbourhood. He was homeless. He was homeless probably because he had a disability. He was always cheerful, and he’d come in most days and give everyone a ‘fist pump’, then he’d sit down at a table, usually the one near the door so he could watch the world, and he’d have his usual coffee and banana bread.

‘We’d ask him, “How are you Gary? How’s your day going? What are you doing for the rest of the day?”
‘And he’d answer, in his own way – mumbling, nodding, smiling, giving a thumbs up.

‘Even though Gary was homeless and lived in a shelter, he always paid for his coffee and banana bread. It wasn’t always the correct amount but Van and the staff didn’t worry about that because he always made the effort to make any kind of payment, even if it was only two bucks.

‘Last week I was thinking of Gary because I hadn’t seen him in a while. I sat down at the Vesbar and Van came out and had a little chat, which he usually does if it’s not too busy. I asked how he was and he said to me, “Aw, I’m not too good today.”

‘He said Gary passed away a couple of days before. He had moved to another shelter during Covid, a shelter that could support him and his cancer treatments... I felt this really deep sadness come over me. I thought, I’m never going to see that cheery soul again. I’m never going to have a fist pump and his little mumbled chats and his banana bread face, and he had this funny lopsided grin.

NAIDOC Week tea
(L–R) CEO Liz Hughes, first-year Properties and Objects student Madison Williams, Inclusion Liaison Officer and 2017 Acting alumna Dalara Williams, Ursula Yovich and second-year Acting student Ariel Long at NAIDOC Week morning tea for Indigenous staff and students.

‘When we include all people we get a rich tapestry of what our culture is. We get the finer details. And most importantly, we get to feel deeply. But when we continue to churn out a dysmorphic view of our world in the arts, this abnormal and monochromatic view of our society, we miss out on meeting our Garys of the world, and we don’t get to hear his story.

‘We have a long way to go, but we are on that path. Even though we’re moving at a snail’s pace. We have wonderful stories out there that reflect other parts of our community as a whole. Top End WeddingMystery RoadGods of Wheat Street… bit of shameless plugging there. It was actually really hard to find these shows. Family Law, that’s one of my favourites. Fresh off the Boat. But that’s not enough. We need to see more of these diverse stories.

‘So how do we challenge the status quo? Well, it starts in the schools, it starts in the way we teach, it starts in the way we learn. It starts here, at NIDA. It’s about creating safe spaces, and a place where our students and teachers can feel comfortable enough to tell their stories and not be judged.

At the end of her address, Ursula told NIDA students and the wider industry practitioners: ‘Your role today, from today onwards, working in theatre, film, the arts, is that you must reflect the current context in which you live and reside in. Tap into that potential. The world is big. Create a platform for those worlds.’

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