INTERVIEW: Shakara Walley from Songbird

20150312-_O0A8458We've got Shakara Walley's mum to thank for the new play, Songbird, that's opening at the Blue Room this week.

Your see, Shakara, the play's writer and producer, was inspired to write it after acting in John Harding's acclaimed play Up the Road as part of her Aboriginal Theatre course at WAAPA - she says the story, a moving tale of family and life set in the remote Aboriginal community of Flat Creek, stuck with her long after they finished their run, and she was curious to explore what happens when one person wants to reconcile, but another won't have a bar of it. The thing is, though, Shakara grew up wanting to be a dancer, and she laughs a little sheepishly as she tells me that her mother actually enrolled her in the acting course that would lead to her writing this play.

"I had finished school and I was working, and my mum enrolled me in Ab Theatre, and I went along," she says. "I fell in love with acting after the course. It was a challenge for me, and I love a challenge. If I can’t do something I need to know how to do it. I auditioned for Yirra Yaakin when I finished, and the rest is history!"

Yirra Yaakin, the Aboriginal performing arts organisation where Shakara now works as an assistant producer, is responsible for some of the world-class performing arts coming out of our state, and its Next Step program nurtures the next crop of Aboriginal theatre-makers. Shakara and Songbird's director, Ian Wilkes, are both participants in the course, which provides mentoring, capacity-building and professional development.

"I think Yirra Yaakin is quite vital," Shakara says thoughtfully when I ask her about the company's significance to her. "When I started as an up-and-coming artist, Yirra Yaakin were kind of my lifeline. They helped me develop in my different skills, and they're still helping me develop."

After performing with the company as an actor, Shakara took the opportunity last year to try her hand at producing, working as the director and producer on Confessions of a Pyromaniac. She says she wanted to produce her own work, and laughs as she says she thought it would be interesting.

"I'm quite a curious person!" she says. "I wanted to know what it would be like on the other side. A lot of my mates have these independent shows they do, and I was interested in how they got them up and running. Pyro gave me the opportunity, and all of a sudden I'm getting a kick out of writing contacts, drawing up budgets - I would never have thought that in a million years!"

True to her word, Shakara told me that my call had slipped her mind, because she was so engrossed in the contract she was writing for Yirra Yaakin. I don't question her enthusiasm for a second when she proclaims, "I love my job!"

She adds that it's a good think that she likes problem-solving, because in the arts industry, you have to prepare for everything that could go wrong. So, I knock on wood, and ask her how Songbird's progressing.

"Things are going really well!" she says. She admits that writing the play - her first full-length piece - was challenging, but hiring Chris Isaacs as a writing mentor proved invaluable. "Basically, he sat me down in a room and made me write!" she tells me with a laugh, when I ask how he helped. The play tells the story of estranged friends Brooke and Leon, who uncover what happened on the night Leon's best friend - Brooke's brother - dies. I ask if the play's themes of reconciliation and estrangement were deliberate, given its premiere in NAIDOC Week, and Shakara pauses.

"When I was writing play I didn’t have reconciliation in mind," she says slowly. "I just kind of wrote and let the story take me where it wanted to go. I based it more on the relationship between two or three people and what it means to them. Reconciliation, forgiveness, hope - they're all ongoing themes throughout the play."

I suggest that you'd hope the play would be revived after the Blue Room NAIDOC Week season anyway, and Shakara agrees. "Hopefully Songbird can have a life after the Blue Room," she says.

From hearing her talk, I hope so too. But don't count on that - Songbird opens at the Blue Room tomorrow and runs until July 18, and you'd hate to miss out. Tickets from the Blue Room website.

By Sophie Raynor