Cultural events and festivals are typically about bringing people together. However, Origins – Festival of First Nations takes it a step further; bringing people who have generally been sidelined by modern discourse back into the limelight.

The term ‘First Nations’ is used by the festival’s Artistic Director, Michael Walling, when referring to the indigenous peoples at the heart of the festival. Inspired by a play which Walling directed in 2004 called Bullie’s House, Origins is heavily influenced by indigenous cultures. Walling recollects: “It was the first time we worked with what we call a ‘First Nations’ culture.” After going through the complexities of getting Aboriginal performers involved in the play, Walling remained fascinated by the Aboriginal people. He still equates the success of the show to the “huge hunger in this country for those kinds of cultures and what they can teach us.”

Through theatre, comedy, film, art, music and workshops, Origins aims to spread the message that we have much to learn from indigenous cultures. The festival specifically works with the Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maori, American and Canadian Native Americans, and closer to home, the Gaelic-speaking Scots. “We thought it was important not just to think about ‘exotic’, long-distance indigenous people,” Walling explains, “Because actually there are indigenous people in this country, too. We tend to forget because the colonisation was so long ago, but actually it’s true everywhere.”

And what is the significance of having a festival to celebrate ‘First Nations’? Walling reasons that it is of utmost importance. After the success of Bullie’s House, he recalls: “I became more and more aware that there was a lot going wrong in London and the Western world; particularly the financial collapse in 2008”. It was this contemplation of the environment, family and community difficulties in the West that led Walling to realise that other cultures have more to offer than just novelty. There was also a huge wealth of enlightening concepts to be found. “We need to learn from people who do things a little differently from us, and we need to stop pretending we’ve got all the answer to the world’s problems,” Walling explains, emphasising his appreciation for “cultures which are much more about community, respect for land, living in a continuity, being aware of your past and therefore being aware of your future.”

The two theatre pieces being performed as part of the festival are both solo performances, probably owing to the fact that the art of story-telling is a common tradition amongst these cultures. One is the biographical play Little Black Bastard, by Noel Tovey. “[Tovey] has had an extraordinary life story,” says Walling. “When he was growing up, the racism against Aborigines in Australia was beyond belief.” There is also a Native American stand up comic, who began his performance at the previous Origins Festival with the line, “and you thought you had an immigration problem!” “It’s all to do with reversing viewpoints,” Walling chuckles.

Perhaps it says something of the propensity of young people to welcome change that the majority of the audience for the festival tends to be quite young. Walling raises the point that it could be the social engagement element to the events that draws youth to it. “It’s quite often about spirituality, what it feels like to be alive right now,” explains Walling, “and that does tend to appeal to a younger demographic.” The artists who are contributing to the festival are “just excited that people are interested.”

Walling appreciates that London maintains a status as the world centre for theatre, which he describes as being “almost justified”. However, he believes theatre can do a lot more to repair faults in society: “There’s an act of reparation that has to be done. So much destruction was reaped on these lands and these people, and they have not recovered from it.” He believes that we can do something to honour them by creating a space where people can start talking to each other as equals. “Theatre can do that,” he concludes. “Economics and politics can’t, because you don’t meet as equals in those situations. But in culture you do. We’re trying to create a space where people can actually know each other.”

Origins – Festival of First Nations 2011 runs at Rich Mix and other venues across London from 28 June – 9 July. Tickets for all events are available at Rich Mix.

Image: Haka Workshop.