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What to SEE: The Bleeding Tree

24 April 2023

With its all-First Nations cast, Ian Michael’s production of Angus Cerini’s revenge thriller The Bleeding Tree was a smash hit at The Blue Room last year. If you missed out, don’t worry – you can catch it at the State Theatre this month.

It’s hard to believe that the 2022 season of The Bleeding Tree was Wilman Noongar man Ian Michael’s directorial debut. The Blue Room Theatre production won four Performing Arts WA Awards, including the award for Outstanding Direction of an Independent Production in the theatre category for Michael himself.

The Bleeding Tree is a murder story with a difference – as Seesaw Magazine’s David Zampatti noted in his 2022 review, there’s no mystery to the backstory of domestic violence against women. In Michael’s production, with its First Nations cast, it’s as much a story about the horror of colonial violence, one that Zampatti described as “passionate, poetic and immensely powerful.”

So it’s no surprise that Michael’s production of Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree – an award-winning play in its own right – was selected by Black Swan State Theatre Company to be presented at the State Theatre WA, as part of a collaboration with The Blue Room Theatre designed to provide opportunities for local, independent artists to access a mainstage. It’s this initiative that saw Scott McArdle’s Playthings (2021) and Liz Newell’s Toast (2022) presented at the State Theatre by Black Swan.

An established actor and writer who has worked with companies around Australia, Michael is no stranger to Black Swan and has performed with the company in City of Gold (2022, co-production with Sydney Theatre Company), Cloudstreet (2020), Our Town (2019) and Let the Right One In (2017). He also co-wrote York with Chris Isaacs, which BSSTC presented in 2021.

Ahead of Black Swan’s season of The Bleeding Tree, Barbara Hostalek caught up with Michael to learn more about the production and the road that brought him to this point in his career.

Ian Michael. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Barbara Hostalek: Ian, tell us a bit about your childhood and your pathway in to theatre.

Ian Michael: I was born on Larrakia Country in Darwin and spent my childhood and growing up on Noongar Boodjar in Bunbury and Collie.

From a young age I was interested in performing and had quite a big imagination. I was always writing stories and songs and forcing my siblings into putting on concerts in the lounge room and backyard.

When I got to high school, art subjects weren’t an option after the first or second year, so any thoughts of a career in the arts were now very distant. I finished school wanting to be a journalist and while chasing that, I met Aunty Lynette Narkle who pointed me in the direction of the Aboriginal Performance course at WAAPA (the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts). That was in 2008 and I never really looked back. I fell in love with theatre and performance fast and hard, and I probably decided at the end of that first week that this is what I wanted to do.

BH: You’ve had an extensive career already as an actor and writer, and made your debut as a director with The Bleeding Tree’s Blue Room season in 2021. What drew you to directing?

IM: I trained as an actor and even writing is something I kind of fell into, and directing in a way… it wasn’t something I ever saw for myself.

As an actor, I would be in rehearsal rooms and directors would ask if had any interest in directing and I always convinced myself it was something that I couldn’t do. But when I was making a play called HART with She Said Theatre in 2015, Rachael Maza asked me the question and something shifted. HART is a solo work [that I wrote with Seanna van Helten] and was the first time I had to think about myself not just as a performer in a room, but as one of the writers and theatre makers too.

I think from there it changed the way I thought about the world of a play, the dramaturgy of a script, the movement of a body in space. Everything I know as an actor has really informed my understanding of theatre making practice and processes as a writer and director.

Cast members Ebony McGuire, Karla Hart and Stephanie Somerville rehearsing for the 2023 season of ‘The Bleeding Tree’. Photo: Daniel J Grant

BH: Can you share some memorable creative moments from your theatre career so far?

IM: Besides getting to make The Bleeding Tree with this cast and creative team, I think making HART is a work that I’m very grateful for. At the time I didn’t feel there was a lot of representation or opportunity on stages or screen [for First Nations artists], and it was the first time I saw myself as a theatre maker. It opened up what storytelling and performing meant for me.

We got to tour HART for three and a half years, and I performed it over one hundred and fifty times. It was the show that I also got my first mainstage role from; after seeing it Clare Watson (then the artistic director of Black Swan) cast me in Let The Right One In.

Other moments that will stay with me are performing in City of Gold for Sydney Theatre Company and Black Swan, and being the assistant director on The Picture of Dorian Gray for Sydney Theatre Company – both have really shaped me creatively.

‘The Bleeding Tree’ gripped me instantly, I saw my sister, my mother, aunties and cousins in the three woman, and Angus’s immersive rhythms and poeticism wouldn’t let me go. 

BH: Who will the audience be meeting on stage in The Bleeding Tree?

IM: In the dead of a night, in an isolated Australian town, a gunshot rings out and the play opens on three women, with a man lying at their feet with a bullet hole in his neck. Mum and her daughters Ada and Ida have faced a life of violence and abuse by this man – their husband and father – and tonight they decide he’ll never do it again and are triggered into an act of revenge. It follows them over three days as they try to get rid of the body. Visitors come and go – leaving the women with advice and false condolences, far too late, and at the end they are left winning.

BH: What drew you to The Bleeding Tree?

IM: I first heard of The Bleeding Tree when it premiered at Griffin in 2015 and finally got my hands on a copy of the script a year later. It gripped me instantly, I saw my sister, my mother, aunties and cousins in the three woman, and Angus’s immersive rhythms and poeticism wouldn’t let me go. It was a play that seemed to follow me around and I couldn’t stop thinking about.

The revisioning of this production is one that I started thinking about in 2019 and after having a number of opportunities as the assistant director on various productions at Sydney Theatre Company and Black Swan, the directing bug really bit down. I knew that even as an emerging director I wanted to create and open space for First Nations people to play characters like the ones Angus has written and to fill the stories that maybe didn’t see us.

It’s a fearless and powerful work, all held together by Angus’ powerful words, poeticism, its dark humour, visceral imagery. It’s a story about truth, resilience love, and liberation; a play that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

The Bleeding Tree plays the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA, 29 April – 14 May 2023.

Pictured top: The 2021 cast of ‘The Bleeding Tree’, Karla Hart, Abbie-Lee Lewis and Ebony McGuire Photo: Tashi Hall

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Author —
Barbara Hostalek

Barbara Hostalek is an independent First Nations playwright proud to be living with Noongar Boodjar. She began writing plays at Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s Writers group in 2015. Her work has been produced by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company (Cracked), Black Swan Theatre Company (Unsung Heroes monologue series: Own Way) and Mudskipper Productions (Banned). Park fun play? Hands down, the sandpit.

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