A chat with Caroline Martin about Yirramboi’s 2021 return

With its name meaning ‘tomorrow’ in the shared local languages of the Boonwurrung and Woiwurrung peoples, Yirramboi is Australia’s first and only First Nations arts festival both facilitated by and showcasing an impressive array of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander talents.

The festival recently announced their return in 2021, which will feature a series of commissioned works showcasing a variety of artistic disciplines including theatre, cabaret, and circus. Taking place at the start of May, Yirramboi’s program is comprised of a plethora of events such as dance, music, family entertainment, exhibitions, markets, fashion parades, and symposiums.

Caroline Martin | Photo by Steven Rhall

Caroline Martin is the current Creative Director for Yirramboi. She is a Boonwurrung and Wemba Wemba woman, a proud Koorie Victorian, and direct descendant of the Briggs and Taylor families. Prior to leading the festival, she managed Koorie involvement and engagement in the development of the First Peoples exhibition in the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at the Melbourne Museum, one which garnered both national and international acclaim for best practice in community engagement. Caroline also founded Yalukit Marnang, a First Peoples owned and operated Cultural Strengthening consultancy.

Can you tell me a bit about the Yirramboi 2021 program?

There are the 5 commissions, but we would be looking after over 300 plus creatives across the whole Festival, probably more. Our program has over 200 things happening! Like, on the first Saturday of the festival we do a citywide blackout, where we take over every street, every single footpath. and we have over 80 artists doing fashion parades in laneways and street art happening… We pretty much take over the whole city. There’s something for absolutely everyone. we’re doing a whole children’s program this year, lots of children’s activities. it’s very accessible to families. And saying “oh, there’s two cabarets, there’s two theatres…” does not even begin to show how different all of those [commissions] are. Even to actually give them the label of ‘cabaret’, ‘theatre show’, or ‘circus’ doesn’t do them justice. The theatres are totally different to each other. The two cabarets, one’s about Northland Secondary College being shut down, a protest; the other is a musical of one woman’s experience of being a Torres Strait Islander. Each of the commissions get their own producers, and my producer will work with them, it’s a co-produced production. I’ll flick in and out all the time, but at the end of the day it’s what they want to put forward. We’re trusting them to put forward what they actually said they would.

Opening of the 2019 YIRRAMBOI Festival | Photo by Tiffany Garvie

It’s both surprising and amazing that Yirramboi is the only First Nations lead festival in the country. How does it feel to be a part of such an exciting and groundbreaking initiative, giving space for First Nations artists?

Totally. And you know, we couldn’t even have this festival if it weren’t for the partners. We do a lot of work in the lead up to establish really good partnerships with organisations like Melbourne Theatre Company, Chunky Move, ACCA, and The State Library. If we didn’t have those partners, there probably wouldn’t be a festival because we’d only be getting the audiences who would come to anything first nations… Having the opportunity to showcase product or programs within these mainstream centres and organisations enables a different audience to see us. And it actually allows us to be in places that we haven’t readily been invited to. The partnerships are fantastic, and we couldn’t do it without them… we have 25 partners, and we curate what we want in each of those places, they trust us, and they make it happen.

Is there a way for people to get involved with the festival?

Absolutely! We do a big call out towards the end of the year for volunteers. We have a huge volunteer program, we get tons. And they get to see everything too, behind the scenes. That’s what we need. Financially, everything we do is reliant on grants, it’s really hard to get the funding, but also those partner organisations are what assist us. But the volunteer program is for anyone and anyone who wants to get involved and be a part of it. We’re very open to that.

Why should people come to Yirramboi next May?

One of the reasons that I love this festival so much is because, yes, you can just go to a mainstream festival and see a bit of First Nations work, or go to a gallery and see a First Nations exhibition… But in isolation from what’s going on in the community, it’s perverse. What this festival says is “we’re actually not what you think we are, we don’t meet the stereotypes, open your eyes.” What we’re trying to do is showcase our cultures. We know these are our cultures, we are so incredibly proud of cultures, and this gives us an opportunity to showcase our pride, but it’s also our hope that everyone that gets to see the gift of everything we are giving is to understand their history. Whilst it’s ours, it’s also everyone’s. I really encourage people to come, people who really want to engage in this festival.

For more information on the festival, visit the Yirramboi website.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator, and is the current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of AussieTheatre.com. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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