In Progress

One of the pioneers of Indigenous presence on screen, Rhoda Roberts has spent her life breaking barriers for First Nations artists. But with her new job, she may finally find some time for her own art. By Kate Holden.

Rhoda Roberts

The Indigenous arts trailblazer’s workplace.
Credit: Rhoda Roberts

Rhoda Roberts AO is a legend of television and theatre, as well as an Indigenous pioneer in screen media. She was the inaugural First Nations host of a current affairs show, Vox Populi, on SBS in 1990, and later worked across the ABC, radio and commercial television. She was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 2016 and received a Sue Natrass Award at the Helpmanns for outstanding achievement in live performance the following year.

A proud Widjabul Wiyebal woman from the Bundjalung territories, she co-founded the Aboriginal Nation Theatre Trust, the first national Aboriginal theatre company. Her starry career includes directorships of the Garma Festival and the Boomerang Festival. She founded the Festival of Dreaming and was the creative director of the Awakening segment of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games opening ceremony, which featured Indigenous artworks projected across the sails of the Sydney Opera House. Roberts is currently the curator of Parrtjima – A Festival in Light in Mparntwe (Alice Springs).

She’s an actor, broadcaster, producer, writer, arts adviser and international events director, and recently moved on from her job as head of First Nations programming for the Sydney Opera House. Just before she spoke to The Saturday Paper, Roberts was announced as associate artist with the Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA), based in her home town of Lismore, New South Wales. She now lives in Yamba with her family.

Rhoda, it’s really nice of you to make time. I believe you’ve just got a new job?

Yes, I’ve just started, it’s part-time. I’m looking forward to it, it’s very exciting. I’m freelancing these days just to get that life balance a bit more. NORPA is in Lismore, so I’m still commuting, but at least I don’t have to commute to Sydney every week now. You know, I came back home 20-odd years ago and was just not ever able to find employment in this region. So it’s just wonderful to have some work here.

Tell me about where you work.

We have a hundred acres and it was just a shack but the roof was so high, I said, “We could have a loft up there.” And literally the next day my husband had built a loft. That’s become my office. I do a lot of work from home, but it’s important to have the face-to-face, especially for the Aboriginal community.

Yes, I think you’ve just stepped out of a meeting … I don’t mean to stickybeak, but can you tell me what you’re working on today?

Today I’m very blessed. I sit on a board called Screenworks. It started off as regional, but now it’s gone national and global and they’re having their annual conference of producers, directors and so forth, talking about the film industry and how we go forward. And I’ve just had a wonderful discussion with Penny Smallacombe from Screen Australia, so that was great, talking through the possibilities…

Our film industry is doing extraordinarily well at the moment. For five years Marvel films will be made in Australia, and so Taika [Waititi], who’s the director, and Chris Hemsworth, they wanted to take on what we’ve been suggesting about observance and protocol. So they did a wonderful sort of what I call “Call to Country” through phone calls – they wanted to have a Welcome – so we were able to have a call-and-response with a local Aboriginal dance group and a Maori dance group who are now based in Australia. So that was really significant and it just gave another presence for that cast and crew and made them feel really special. So it’s wonderful that now filmmakers are looking at those opportunities.

You’ve had such a storied career, in so many fields, with – I’m sure – many ups and downs. How do you field blockages, unexpected occurrences, disappointments? You’re known for your resilience, so I imagine you know yourself pretty well?

Years ago, my great-grandfather, when he saw the change on Country in Lismore, as a traditional man, he wrote a thing he called the Bundjalung Three-Point Plan because he could see the writing on the wall, the shifts and changes where language and cultural practice were outlawed. His Three-Point Plan was: “Have pride in your race and colour. Always have pride in culture and language. And consider the new relationship with the new people. Because it is about tomorrow.”

So I always say that, when I work on Country, and even if it’s just a meeting, I try to keep that Three-Point Plan in my mind. I think one of the biggest things culturally, in the old ways, when they’d travel on someone’s Country they’d have all these gifts and maybe they’d have a song, or a dance, or a carving, or something, to show they appreciate that they’re visiting. I try to incorporate that, too ... It’s quite symbolic but it’s ensuring we have a different relationship with that local council, or that venue, or that artist. And you know what? People then feel special. Because we’ve made just that little symbolic gesture.

Sometimes [non-Indigenous] people can be a bit defensive because it’s a cultural matter, but if you show them they’re just as important, we need them as our allies, as well as us, to work and collaborate together, and if you’ve symbolically shown them that and embraced them culturally, there’s nothing to fear then.

It must be very empowering, to carry a whole operating system of practice and relationship, when you’re doing complex work. And you start a lot of new things. Are you someone who has doubts, or do you leap forward confidently?

Oh, gosh. I have that – probably like a lot of women – I walk into the [Sydney] Opera House and think, one day they’re going to wake up and find out I’m an impostor. [Laughs] Of course, I always have doubts. You know, culturally, had I lived back in the day, I would have gone through my initiation: my knowledge and my deeper knowledge as I got older and older and got more depth of understanding of the story of Country. I will always be a girl because I never went through that procession. And you’re always, always learning. There are no wrong questions. If I don’t know something, there’s nothing wrong with asking.

What are you going to be doing today, after this conversation?

I’m shortly having a meeting with Parrtjima, our reference group meeting. We’ve been meeting in advance of the Light Festival in Alice Springs in a few weeks. We’re fortunate that we have this reference group, they’re the cultural guides. It’s wonderful, it’s working really well.

And what of your creative impulses? How much do you get to express what’s preoccupying you?

I’m working on that now! I’m a weaver and an actor, and I haven’t been able to do those things a lot because of the workload that I’ve had. I’m working on three films at the moment, I’m writing a new stage show: things like that, so I really don’t have the time. Now [with the new NORPA job] I will have that time, and I have to make sure I give myself that time, to do the research. It’s quite exciting to have that luxury. But we’ve all got to pay the rent.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 10, 2021 as "Rhoda Roberts".

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Kate Holden is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days. She writes the In Progress column for The Saturday Paper.