Nathan Maynard talks mutton birds and belly laughs ahead of his Sydney Festival premiere

Nathan Maynard’s first play, The Season, is making its world premiere next January as part of the Sydney Festival, and the playwright couldn’t be more excited. The ‘season’ of the title refers to the annual mutton-bird harvesting that takes place on remote Big Dog Island, in Tasmania’s Bass Strait. Maynard is a descendant of the chief of the Troowolway Clan of north-east Tasmania. I asked him about his writing and his own experiences with birding…

Tell us about your play, The Season

The Season is a show about a family of mutton-birders on Big Dog Island, which is located in Bass Strait, off Tasmania. It’s about culture and connection to country, but it’s also a universal story about the complexities of family and community.

Connection seems to be a key theme running through a number of shows in this year’s Sydney Festival – why does it resonate so much with Australian audiences?

Everybody feels that need to belong somewhere. As human beings, we all have that need to belong to some group or some place, especially for black fellas. That connection and feeling of belonging is really important to our people and the places we hold in our heart.

Our people have been mutton-birding since the beginning of time. The fellas that didn’t have mutton birds on their country would do a deal with the mutton-birders so they could access the birds. But all cultures evolve, and today, we still do it, but as part of the evolution, it’s become a more commercial enterprise. We used to trade with other mobs for goods, now we trade the birds with white people for money.

It’s set on Big Dog Island. What’s your connection to that place?

Our people are connected to many mutton-bird islands. Everyone has their own connection to a particular island. My old man talks a lot about Tree-Fall Island, for example. For me, it’s Big Dog Island.

I didn’t get to go mutton-birding until I was fifteen. I think that was because my Dad didn’t want me missing school! I’ve been going back every year since – I’ve probably only missed a couple of seasons. I do want to experience the other islands, but I just know Big Dog is my home.

What do you think pulls people back?

It’s in my blood. It’s a part of my DNA. I have a connection with my community when I’m there, a connection with my country, a connection with the birds.

These days I take my young son with me and that makes it even more special – that passing down of knowledge, passing down of culture.

Going back to the fifties and sixties, a lot of our fellas lived on the islands, before the Tasmanian assimilation policy took effect. A lot of the families would go to the islands for a couple of months and take their kids, babies in cots, dogs, cats – the whole lot would go. That part of it has been slowly lost, because everyone has commitments at home (jobs, kids, school). Back in those days, they used to close the Cape Baron school down for mutton-birding.

My son is eight, and I started taking him when he was six. It’s really important for me to expose my son to the island, to the culture, that mob that he’ll only see once a year when he goes birding.

Where did the idea for the Duncans and this story come from?

It’s a fictional name and it’s a fictional family. But all the characters are made up of my experiences and from all the yarns I’ve been told. I may have only got to go to ‘bird island’ when I was fifteen, but I knew everything about it before then. I’d heard that many stories from my family I knew exactly what to expect when I got there.

I didn’t want to offend anyone by giving the family in the story a real name. It is a comedy and insults are thrown around – I didn’t want to insult my community! But the whole show is made up of yarns that I know and I’ve experienced.

Have you been part of the rehearsal process?

Yes – it’s been amazing! As a first-time playwright, I’m learning so much! Being able to watch such a stellar cast, and what they bring to the floor, as well as Isaac Drandic (the director) – I think he’s a genius. I’ve got a half a notebook of notes that I’ve taken just from watching Isaac. Everything he does just turns to gold!

What message do you have for Sydney audiences?

You’ll enjoy it – you’ll have a good laugh and you’ll feel something too. Come along and get a perspective on Tasmanian Aboriginal culture and community from a black fella. You’ll hopefully learn something new, and your bellies will be sore from laughing.

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The Season is running from 10-15 January as part of the Sydney Festival. If you would like tickets, go here.

Photo credit Simon Pynt