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WAAPA a ‘safe space’ for Yirra Yaakin’s Artistic Director

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

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“ECU feels like my country town,” says Eva Grace Mullaley. “I go back to WAAPA often, it’s definitely my safe space.”

Eva, a Widi woman from the Yamatji Nation in the Midwest region of WA, has been working in the arts for nearly 20 years and is currently Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, the only Aboriginal theatre company in WA.

She first came to ECU’s Mount Lawley campus in 2003 after being accepted into the one-year Aboriginal Performance program under Course Coordinator Rick Brayford.

“The training was invaluable,” says Eva. “I learned so much about the industry. We did acting, dancing and singing and wrote our own theatre shows. But I was also interested in lighting and sound, so Rick let me see what goes on backstage for our end-of-year performance.”

Describing herself as “a little lost” before she was accepted into WAAPA, Eva says she is living proof that art saves lives.

“I truly believe it saved mine. I found my community and I haven’t looked back.”

Not looking back has involved a willingness to turn her hand to anything that was offered.

“I’ve done a lot of different roles and a lot of different gigs,” laughs Eva. “I’ve been an actor, stage manager, tour manager, dramaturg, director and producer. I pride myself on the fact that I’ve been whatever the industry needed at the time.”

After graduating, Eva found work with Perth’s theatre companies, among them Yirra Yaakin. She also maintained her ties with WAAPA as a mentor for the Aboriginal Performance students, sessional lecturer and assistant director to Rick Brayford.

By 2011, Eva was back at WAAPA as a student, this time in the Stage Management course. In addition to the usual course requirements, the staff encouraged Eva’s passion for directing by giving her opportunities to be an assistant director on WAAPA shows.

Even though Eva had to withdraw from her studies after two years due to personal reasons, she believes the skills she gained launched her into the next phase of her career.

“I learned so much,” she recalls. “The Stage Management course is amazing because you do a bit of everything. I learned all the technical aspects of theatre work, and could understand the jargon. It gave me the skills to be a better director.”

Since then, Eva has worked continuously in professional theatre across all areas from tour management to executive producing.

She spent five years on the Yirra Yaakin board, was the executive/development producer for the Blackfulla Performing Arts Alliance, and enjoyed stints with Moogahlin Performing Arts in Sydney and Ilbijerri Theatre Company in Melbourne, among countless other projects. A strong advocate for the First Nations arts sector, Eva has attended all significant national and international forums.

In 2019, Eva was appointed to the role of Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin, one of only three dedicated First People’s theatre companies in Australia.

Eva says she “hit the ground running” for her first year in the job. Then in 2020, COVID-19 shutdowns cancelled all of Yirra Yaakin’s performances and projects. But the company rallied, developing six new online programs to support their artists.

“We’re a resilient company,” says Eva proudly. “We went home during the lockdown but we kept working and supporting our community. Then when Perth theatres reopened, we rescheduled all but one of our cancelled shows. The last five months of 2020 were hectic but we pulled it off and I think it was really successful.”

Eva has big plans for Yirra Yaakin. Her aim is to extend the company’s presence outside of Perth to the whole of WA, and even into South Australia and the Northern Territory.

“I’m definitely looking to expand, expand, expand!” she laughs. “I want to extend our reach and highlight the amazing stores of our community.”

Yet even now, through that long journey from student to Artistic Director, Eva still maintains her strong links with WAAPA.

“Rick and I talk to each other often to discuss who’s coming out into the industry and how we can find pathways to support these artists,” she says.

Given her extraordinary passion and commitment, it’s not surprising that at the 2020 ECU Alumni Awards, Eva was given an Honourable Mention for her significant contribution to the arts in Australia.

So what advice does this exceedingly self-motivated and resourceful theatre practitioner give to others aspiring to work in the arts?

“Skills pays the bills,” she advises. “If you want a sustainable career in the arts, you've got to be willing to learn new skills to keep yourself employed. You’ve got to care about the industry like it’s community.

“So skill up.”

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