There are some conversations I’ve been having recently about Australian theatre and Australian stories. They have been daring and forthright, possibly dangerous. They have been challenging, probing and necessary. And I thought it was time to open these ideas up to a wider audience. So here it is.
Australian theatre is the theatre of White Australia.
A dangerous thing to say, but give me a moment here. More specifically, Australian theatre is the theatre that is allowed to exist by White Australia. Foreign stories, even if the stories are written here, don’t seem to count. The emphasis is on what is here, what has “always” been here and what “Australians” want to see on stage. But let’s be honest.
Australians in general don’t go to the theatre. Time and again if you go to the theatre you will see the same faces. The same people everywhere. You don’t see average Joe, or Jo. You see the directors (with free tickets), you see the same critics over and over again (with free tickets) and people that can afford to buy the expensive tickets. And just to be clear, all of the tickets are expensive. Main stage and independent theatre. I have no remedy for this, I am merely observing it. All theatre tickets in this country cost a huge amount of money. Or at least in Sydney. I’m not certain about everywhere else, but I do know I’ve never been to the Adelaide fringe festival because I could only afford to see one show – and where’s the point in that?
The arts in this country don’t exist. Almost. There are pockets of art, pieces of performance, slivers of sublime out of body experiences that you could never experience anywhere else. But when you go into a main stage theatre (having paid $50 or more for the privilege) and come out disappointed because you could not connect on a basic, human level with any of the actors on stage, you know something is going wrong.
Ahh, but the production values are high! I hear you say. The production values should never get in the way of a story, and the actors should never be kept away from the audience. The fourth wall exists. We all know it exists. Do we all need to engage in a perverse form of Brechtian alienation, where the aim of the game is for everyone to think about the production values, rather than become so engaged in the world of the characters that they lose themselves in that life for two hours? Or four? Or six? If you’re asking an audience to sit through six hours of theatre, surely you will give them a way of connecting to the piece, rather than showing off how much of your budget you can waste on things falling from the ceiling, or flying actors or perfectly trained animals?
No theatrical performance should be about the production values. If that’s the aim, put the art in a gallery, so we don’t get confused. In performance – in theatre – the focus should be on the connection the audience has with actors. Any set or lighting should be lifting the performance, not being the performance. What happened to backdrop?
And this is why I love black box theatre. It takes us back to basics. It forces a connection. No, force is the wrong word. It aids a connection. It also shows flaws. If the actor isn’t strong enough, or the guidance of the director isn’t strong enough, we know. We just know. Pub theatre in London is fantastic for that because there’s a black box theatre, four or five actors, and four or five voices that have to carry the weight of the show using their bodies, their voices and their story.
Which leads me to colourblind casting. I can’t stand it. I may benefit from it (I haven’t to date, but I’m sure I may in future), but I hate it. The concept that directors or producers are forced – and yes, that is the correct word here – forced to employ artists from different ethnic backgrounds to fulfil a quota makes me shudder. I of all people understand the need or desire for more ethnic variation within casts and within the arts industry, but the forcing of artistic hands should not be the reason. And in the same vein, stating that you are ethnically neutral, or making a point of saying that you are considering all ethnicities makes it all the more poignant when you call tens or hundreds of people in – wasting your time and theirs – when you know that you have no desire to cast them and are fulfilling said quota again.
There is no, or very little, ethnic theatre in Australia. And it’s not surprising – why write for ethnicities that leave the country because there’s no work for them? Artists trained here leave. They leave because there is no work, they leave because there is no money, and they leave because there is no recognition for what they spent a long time honing their abilities to do.
And why did I say this was a dangerous post to be writing? Because it will lead to either people saying I am whinging – which it is their prorogative to believe I am doing – or it will lead to others vehemently disagreeing to stand up for their country – which is fine – or it will lead to them agreeing with me – but saying there is nothing that can be done about it.
I don’t have answers. I never claimed to have answers. I have questions, I have observations but I have no answers. According to my research in social psychology, one in ten Australians believe that immigrants are a threat to Australian traditional values, and yet 83% (from memory) believe that racism is a problem in the country. More than that believe there is a way to stop it. Positive discrimination in the form of colourblind casting seems to me not to be the way forward (what a sentence). It is not something that works. You can end up with the wrong artists for the job based on the need to fill a quota. And from the outside, and this is highly socially disapproved of, it also seems to be the case in jobs where the discrimination act is in place. Grants and special jobs that are set aside for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders seem to be the same. Why are they not set aside for all ethnic groups? It seems a misplacement of fairness. How many generations will pass before this is adjusted again? And no, I don’t think it’s just here. It’s the same for American Indians in North America. Do African Americans get anything like that? Am I seriously missing out on something? And I’ll be honest. If something were offered to me purely because I am of African American descent, I would feel insulted. Am I not capable of standing on my own feet? My mother is a consulting civil engineer that emigrated from London, where she would have been a director of the company she worked for in Canary Wharf if she had stayed. She has won awards for being a Black Woman in a White Man’s world. To her, she’s just working. Working hard. I am extremely proud of her. She moved from Guyana, the essentially third world country in South America that my family is from, went to a school in which she was the only black person, went to university, raised two kids and worked to get us out of a low socio-economic status to an upper middle class one. If she can do it, surely there isn’t that tough a boundary for everyone else.
Again, I have no answers. Only questions and a burning desire for evolution.