A quick browse over the productions that Sydney’s best and most famous theatre companies sees three dominant, generic types of plays that you can choose from: Absurdist European theatre, well-done ‘classics’ (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen) or New Wave Australian theatre from the 70s and 80s. Whilst performing great theatre with historical relevance domestically and overseas is understandable, the sheer number of such productions, put on year after year, seems disproportionate – especially when compared to the number of multicultural, modern Australian stories that are told on stage. As Lee Lewis, artistic director at the Griffin theatre, quipped the local theatre scene is “reprehensibly white”.
It shows when the casting of an Asian-Australian in an Asian role in Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘Kryptonite’ is applauded as breaking new ground, or when a Bell Shakespeare production of ‘The Comedy of Errors’ is seen as revolutionary because it features a diverse cast.
The larger issue doesn’t seem to be a clear inequality of casting within plays that are already performed, but rather, when an ‘ethnic’ actress lands a significant role, the stories that they’re placed in are very rarely ‘ethnic’. Even when they are, such roles are often stereotypical, inaccurate or ineffectual.
This is something that theatre companies genuinely have the power to change. Good multicultural writers are out there. They’re just overwhelmingly sectioned off to smaller community theatres without commercial pressures. The plays are there, too – the history of multicultural theatre in Australia goes all the way back to early Chinese migrant performances in the Gold Rush era. And considering that a quarter of Australians were born overseas, modern Australian theatre companies that pride themselves on showcasing diversity need to justify that pride.
Marginalisation of certain groups is rarely conscious. Chris Mead, literary director at Melbourne Theatre Company, pointed to deeper issues of a lack of engagement between play publishers and ethnic writers. According to Mead, without those plays “on the shelf” and major theatre companies like the Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir “content to wait for Australian plays to come to them”, the chances of mainstream audiences empathising and connecting with non-White stories remain slim.
The history of Australian theatre shows a community that isn’t passive, either. The influential New Wave of Australian theatre (epitomised by writers such as David Williamson) sought to challenge what they saw as a ‘complacent nationalism’ at the heart of previous Australian theatre, which had failed to encapsulate and challenge a more turbulent and liberal 1970s Australia. Williamson and his contemporaries brought a grittier, more urban setting to theatre that reflected its time. Indigenous theatre has had a long and active tradition, with companies like the Black Theatre setting a precedent for more modern companies like Ilbijerri.
Most recently, the critically acclaimed ‘Jump for Jordan’ at the Griffin Theatre featured a diverse cast, a writer from a Maltese background, a story about Jordanian immigrants settling into Sydney, and a scene that opens with the line, “It’s like SBS in there”. Considering the delightful ethnic plurality that informs much of SBS’s programming, maybe that isn’t such a bad idea for theatre.