If any one issue has troubled Australian theatre of late, it has been that of diversity.
In a country that prides itself on egalitarian inclusivity, why do we see so few non-white faces on stage and behind the scenes? Why are there so few women directors? Why is our theatre by and about white, Anglo-Celtic men?
These questions routinely meet a series of standard answers. Indigenous theatre is thriving. Our arts centres bring in the Chinese Ballet and Greek rebetika. There are women aplenty in community theatre.
But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 program promises to bring over entire productions from the US and the UK — but does not stage a single contemporary text of non-English origin. What does this imply about the state of our cultural diversity? A self-proclaimed "Australian Shakespeare" company, Bell Shakespeare, casts almost exclusively white actors. What does this say about what Australians should look like? To be fair, Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 season will feature Leah Purcell in King Lear — but here again is the danger of accepting the exception to the rule as a proof of revolution.
Mainstream theatre is nation-defining territory, and Australia’s mainstream theatres have been very good at excluding — together with any home-grown, "experimental" performance — any face, voice or attitude that strays from a very narrow understanding of what Australia is. If art provides a way to collectively imagine our world by telling stories about who we are, how we came to be this way and where we are heading, then onstage, "our" stories are still stories of mateship in the bush and middle-class white suburbia, the range of "our" characters reduced to the semi-articulate Aussie bloke (with the occasional girlfriend or wog neighbour thrown in). Think of the sugarcane cutters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Don in Don’s Party and the Removalists, and the emotionally constipated Anglo families of Tom Holloway.
This tendency leaves a lot of people out of work. The scandal of the year arose over the lack of women directing main stage theatre and culminated with Melbourne University demanding that the Melbourne Theatre Company employ an equal opportunity officer.
Yet theatres aren’t your average workplaces and equal opportunity in art can be difficult to defend. Neil Armfield’s defence of the all-male directing season at Belvoir St Theatre? Predictable: they were chosen on merit only. Few self-respecting artists would attempt to argue that the arts ought not be a meritocracy, and talent, alas, has always been very unfairly distributed. What if our best directors really are all men?
The problem is more complex, aesthetically and historically. The worst thing we have inherited from British theatre is an extremely narrow view of what theatre should be — amplified, without a doubt, by a colonial fear of not getting it right. British and American theatre traditions, visually fairly dumb, have been clinging to naturalism — a 19th century style characterised by literal representation of realistic events on stage — and for many critics this remains the only right way to "do" theatre, even though the best contemporary Australian performance has outgrown this aesthetic.
In 2007, Lee Lewis opened the can of worms that is the lack of racial diversity in Australian theatre, advocating cross-racial casting of classics. If we assume that the actor transforms on stage, she asked, why do we only allow this power to the white actor? If blackface is a theatrical cliché, why should there be a problem with a black actor playing Hamlet?
In the uproar that followed, many missed the subtler side of her argument: diverse casting has fared much better in those forms of theatre that embrace metaphor more openly. In this she counted opera and ballet but also contemporary non-Anglo theatre. The directors who have most consistently challenged whiteness on Australian main stages have been Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky (who cast Deborah Mailman as Cordelia in his King Lear for Bell Shakespeare) both of whose work betrays a suspiciously "continental" aesthetic. Their takes on Brechtian non-naturalism has consistently troubled our critics.
The best performances of 2009, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III in Andrews’s vast, extraordinary The War of the Roses. The production shone a brilliant new light on a well-known text and revealed the interpretive range of these familiar actresses. The two women did not play men — not for a second were these drag performances — but embodied privilege and greed for power respectively. It was the boldest, finest, interpretation of Shakespeare Australia had seen in a long time.
As British critic Andrew Haydon has argued, the issue is not just about casting non-white, non-thin or non-male protagonists. Theatre creates meaning as much from the non-verbal signs it puts on stage as it does from the script. It does not need to be set around the block last Tuesday in order to be relevant to our lives.
On the theatre margins, companies like Back to Back, Rawcus and Restless — which work with people with physical and intellectual disabilities — play an important political role. Seeing these performers on stage, we become aware of the incredible beauty of bodies we normally consider unsightly. Such performances challenge our perception of who Australians may be, and what stories they may have to tell.
Yet aesthetically, their work is equally important. Back to Back is considered to be one of the finest theatre groups in this country — and this is doubtlessly a result of their innovative work methods. Their Food Court — an almost-wordless performance about bullying set to the music of The Necks — was among the most acclaimed theatre shows of 2008.
Because big theatres and big critics shun such experiments, they effectively nurture audiences who cannot read stage metaphor. Yet metaphor is not some avant-garde pretence but the basic building block of theatre.
Unlike film and television, which capture the world as it appears, theatre imaginatively creates its own reality. In this world, dying heroines find breath for entire arias, girls in white tutus play snowflakes and swans, and one woman’s existential despair is communicated by her burial waist-deep in earth. If we insist on theatre that amounts to live television in a classy setting, we betray our ignorance of the artform itself. Cordelia, after all, would have premiered as a man in a corset.
As long as we see the problem as one of loud minorities demanding political correctness, we fail to see that most of us, in fact, are excluded. After all, even though "arts arts" are patronised mainly by the white and the wealthy, it is the women, city dwellers and Australians of non-English-speaking background that research has identified as most appreciative of the arts. The same study shows that the elusive protagonist of Australian drama — country male, Australian-born of Australian-born parents — is the least likely demographic to think of arts as important in his life.
Lally Katz, who came to Australia from New Jersey with her parents when she was eight, writes plays immersed in whimsical surrealism. That she is not considered to be one of the most important Australian playwrights is a disgrace and it may be due to her gender, but it is certainly also related to her aesthetic. Yes, her Ern Malley mourns the fact that he doesn’t really exist, and her Canberra becomes an island with a volcano. Are these plays less Australian for their deviation from the suburban script?
As long as we keep thinking of Australian theatre as a narrow stream of tales about mateship and the outback, we restrict its capacity to help us imagine a shared present, let alone articulate an alternative future. For whatever reason, we are afraid to play.
Affirmative action is a good thing in principle, but the goal should not be simply to hire new hands to do old work. What we want, ultimately, is a greater range of perspectives and styles. We want new, imaginative universes in our stories so that we can understand better what this country is all about. We need diversity because we want innovation and excellence, not despite of it. We do our theatre no great service by protecting it from the best artists we have. Armed with an outdated and unimaginative idea of what theatre may represent, Australia, our main stage, remains as dull as dish water.