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Platform Paper 13
Mainstream theatre in Australia is very white. Too white. Why are we falling behind the rest of the theatrical world in seeing complex diverse casts onstage in our major theatre companies? When you ask this question of theatre practitioners, an awful discourse of blame begins: agents blame casting directors, drama schools blame ‘the industry’, everyone blames artistic directors. Talking about racism in Australia is difficult in the climate of indignant denial. This essay argues that aggressive cross-racial casting of the classical repertoire is a strategy for subverting the ‘inevitability’ of whitecentric theatre. It is an important step in the necessary transformation of mainstream theatre into a profession fully engaged with the perplexities of representing Australia on stage and screen. It offers a practical contribution to the re-imaging of the national identity. Restricting cross-racial casting to marginal roles, as so often seen, is an unwitting management strategy akin to the marginalisation of ethnic groups. Without a comprehensive policy of diverse casting the main-stage theatres and their directors are being silently complicit in realising a future for Australia of Whiteness and exclusion.
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Discussing racism in the theatre is a particularly delicate exercise. Traditionally, and often explicitly, left-wing in their verbal politics, most workers in Sydney’s main theatres would vehemently deny any suggestion that their current practices supported, even if only by implication, racist constructions of privilege, Whiteness-privileging mechanisms and conservative power structures. Research on implicit discrimination and institutional racism has attempted to measure the gap between people’s non-racist intentions and their discriminatory practices, as well as their inability to see it for themselves. Perhaps it will provide a framework within which to discuss racism in the theatre, without anyone feeling they are being accused of intentionally causing offence
responses to Lee Lewis' Cross-racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre
teik-kim pok, an honours graduate in theatre and founder member of the contemporary performance group, shagging Julie, is obsessed with issues of cross-cultural hybridity. Last august he was one of twenty-four international artists chosen to explore the crossing of imaginary cultural and political borders at a workshop run by Guillermo Gómez-peña's La pocha Nostra performance group in tucson.
As a male, Chinese, Malaysian-born, Singapore-bred and recently-naturalized Australian actor-performer based in Sydney, I have only had limited experience of being rejected on the basis of skin colour or cultural background-mainly because I work on the independent or 'contemporary performance' scene.
We might discuss social and cultural taboos that we challenge in our work, but my fellow-performers and I rarely ask whether our audiences take in the Western (Anglo) classical repertoire as part of their cultural diet. That's not to say that new, devised work is entirely innocent of what social commentator Boris Frankel calls 'cultural enclosure' of the myopic, Lilliputian kind, an attitude that's applicable to the main-stage casting practice that Lee Lewis describes as the 'filofax phenomenon' (p. 20).
I've had both positive and negative experiences. At university here in Sydney I was cast in a variety of roles from both the classical and modern Anglo repertoire. Once-I had a substantial supporting role in Shakespeare's Tempest-I took it as a back-handed compliment that audience members were surprised that an Oriental male could speak the iambic pentameter without stumbling! On another occasion, playing the five-line cameo of the butler in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, I was saddened to overhear a fellow actor loudly cast doubt on the likelihood of finding Chinese butlers in the country houses of nineteenth-century England! Instead of coming back with a witty 'But they'd heard about Melbourne and had come to Derbyshire to pan for gold', or showing him the blind alley up which the legacy of nineteenth-century naturalism had led us, I decided that propping up Dead/Decrepit White Male literary traditions was not a long-term career path for me.
I could see my Chinese elders wagging their fingers at me for wanting a life in the performing arts and raising a collective raised eyebrow in the self-satisfied fashion of 'I told you so'. Nonetheless, I was not alone and, thanks to the support of organizations such as Performance Space, PACT and Urban Theatre Projects, soon found myself devising new and hybrid work with collaborators of countless cultural and various art-form backgrounds. And it was a huge relief to no longer have to face the humiliating experience of the audition and inevitable rejection that followed: 'Sorry, not really suitable!'
Today, eight years later, I am in Tucson, Arizona, part of a training workshop run by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and La Pocha Nostra, his San Francisco-based performance group, and hoping to learn how we might make this hybrid-casting business work for Australia's main stages. The manifesto of La Pocha Nostra asserts, in part, that 'if we learn to cross borders on stage, we may learn how to do so in larger social spheres'. A central aim of the workshop, which involves twenty-four other artists from around the globe, is to discover 'new ways of relating to our own bodies'. We must first, writes Gómez-Peña, 'decolonize them, then repoliticize them as sites for pleasure and penance, for memory and reinvention, for action and refraction' (ethno-techno: Writings on performance, activism and pedagogy (Routledge, 2005), p.98). This is to be achieved, in the next ten days, by participants from across a wide spectrum of art forms (directors, performers, musicians, visual and digital artists etc) and ethnic origins (Okinanwan, Anglo-Vietnamese, Mexican, Cuban, Scottish, Columbian, Chinese-Malaysian and, of course, Australian), undertaking a regime of repeated and cumulative exercises in non-verbal communication and co-creation. The inspiration for Gómez-Peña's methodology derives from pedagogy that seeks to develop 'new models for relationships between artists and communities, mentor and apprentice, which are neither colonial nor condescending' (ethno-techno, p. 98), a long-term project that we, as a community of self-appointed questioners of the status quo, should seek to apply to all our art-forms, not just the theatre. To repudiate this and assume that audiences will be uncomfortable with mixed-race casts-or any 'radical' element, for that matter-in main-stage classical work is arrogant and patronising, and underestimates an audience's wish / ability to engage with what that profound ritual, the Theatre of the Human Condition.
As a so-called avant-garde, hybridity-favouring and coloured performer-devisor, I confess to having some of these elitist leanings. I am, however, ready to move forward-not only by voicing loud support for Lee Lewis's exhortation to embrace cross-ethnic casting in classical work, but also by urging us, in all of our creative processes, to do more than pay lip-service to the idea of Genuine Dialogue. We cannot afford to revert to the Parochial Monologue. The ultimate price that we will pay for that is the deadening of the very source of our inspiration as artists, an ability to at once observe and celebrate diversity and unity.
Diana Simmonds is a founder member of the sydney theatre reviewers group, editor of www.stagenoise. com and a wog.
'Changing the face of Australian theatre' is something that probably is happening. But, tectonic plates being what they are, Lee Lewis's intervention is to be welcomed. However, to achieve anything beyond disgruntled hissing in dark corners, interventions need to be better thought out than the scattergun approach adopted in Platform Papers No.13.
First, there is the vexed question of what to call these wretched actors of a tinted or semi-tinted persuasion who are not content with playing maids, morons, tarts and crims. Lewis says: 'I shall follow Ghassan Hage's lead and be provocative, rather than uncomfortable.' Que? TWLP? It's certainly provocative. I mean, who wants to approximate a rare frog farting in a small pond in Arnhem Land? As for NESB … having homogeneity thrust upon one is as bad for the morale as having Whiteness held up as the ideal.
'Third-World-Looking People' is ridiculous and insulting, while 'Non-English Speaking Background' could apply to as many semi-literate, ill-educated 'Australians' as it does to those of us who arrived by public transport rather than the birth canal. The need for non-invasive labelling goes with the earnest social services mentality revealed in Lewis's ambition of developing 'Australian hybrid work' (place in the bins provided when flying interstate) which will 'incorporate progressive targets for actor training, writer development, geographically specific audience consultation, directorial and management re-education and programming'. Meanwhile, let's march around the parade ground, chanting 'Two acts good, one act better'. Then rally down at the Wharf to demand KPIs for all artistic directors and RDOs for all actors. No, sorry: most actors already are on semi-permanent RDOs.
It's not that I don't think Lewis is on to something really important in looking at the overwhelming Whiteness of the Australian stage and wondering why. And what can and should be done about it? It's not just theatre, though. She illustrates the overwhelming nature of the problem in noting that Hollywood has a tradition of assimilating actors of differently-abled origins by Whitening their names-Ramon Estevez/Martin Sheen, Ilyena Mironovna/Helen Mirren, Alphonso D'Abruzzo/ Alan Alda etc.
Cross-cultural casting has been happening for decades in the entertainment industries of the UK and USA. And the leaders, ironically, are in TV. Think Hill Street Blues, which made its debut in 1981. In the twenty-first century, it's still cop shows, including the derided but multi-hued The Bill, and hospital dramas (ER, Gray's Anatomy et al) that cast across cultures. Unless they're Australian handcuff-and-bandage shows, of course, then the only certainty in casting is Georgie Parker.
And the divine Parker is actually a good example: she's White, but could be cast as Italian, Greek, South American, Cypriot, Russian, Indian or-insert exotic here-and nobody (aside from rejected Wogs) would blink. Turn it around and ask how often, let's say, Gia and Zoe Carides or Dina Panozzo are cast as other than sultry Latin temptresses? Further irony: when Panozzo scored a rare continuing TV role where ethnicity wasn't an issue, in Ten's Richmond Hill, she played a real-estate agent-not among the most admired occupations.
Nevertheless, to cast these performers with regard only to their perceived ethnicity is to insult them in several ways - which Australian casting directors and directors seem only too happy to do. It is impossible to imagine a cast as ethnically and culturally diverse as that of The Bill or Gray's Anatomy on Australian television. You have to wonder, therefore, at the continuing popularity in the UK of Neighbours and Home and Away. Do British audiences view them with nostalgic longing for the England of the 1950s when blacks were lavatory cleaners and garlic-munching continentals stayed on their side of the Channel?
Cross-cultural casting on our theatre stages is just one hill to climb out of the valley of the shadow of White Australia. Just as steep is the hill of scripts originating from Broadway and the West End which occupy so much time and talent in our theatres. It's not simply writer development that's needed, but writers from diverse backgrounds. Lewis cites Anna in the Tropics as a non-White play seen in Sydney in 2007. Yet Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize winner had languished in the major companies' too-hard basket since 2003 because of its Cuban-American characters. Yet Lewis seems to think casting actors of mainly Greek and Italian descent was almost as problematic as casting Georgie Parker might have been. This is hard to take and citing the colourblindness of opera is not useful. Opera is about music, not appearance. High priest Calaf can be sung by Korean tenor Dongwong Shin, Chinese Ding Yi or white Aussie Julian Gavin; and princess Turandot by Texan soprano Jennifer Wilson, African-American Leona Mitchell or Dame Joan Sutherland: it's the voice, not the appearance, that matters in opera.
Another so far unmentioned obstacle is class: Rebel Wilson's The Westies Monologues was a rare contemporary assault on overwhelmingly middle-class Australian theatre; while the Wogs out of Work franchise crossed class and culture. Meanwhile, however, the class hatred of overwhelmingly White Kath and Kim is a ratings winner. These factors will matter more and more as Australian society fractures further into richer and poorer and the traditional class structure is joined by another layer: the ethnic and economic under-class.
Australia is not as White as it was twenty years ago when I stepped off the plane, but it's still lazily, complacently and amazingly out of step with the USA and Britain in terms of cultural and ethnic inclusiveness and class awareness. And that's not saying much: these two great cultural imperialists are only about two metres ahead. But in tectonic plate terms, that could be generations.
from John Golder, editor
In PP13, Lee Lewis refers to a recent controversy at the Comédie-Française. In her production of the late Bernard-Marie Koltès's Le Retour au desert, director Muriel Mayette cast a French actor in the role of Aziz, an Algerian servant. The production opened on 17 February. Several weeks later, Bernard-Marie's brother François, the playwright's legal heir and executor, claimed that Mme Mayette had broken the terms of their contract and infringed the dramatist's moral rights. On 22 March he demanded that the play be taken off after 30 performances, and its scheduled run cut short. Mme Mayette (who is administrator-general of the theatre) reluctantly agreed, but promptly sued him for damages, looking to recover revenue lost by the cancellation of four performances in the 2006-07 season and the planned 2007-08 revival.
On 24 March, a public forum was held at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier and a number of important issues were debated: the extent of the theatre's responsibilities towards ethnic and visible minorities; the extent of a director's rights in the work of both living and dead authors; the extent of an executor's rights over a production etc.
In an interview published in Le Monde on 25 March
2007, Muriel Mayette made her position very clear: In December , [François Koltès] indicated that he realized that Michel Favory had been cast as Aziz and that he didn't like it. However, he didn't ask me to change the casting. Even if he had, I couldn't have agreed. […] The Comédie-Française company is sufficiently cross-bred; there's a Pole, and Iranian, an Armenian, two Belgians, an African and others … As for the author's stage directions, it says 'Aziz' and that's all. Since Koltès calls one character a 'great black paratrooper', I asked Bakary Sangaré to play the role because I wanted to follow the author's wishes as closely as I could. But, as for the two Algerians, Koltès doesn't say who should play them. For one I chose a Kosovan; though there's nothing Algerian about him. That didn't seem to worry François Koltès. And for Aziz I chose Michel Favory, whose mother is actually a Kabyle. So I reckon I have respected the wishes of the author.
There have been a number of actors in the company who are Algerian by birth. […] But to employ an Algerian to play an Algerian would show an alarming lack of both openness of mind and serious consideration of what theatre's all about. I do in fact believe that too few immigrant francophone actors are employed in France. But taking on an Algerian to play an Algerian is hardly the first step in that direction. It is by acknowledging and employing foreign-born actors to take on any role in the repertory. The day when not only Othello but Iago as well are played by black actors, then we shall have moved forward.
The career of Bakary Sangaré is very much to the point here. He is a west African actor, from Mali, who played Ariel in Peter Brook's French production of Shakespeare's Tempest in 1990, alongside the black African Sotigui Kouyaté (Prospero), the Indian Shantala Malhar-Shivalingappa (Miranda), Japanese Yoshi Oida (Gonzalo) and white Frenchman Alain Maratrat and white Englishman Bruce Myers (Stephano and Trinculo). Brook has accustomed Parisian audiences to multi-racial casting at his Bouffes du Nord theatre since the early 1970s. Recently, Sangaré has played the 'white' roles of Antoine Vitez, former administrator of the Comédie-Française, and, last season, Orgon in Molière's Tartuffe-both at the Comédie-Française.
Some weeks later, on 10 May, Denis Podalydès, a member of the Comédie-Française company, responded passionately in L'Express.
All theatre is convention. You never see the sea there, nor the sky, you never see things as they really are […] The greater, the more universal, the more classical the work, the more it admits of this freedom, for the work itself will live on, will always be there...
François Koltès […] doesn't understand the theatre and denies it this capacity; he reduces it, destroys it; he might have the power of the law, but not of the imagination. Behaving as he does, he insults, ridicules, wounds and seriously humiliates Michel Favory.[…] But each time he walks on stage as Aziz, he demonstrates brilliantly just how stupid and laughable the position adopted by François Koltès is. An actor does something very specific: he conjures into being something that doesn't exist. A man enters a room: we're told it's Hamlet, or Aziz; if his acting is good, we grant him this, he becomes that character. But you have to see him to believe this. […] Has François Koltès actually seen Favory play Aziz? Has he seen him in the scene in Saifi's café? […] If he were to see just this one scene, how could he persist in his pernicious, absurd, scandalous argument? […] Is he aware that the entire Comédie-Française company, who stand with our colleague, believe that we have been wounded and insulted as much as he has?
Georges Lavaudant, outgoing director of the Odéon-
Théâtre de l'Europe, agreed with Podalydès about
'the actor's capacity to play anything', but, writing in
Le Monde on 3 June, asked that 'We respect Koltès's
Bernard-Marie Koltès wanted a Black or an Arab on stage in every one of his plays. He systematically created roles with this in mind. We can ignore this wish, but we can't pretend it didn't exist. […] We think that, because France is converting to multiculturalism, Koltès's kind of polemic no longer has a place. I must say that I don't share this view. Koltès wanted to make changes to our theatre. The main one concerns this question of skin-colour. He feels real anger at those reasons which permit us stage directors to refuse to do what he says and wants. He's alarmed by the crazy arguments we come up with to oppose him. He's indignant at our arrogance and off-handedness.
Koltès understood his plays and knew what he wanted when he wrote his stage directions. His solitary, magnificent, vain fight can't be ignored or contradicted without solid arguments. He was a young man in a hurry, and set his own rules. He didn't want to wait for quotas or positive discrimination. He created his characters and demanded that they be played as he had imagined them. […] I'm far from convinced that altering or confusing his brave message in the name of artistic freedom represents either a political or artistic solution for the future.
On 20 June the court found in favour of the theatre: François Koltès had 'failed to honour his contractual obligations and had clearly abused his moral rights'. In the European Union inherited moral rights permit a legal heir to stop a production going ahead if they believe a play's integrity has been violated and the author's wishes not respected. The judges acknowledged that Bernard-Marie Koltès had been anxious to use ethnic-minority actors, that he had complained of the extraordinary powers of directors and that he had protested whenever, in productions of his plays, Africans were not played by Africans. Nonetheless, in this instance, despite the fact that the character's name is Aziz and he speaks both French and Arabic, they concluded that 'there was nothing in the text of Le Retour au désert to say that Aziz must be played by an Arab or an Algerian'. Nor did they acknowledge Koltès's clear intentions, constantly enunciated during his lifetime: 'You can no more act a race than a gender.'
François Koltès was ordered to pay the Comédie-Française 20,000 Euros in damages-the theatre had originally sought 200,000 Euros-plus a further 10,000 Euros in court costs. He lodged an appeal. Also on 20 June, in a neighbouring courtroom, another judge was hearing a separate charge of defamation, brought by the Comédie: Koltès had reportedly called Mme Mayette 'cynical'. Final judgments are to be handed down on 12 September.
Responses to Lee Lewis's Cross-Racial Casting:
Changing the Face of Australian Theatre. Nicholas Pickard is a theatre reviewer for Sydney's Daily Telegraph, a regular contributor to Crikey and runs the Sydney Arts Journo blog, <artsjournalist.blogspot.com>.
Picture the scenario. Unhappy with the dominance of White performers on our stages, a local theatre director writes a Master's dissertation about the racial make-up of actors cast in major roles in Sydney's major theatres. The editorial board of Currency House are much taken by the paper and invite the author to rework it as a contribution to their series of quarterly essays on the performing arts, Platform Papers. They hope that it will generate some discussion and perhaps offer some solutions for the future.
Quickly it becomes one of the most hotly debated cultural issues in years. From the moment theatre critic Bryce Hallett writes the first of two extended pieces on the essay in the Sydney Morning Herald (30-31 June & 2 July), the discussion is catapulted onto the front pages of major newspapers; national radio stations hold talkback forums; arts websites go crazy; the author, Lee Lewis, is interviewed on television … and the new medium of the blogosphere goes into meltdown.
Such is the energy of the debate that Currency House arranges public forums in Parramatta (4 August) and Melbourne (15 August) to quench the thirst of those who have long been desperate to see the issue of cross-racial casting ventilated in public discussion. Both events attracted considerable attendances and I believe NIDA is planning a further public forum on the issue early in 2008. Even John Golder, who edits Platform Papers and originally commissioned the essay, seems taken aback by the strength of the public reaction. 'We aim to be stimulating; we aim to be provocative; we aim to ruffle a few feathers; we aim to lob a few hand-grenades, but I don't think we've ever done it quite as successfully as with this essay', he says, introducing Lee Lewis at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre.
However, despite the furore surrounding the essay, for all the hand-grenades that were thrown, and for all the optimism that the outcry might lead to change, the very institutions that Lewis believes are (perhaps unconsciously) complicit in creating 'White-centric theatre' have been silent. Journalists attempt to get comments, opinions or reactions from the companies, but to no avail. One notable exception is Company B Artistic Director, Neil Armfield, who tells Bryce Hallett that he agrees 'in principle' with what Lewis has said, but refutes the suggestion that theatre directors have been 'silently complicit in realising a future for Australia of whiteness and exclusion'. It is Company B's policy, he said, to 'actively embrace diversity and […] to challenge assumptions about colour and race' (SMH, 2 July). Hallett himself noted that 'it [was] often the case that the metropolitan arts festivals throw into stark relief how overwhelmingly white the Australian theatre is'.
Despite the silence of the Sydney Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare, elsewhere the debate continued to resonate, in the industry, amongst the public, and in the media. On 20 July, on his ABC-RN program, 'Australia Talks', Paul Barclay was joined by Julie Rigg and Lee Lewis, together with the director and two of the multiracial cast of the new Australian movie, Lucky Miles, to discuss the question 'Are we seeing enough racial diversity on our stages and screens?'. The RN hotline was inundated with callers who agreed with Lee's position and believed that Australia's entertainment industry is too White. And then only nine days later there's a feisty interview with Virginia Trioli on ABC-TV's Sunday Arts.
What distinguishes the current debate about theatre from those in the past-in particular the debate sparked by Richard Wherrett's 2001 Parsons Lecture, in which he urged the need for less Australian theatre and more international works and classics-is the role that the new media have played in fanning its flames. Blogging theatre-lovers in the burgeoning Web 2.0 community-on Ming-Zhu Hii's Melbourne blog, Minktails, Alison Croggon's theatre notes, Matthew Clayfield's Esoteric Rabbit and my own Sydney Arts Journo-have taken the established theatre companies by surprise and ensured that the debate happens, with or without them.
Ming-Zhu Hii was probably the first of many to endorse the essay: 'If you have any care for the theatre in Australia, read this paper. If you have anything to do with the theatre in Australia, read this paper. If you've ever cast a play or a film or television show, read this paper. If you've ever seen a play and wondered about racial casting choices, read this paper' (Minktails, 17 July)
Others were quick to lend her their support. 'On the face of it', wrote DPK (Sydney Arts Journo, 13 July), 'Lewis' argument is self-evidently true: the faces you see on the main stages are not the faces you see in the street. And while talent rather than skin tone should always be the key determinant when it comes to casting, one would expect the stage to roughly reflect the diversity of the broader community unless you believe that whites are proportionally more blessed with the ability to act.' And Alison Croggon (Sydney Arts Journo, 14 July) offered further support, when she asked rhetorically, 'When was the last time you saw, for example, a Middle-Eastern actor-and we have more than a few, some with enviable depths of experience-who wasn't playing an Iraqi refugee?'
Some readers, non-White actors, provided personal examples of the racial exclusions they had experienced. For example, Nicole vented her frustration on Minktails: 'I CANNOT STAND being sent only "Asian" or "multicultural" roles, although I am seriously grateful for the work I have received, they are the only briefs I am getting. I am starting to refuse doing free work that is derogatory or requires me to put on an accent, I'm shit at them' (2 August)
Some saw the problem in broader terms. Gaz (Sydney Arts Journo, 6 July), for instance, suggested that the 'bigger problem' lay with the main-stage programming of the 'big companies': 'Often because themes of race are actually quite common, but in the "oh-so-predictable" sense that they are often critiques of white middle-class life.'
Many others defended the major companies, Ironicsmile taking wicked delight in reminding Lewis that her current employer, the STC-she was directing Love-Lies-Bleeding at Sydney's Wharf 1-had on the previous evening 'won two acting Helpmanns […] for an Indigenous actor playing a non-racially-specific role and a Greek actor playing a non-racial or gender-specific role' (Sydney Arts Journo, 7 August).
But the essay's defenders were quick to retort. 'Elements of this debate', wrote Geoffrey (Sydney Arts Journo, 13 July), 'smack of small-town tokenism-not to mention generous lashings of condescension.' Indeed, this condescension was responsible for some needless personal attacks on Lewis and her credentials. One anonymous voice (Sydney Arts Journo, 17 August) said 'Perhaps she feels John Bell, Neil Armfield, Robyn Nevin and Simon Phillips are all neophytes who have much to learn from her. [...] Somehow I don't think they'll be ringing for advice.' To Chris (Sydney Arts Journo, 16 July) it seemed 'like a form of self-annihilation to come out and say this stuff. I wonder what the company's [sic] think of this and who'll be giving her a job next year? Very brave or very dumb ...'
Ming-Zhu Hii leapt quickly to Lewis's defence, asking Chris, 'Are you inferring that perhaps she might have done better by the advancement of her career in staying silent, and not writing all of that pesky, controversial material?' (Sydney Arts Journo, 16 July). Perhaps what really concerned the blog population was less the issue of cross-racial casting and more the fact that someone in the theatre industry had dared express an honest and deeply considered opinion that threatened such a famously protective industry. But perhaps not everyone who had ever worked in that industry, even at the STC, would necessarily have dismissed the debate. 'I noted in reading the programme for Love-Lies-Bleeding', wrote another anonymous blogger to Sydney Arts Journo on 18 July, 'that Ms Lewis is currently the recipient of a fellowship in Richard Wherrett's name. I am sure that Richard would be smiling down on this marvellous debate.'
Julian Meyrick is an associate director and literary adviser of the Melbourne Theatre Company. He was also the author of Trapped by the Past: Why our Theatre is Facing Paralysis, Platform Paper 3 (Sydney: Currency House, 2005).
With any committed point of view it is important to distinguish between what is known for certain and what is known in a possible way. Lee Lewis's analysis of Australian theatre's stance on race, roles and 'the White imaginary' consists in two interwoven arguments which sometimes fall foul of one another. The first relates to Australia as a 'multicultural nation in Asia' (p.1) with an ethnically and culturally diverse demography-not that you would know this from our theatre, which is markedly Anglo. (Lewis prefers the term 'White', because it is 'effective in grappling with the way in which power is acquired' (p.7), but I prefer 'Anglo', because it accurately reflects the sensibility of the art form.) This is essentially correct: Australia is an ethnically diverse country. Moreover, a body of actors from non-Anglo backgrounds are making themselves known who are expressions of this reality and have an inalienable right to appear on the national stage.
Lewis's second argument is more controversial, and bulkier. It relates to theatre's role in challenging stereotypes and promoting racial integration. Here she calls on a number of cultural theorists, especially Pierre Bourdieu, whose baleful notion of cultural capital underpins her analysis: 'An all-White cast in a classical play on a main stage in Sydney is a nationalist strategy for reaffirming the dominant fantasy of Australia as an all-White nation', she argues. 'Each such repetition is a re-inscription to a longstanding process of cultural imperialism' (p. 54).
The two arguments do not sit together comfortably, giving the paper a 'good cop/bad cop' feel, as though the author were uncertain whether aggression (quotas on casting) or importunity (directorial 're-education') were the best way forward. Or perhaps Lewis is aware of how totalising judgments on the valency of cultural actions read as ambit claims in these fragmented times. Cultural theory has long been a dumping ground for banished explanatory paradigms. 'Grand theorising' may have vacated the sociological imagination, but its sweeping claims are all too common in the less empirically-minded waters of cultural analysis. The result is factual error, and Lewis makes a few. Her take on New Wave theatre is anachronistic (and overlooks non-Anglo companies such as Anthill Theatre and Teatro Doppio). In focussing on skin-colour she ignores the phonetic struggle in Australian theatre for over a hundred years: the struggle to sound Australian (an inclusive one in so far as it meant not sounding British). And her description of the classical canon as 'the territory most jealously guarded by the dominant cultural group' (p. 41) is just plain wrong. Classics are everywhere exiting from mainstream seasons, and the ones that are programmed don't sell. In 1960, canonical drama comprised 35 per cent of MTC's repertoire; by 1990 it was 20 per cent; in 2007 there wasn't a single play in the season written before 1940. Other state theatres are following suit (even the Bell Shakespeare Company has a new work program). It may be that a black Hamlet will cause white subscribers to feel racially challenged. On the other hand it may just send them to sleep, like so much else. It's tempting for those who work in the business to overvalue theatre's importance. I myself do, so I sympathise. But there are limits. What promotes racial integration more, a black actor playing a politician, or a black politician? Perhaps it's the world that needs changing rather than its dramatic representations. What needs to be asked is whether theatre really is a temple of sacred racial icons or whether life has simply passed it by.
This isn't to let theatre off the hook, but one mustn't bend the facts to fit the frame. Lewis's take on contemporary realist drama is astute in one respect, blinkered in another. She nails its chief weakness, a love of casting to type. But she doesn't acknowledge that sometimes it has other cards to play. In the Belvoir St Stuff Happens, she says, neither the Indigenous Leah Purcell nor Wayne Blair, who played Condoleezza Rice and General Colin Powell respectively, played other roles, 'unlike other actors' (p. 29). But neither did Greg Stone and Rhys Muldoon, who played George Bush and Tony Blair. Although author David Hare makes no such specifications, the decision to cast four actors exclusively in these roles is dramaturgically appropriate, as it is these four characters who dominate the play. 'Could not an Indigenous actor have played George Bush?' Lewis wonders. How plays construct what might be called 'character effects' is a tricky area, and it isn't surprising she gets bogged down. But in verbatim drama, with its elaborate deployment of factual material, it is vital that casting choices don't blur its primary political intent. So, no, it would not be appropriate to have an Indigenous actor play that role. It would send the wrong message: Stuff Happens is not a vehicle for the promotion of racial integration, but an examination of the causes of the Iraq war.
Both here and elsewhere, however, Lewis treats director's desires and writer's intentions as of equal weight. She notes, for example, that the German director of Bernard-Marie Koltès's Le Retour au desért, cast White actors in the roles of an Arab and a Black African, against the explicit wishes of the playwright. She admits that Koltès's objections were 'well-made' but fails to acknowledge is that it was his play. If the director felt unable to accommodate the author's requirements, he should have picked another. This is a paper not only written by a director, but also for directors. As such, it points up their power to hire and fire, make auteur-style statements and kick against the pricks. It leaves out the companies they work for (save as sites of regression), the audiences (presumed homogenous), and other creatives. But the crucial omission is playwrights. It is unremarkable that white writers write plays about white characters that are cast with white actors. That's not cultural conspiracy, just life. Non-white writers, if there were more of them, would write other kinds of plays, and casting them would involve different choices. In all this the director would have a say, but not an ultra montane one. Casting is about managing collective expectations-artists' and audience's alike-and it is above all procedural. Power is more diffuse than Lewis assumes; so must be the strategies to redistribute it.
The last point is where Lewis's two arguments part company. For the Australia-as-multicultural-entity one, it's a shared burden from here on in, with training institutions, mainstream theatres and directors working together to encourage 'publicly-visible participation in core cultural spaces by a diverse population' (p. 58). For her more belligerent 'hermeneutic of suspicion' (in Paul Ricoeur's memorable phrase), resistance to cross-racial casting is 'connected to the history of White fear of erasure, of being overrun, overwhelmed and ultimately disappearing into the Other' (p. 57).
Lee Lewis can say what she likes, of course. But when it comes to doing something, confounding speculative theorising with known social facts risks sparking another break-out of the culture wars, with incendiary phrases flowing thick and fast, and plenty of bunkering down. Australian theatre-mainly through its government avatar, that tortured and torturing institution called the Australia Council-is no stranger to the twin policy extremes of frenzy and stand-off. Swinging high and heavy will not promote what Lewis-and others-want, namely practical change. So put down the reading list, Lee, and pick up the phone. Let your professional know-how contextualise your thinking. Don't bully the industry; work with it.
That said, for theatre a warning shot has been fired. At heart Lewis's paper gets it right. Arguments about unconscious structural bias are one thing, demographics another. Australia has changed and will change further. And the theatre-including casting-must change with it. The 'national imaginary' is only imaginary up to a point. Theatre has everything to gain from Lee Lewis's argument in its reality-focused guise. If it doesn't, it will become even more culturally marginalised in the future than it is now.
Neil Armfield has been Artistic Director of Company B, at Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre, since its formation in 1994.
The warning bells-well, the mobile-rang one morning as I was walking the dog in the park: Bryce Hallett, wondering whether I had any response to Lee Lewis's Platform Paper on casting practices on Sydney's main stages. After talking with Bryce, I was alarmed to discover that Lee had been specifically critical of me and my work with Company B. This was upsetting because she was levelling her attack at the very things I believed we had been more or less leading the field with, setting the agenda for, over the two decades of the company's existence. On the other hand, I found myself in broad agreement with her belief that our stages ought to reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of our society, that cross-racial casting needed to be 'aggressively' pursued in order to achieve this, and that the theatre could exist as a place of 'imagined future national identity'.
On reading her essay I was struck by the fact that she'd been out of the country for most of the period covered by the essay-and this accounts, I suspect, for some of the errors of fact in her text. More worrying than her confusion over the dating and casting of my Company B Tempest was the following: 'Deborah Mailman played the leading roles of Rosalind in [an] otherwise all-White As You Like It in 1998' (pp. 48-9). Aside from Jacek Koman's Jaques and Marin Mimica's Oliver-both of whom on Lewis's reckoning as 'NESB' (Non-English-Speaking Background) or rather 'TWLP' (Third-World-Looking Person) actors can somehow be classified non-White-the production pursued an extensive racially-pointed agenda about land, race and colonialism in the casting of Indigenous actors around Deb Mailman, with Uncle Bob Maza making his last stage appearance as Rosalind's father, the dispossessed Duke Senior, and Irma Woods (Phoebe) and Bradley Byquar (Silvius, and doubling as the 'White' character, Dennis). Moreover, when Uncle Bob became too ill to perform, he was replaced by two other Indigenous actors, the late Kevin Smith and Warren Owens. Instead of dismissing it as 'otherwise all-White', had Lewis considered fully what-in terms of her thesis-was, I suggest, a landmark production, she may have been led to very different conclusions. Or else, if she had considered my Company B production of Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro, for the 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, she may have observed a pattern of cross-racial casting in our work that challenged her analysis.
Most upsetting, however, was her analysis of our production of David Hare's Stuff Happens, which played at the Seymour Centre in 2005-not, as Lewis has it, 2006. But, regardless of that, Lewis was not out of the country at the time, which makes her misreading of the play, the production, and the performances all the more profound. In a section entitled 'Biologically-correct casting and the issue of authenticity' Lewis implies that I prolonged 'an embedded colonial practice' by resorting to 'what might be called "biologically near enough" casting [...] on the principle that "they all look the same" […] Aboriginal actors Leah Purcell and Wayne Blair were cast as African Americans Condaleeza [sic] Rice and General Colin Powell.[…W]hat these casting choices imply is that any kind of Black is closer to African-American than White' (pp. 28-9: my emphases). Lewis then proceeds to demonstrate how my 'near enough' substitutions might have been made acceptable: 'Unlike […] other actors, neither Purcell nor Blair played more than one role. Why Armfield chose not to cast either of them in other roles-and thereby ensure that they were included in the same process of transformation as the other actors-is difficult to understand' (p. 29).
Well, Lee, let me explain. Stuff Happens tells a complex and interwoven story of the imagined scenes that took place in the highest offices of the US and British administrations in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Dozens of characters were being played by our company of 16 actors. In order to make the flow of the story clearer, I chose not to double any of the central characters in the story: Bush, Blair, Powell and Rice. In my view, this was a way of allowing the audience to see exactly where the story was progressing, as scene rapidly followed scene. Moreover, I made other cross-racial casting choices: the Maori actor George Henare, the Palestinian Hazem Shamas and the Greek/Russian Victoria Haralabidou, all played multiple, transforming roles-as did the rest of the 'White' cast. The production was an absolute fruit salad of character (and racial) transformation!
However, my deeper point is this. Inside David Hare's masterpiece is a subtextual story of race and betrayal. There is a great, climactic scene. In it, late at night in the Oval Office, Colin Powell risks everything by warning Bush that the invasion of Iraq constitutes a potential disaster. Condoleezza Rice witnesses this scene almost silently. Walking Powell through the White House corridors later, she quietly declines the lift home she had previously accepted, electing instead to 'work on'. It's a profound and pivotal moment, and somehow race is at the heart of it. It was vital that Wayne Blair and Leah Purcell, and not White actors, play Powell and Rice, because, as in my casting of As You Like It, I was trying to tell a parallel story about Australia. As I try to do in all my work.