Diversity in Theatre
Updated: Aug 30
Last weekend I spoke to Dom Hennequin, a reporter from ABC Ballarat, about covid response in community theatre and the subject of diversity and representation especially after the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a great relief to have someone willing to hear my thoughts on this multi-faceted issue, and I’m going to try and put some of those into paper for you.
Firstly about community theatre. Community or amateur theatre is a strange beast that everyone will have had a different experience with. It’s a passion project for most of its participants, yet we expect a professional level of commitment. We want professional level talent and performances but without the pay. Yet in my experience there’s such commitment, passion, drive and a feeling of joy and love from those involved that can’t be compared. It’s these emotional responses and sense of family that keep people coming back time and time again.
When it comes to covid I’ve found that there is a tremendous feeling of hope that things will return to normal and we can pick up where we left off. This is partially an optimistic hope that all the work putting into a show won’t be wasted. Months of time and effort to create a work that might now never get seen - it’s easier to hope for a postponed show than to accept a cancellation. From the company too, a lot of time and money has been invested in each show - a cancellation would be a tremendous blow that a company would take years to recover from - if ever. Whereas postponing a show to an uncertain future where audiences may be restricted is merely financially risky instead of devastating.
The topic of diversity and representation in theatre is a much more complicated one, and I’ll try to summarise my thoughts here as best as I can. Firstly I’d like to say that I truely believe the lack of diversity in community theatre specifically and theatre in general is not a conscious decision or anyone’s intention, but rather a larger issue that needs addressing at all levels for significant change. This is a hot topic for many, and rightly so - theatre is supposed to be a representation of our world, and how can that happen when only a small portion of the community is being seen?
While I have never truely felt discriminated against during casting or an audition, I am still always keenly aware of being in the minority - often the only person of colour in the room. This is even more obvious in community theatre, where I have not felt excluded from roles because of the colour of my skin - but I have certainly felt that my race has been a big part of the decision making process, and occasionally my ethnicity has been the reason I was cast.
The way I see it, the diversity problems are not in the types of show - in a work of theatre there can be a suspension of disbelief; In music theatre, we accept that people burst into song, in region specific pieces like beauty and the beast or the cherry orchard we ignore the fact that they shouldn’t be speaking English, and in a fantasy setting we even ignore parentage (everyone remember the 1997 cinderella?)
The problem is solely from the casting. It’s not enough to want to be an inclusive company. When you invariably have a 99% white cast, the question must be asked “why?” Are Caucasian performers doing better in the auditions, or are they the only ones showing up? If the former, then I would say there’s a deeper issue in the selection panel - but if the latter, why aren’t you getting a diverse audition?
Fundamentally it comes down to - how are you posting your auditions? It’s not enough to pull from the same pool of performers time and time again. It’s not enough to post auditions within the same circles on Facebook. If that diversity isn’t already in your circles, it won’t create a diverse audition.
A diverse show requires a coordinated marketing and media campaign before the show has even begun in order to reach a wider part of the community. Once you have that inclusive casting and production it will only grow. “If you build it, they will come”
This isn’t a quick fix, nor is it an easy one. This is a long standing issue that will take years to change - but it will only change through active effort from everyone. Refusing to engage only helps the current power structure. We cannot be complacent if we truely want change