Not so long ago sitting around the family table for dinner at home in Australia, for many, meant meat and three veg. The meat was overdone, and the vegies were boiled soggy. Lunch was probably a vegemite sandwich. It used to be delicious, but I look back and think… how limited, how boring. Our palettes have changed. People from all around the world have made Australia home and they have brought with them the flavours that mean home to them. Sundried tomatoes, kim chi, fragrant curries, sushi, tapas… these all once seemed foreign and strange but when we became familiar with them we realised they were delicious. Flavours that we never knew that we craved until we’d tried them. The variety was a tasty gift and we didn’t want to return to night after night of limp veges and chewy meat.
Our theatre palette is changing too – perhaps not as quickly – but it’s changing.
I feel incredibly lucky to working as a theatre artist today. Things are changing on our stages and in our rehearsal rooms and I am thrilled to be amongst the cultural leaders working on heralding in a new normal, shifting the palette.
Have you all seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, do you remember the character that Mickey Rooney played, Mr Yunioshi? And what about My Left Foot? The Oscar winning performance of Daniel Day Lewis.
These examples demonstrate to me that internationally the entertainment industry has come a long way in terms of diversity, inclusion and representation. We still have a long way to go but we should acknowledge that things have changed so much in terms of whose stories are being told and who is telling them.
Hello, my name is Clare Watson and I’m the Artistic Director of Black Swan State Theatre Company. Black Swan has a rich 27 year history that began all the way back in 1991 with the production of Bran Nue Dae. Andrew Ross who was the founding artistic director of the company, worked with First Nations artists on a number of projects and in cross cultural collaborations with Indonesia to create projects that are amongst the frontrunners in cultural diverse work nationally.
Jewels in the crown of Black Swan include Bran Nue Dae, the performance works of Sally Morgan, The Sapphires, The Year of Living Dangerously and countless others. This is a history that we’re incredibly proud of at Black Swan. In later years, as we became a state theatre company, there was a leaning towards the western canon and contemporary American writing – this built audiences and found the company at home in the gorgeous state of the art state theatre centre. Two years ago, I joined the team at Black Swan and it’s my mission to marry the expectations of our loyal audience, work of the highest quality and calibre, with our DNA as a company that centralises marginalised voices. Our seasons this year and next year have received national attention and celebration as being amongst the most diverse in the country.
The programming reason behind this though is not to tick boxes for diversity, we have programmed a season that is timely, topical and relevant. We have programmed works that speak to who we are and who we want to be. By centralising marginalised voices we are hearing fresh perspectives – which equals exciting experiences for audiences in the theatre.
We often hear the idea that the people who we sit with us on the train and the bus aren’t the people that we see on our stages and not the people who we sit with in the audience – by presenting new stories that have never been heard, lead by artists who haven’t had appropriate opportunity to express their world view makes us relevant.
Michelle Lee is an Asian Australian playwright, I’d like to share with you something that she said: “Whenever I see theatre in Australia I like to watch the people in the audience. They sigh, laugh and cry with recognition as the story unfolding on stage touches them, connects them and validates their experience – something I rarely experience and makes me deeply envious. Who knew that being made to feel unwelcome and invisible in my own country was something that extended to the art I consumed. I would leave shows feeling very alone.”
To me, theatre at its best is about encouraging people to feel connected as a community and that’s how I tend to feel at the theatre – connected, not alone, but I’m white, cis gendered and tertiary educated. My experience is that theatre holds up a mirror to who we are as a society, it’s an empathy engine, a place where we can discover more about who we are and how other people might think and feel, I don’t want anyone to come to our theatre and feel alone. Theatre is a place where we can, and should, all belong. So, I have a very specific curatorial responsibility in programming a year of work to maintain the trust of our loyal theatre goers and also to invite in those who previously felt excluded.
I offer you some examples from our program this year and next for context:
- You Know We Belong Together is a work created and presented by lead artist Julia Hales – Julia speaks with the audience about her very personal experience of living with Down syndrome and in doing so she evokes universal themes of love, loss, family, home and belonging. It was a hit this year in and next year we’re bringing it back. This was a collaboration with DADAA and Perth Festival. Julia endorses the idea “nothing about us without us” and says that she wants to see people living with disability play characters with disability on stage and screen.
- Next year, Our Town a classic American play will feature in Perth Festival. We have 3 professional First Nations actors presenting this work alongside a cast of community members from all walks of life. We take a play that was a Pulitzer Prize winner in America in 1938 and thrust it into the here and now so that our town, Perth and the people who live and work here become the focus of the performance experience. Ian Michael who is pictured here says that diversity is about representation, He told me, “if you can see it you can be it” and he remembers feeling inspired as an actor while watching a play called Namitjira and realising that first nations stories can do so much more than hold a sad narrative.
- Fully Sikh is a work created by Perth born Sikh performance poet Sukhjit and made with Barking Gecko this is the first time we will see the Sikh experience on our mainstage. Sukhjit told me that WA is the most multicultural state in the country. She says, “My wish for Australia is that we aren’t afraid to ask the dumb questions because at least those dumb questions will teach us that we’re all much more similar than we might otherwise assume” – for her the whole point of Fully Sikh is to invite people in to her experience of growing up as a Sikh woman in Perth.
- In 2019, we present Black is the New White a play by the extraordinary Nakkiah Lui. You may have seen her on Q&A last week. She has written a play that disrupts the narrative of what Indigenous writing can be. This is a situational comedy like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets meet the Fockers. It’s a reminder that stories told by marginalised voices can speak to those who exist within the dominant culture in a way that’s relevant, entertaining and meaningful. Nakkiah says that: “For theatre to be relevant today and in the future it needs to create work that contributes to the process of what Australia is becoming.”
We are working towards a new normal and I’m sure we’ll never see performances like those by Mickey Rooney and Daniel Day Lewis again because we understand now that they are racist and ableist. I’m of the firm belief that we won’t ever reach a point where we’ll be able to pat ourselves on the back, dust off our hands and say ‘Great, diversity done. Nailed it’. And I have a hunch that the term diversity will soon be outmoded because it is word that is loaded with the idea of otherness and we’re already enjoying much more complex and shared ideas of culture, of humanity. Our world is constantly evolving and culture will need to continue to evolve right along with it. But already our audiences are insisting on more variety than meat and three veg and we are proud to be serving up some deliciously inclusive and relevant offerings.