Comment: Don't call curtains on cultural diversity

Promoting cultural diversity on the stage will help the theatre industruy thrive, says Saman Shad

Australia's theatre is out of step with the multicultural reality of modern day society, writes Saman Shad. It's time for the white cultural agenda to take a bow.

A recent article by the artistic director of Playwriting Australia discussed what many theatregoers probably already knew – that Australian theatre isn’t very diverse.

In fact it’s worse than that. It’s a bit of a whitewash.

A survey conducted by Playwriting Australia revealed that 93% of 270 Australian playwrights surveyed identified themselves as white. Only 13% of plays produced in Australia last year were by writers from an indigenous or culturally diverse background.

Those who don’t think this is a problem underestimate the unspoken barrier and the sense of exclusion that's fostered when only mono-cultural works performed by an Anglo-Australian cast come represent our entire culture.

It’s perhaps what prevented me from pursuing my career as a playwright here in Australia. Even though I grew up here and toyed with the idea of writing plays, I never thought that I could do this as a career. Playwrights as far as I was concerned were old and white and often dead. The plays they wrote had no bearing on the reality of my life. As a teen and later in my early 20s the few initial attempts I made at writing short plays were mostly for my benefit; something for me to experiment with as a writer. I never thought these words could actually be spoken by actors on a stage.

It was only after I moved to the UK, where I saw plays that told stories of people from many different cultures, made by  theatre companies representing these diverse sectors of society, that I felt that I could be taken seriously as a playwright. And so I decided to give playwriting a shot.

The first play I wrote was accepted for a reading by a theatre company. Then I took the play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where a BBC radio producer saw the show and ended up offering me a job writing scripts for a BBC radio drama series, which I did for five years. I was also a writer in resident at the Soho Theatre and had plays produced at the Hampstead Theatre.

The best part of the British theatre scene at the time was the diversity of voices it had to offer. Playwrights like Kwame Kwei-Armah, Debbie Tucker Green, Tanika Gupta, and Roy Williams ensured that up and coming writers like me had role models to aspire to. Not only that, their presence confirmed that voices like ours were perfectly valid and had a place in the mainstream.

Having writers with different stories and different backgrounds contributed to the energy of the theatre scene and showed me how exciting theatre could really be.

Now that I've returned to Australia after ten years abroad, I’m struck by how little has changed since I was a teenager toying with the idea of writing plays. There is still very little diversity in the Australian theatre scene.

It’s a fact of which many in Australia’s theatre industry are keenly aware. Speaking in a recent SBS report, director Chris Kohn summed it up:

'I think that if you look around the audiences and you look on stages, you're not seeing the diversity of Australian culture, it's not a representative space. It's a problem for a few reasons, but it's an indicator that it's not part of everyone's lives.'

Are we going to do anything to change this? Or are we going to reinforce in the minds of a new generation that which was covertly indicated to me: that voices like mine don’t have a place in the Australian cultural landscape?

It’s no wonder that so many Australian creatives – writers, artists, directors – head overseas in order to get their voices heard.  I certainly never could have predicted that as a Pakistani-Australian the plays I created would be of more relevance to those in Britain than to those in the country I grew up.

For many Australians, theatre is already perceived as elitist and out of touch with their reality. There is an urgent need for us to reflect our cultural diversity on stage for this medium to not only survive but to thrive.

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