Despite estimates placing the LGBTIQ population of Australia somewhere around the 11 per cent mark, a recent study of 199 television dramas aired between 2011 and 2015 - conducted by Screen Australia - found only five per cent of characters were LGBTIQ.
As part of a broader, ongoing push to improve representation across the board, including Indigenous characters, those from ethnic minorities, and those with disability, Screen Australia has announced 16 successful applicants for an intensive three-day workshop called Seeing Ourselves: Developing the Developers. Kicking off on March 31, the industry master class will support new creatives from diverse backgrounds in building story development skills, empowering them to work within industry structures that can sometimes seem a little daunting.
Sally Caplan, head of production at Screen Australia, said that, “it’s going to take the whole screen sector to work together to get to a place where the Australia we all experience in our day-to-day lives is actually represented on screen.”
Hobart-based screenwriter Martine Delaney - one of the successful applicants - is a prominent champion for LGBTIQ rights in her native Tasmania, taking on both the secretive religious sect the Exclusive Brethren and exposing Liberal Party collusion in their homophobic campaign material.
“Having decided to get brave and transition quite late in life, in my very early 40s, I’ve since been involved in a fair bit of accidental activism,” she says.
A keen soccer player, Delaney also became the first person globally to play both men's and women's Division 1 football, placing transgender participation on the agenda at Football Federation Australia.
Toying with a screenplay idea, Delaney showed it to a friend who works at Hobart-based production company Roar Film. They were so impressed they optioned it, and the film now has development funds from Screen Tasmania, as well as script editor Tony Cavanaugh, a seasoned film and TV writer, producer and author.
“I’ve stumbled into an industry I know incredibly little about,” Delaney says. “Obviously I’ve got some ideas that people think are okay, because I’ve also got two other projects that production companies have shown an interest in, which I’m now starting to develop as well.”
Though she’s intimidated by the calibre of her fellow applicants - including co-artistic director of Black Honey Company, Candice Bowers, who is an award-winning playwright, performer and activist, as well as Zambian-born Santilla Chingaipe, a garlanded journalist and documentary filmmaker - Delaney hopes Developing the Developers will get her up to speed.
Most importantly, she wants trans people to be recognised for more than just their gender identity. “It’s been interesting for me talking to people and saying that I’m working on a screenplay, because the automatic assumption is almost always that I’m working on something which is about being trans,” she says.
In fact, of the three projects currently on the go, none are trans stories. “Somewhere down the track I would certainly love to put together some story ideas from a trans perspective, but it’s almost like at the moment I feel the need to put my effort into things which are not,” Delaney says. “It’s a daily experience for most trans people to find that basically people see them as trans and not much more, and shove them into a little box. I’m hoping I can maybe do a little bit to get rid of that stereotypical approach.”
Joining Delaney at Developing the Developers is Melbourne-based writer, dramaturg and Green Room Award-winning director Gary Abrahams, who has predominantly worked in theatre until now. “I think it’s really exciting that Screen Australia encouraged artists from sister industries to apply,” he says. “A lot of my work in theatre is in dramaturgy, working with writers developing new work for companies like Red Stitch, and I just thought, ‘well obviously there must be a strong parallel with film and television scripts’.”
While he says being a gay, white, cisgendered male means he enjoys a certain level of privilege not afforded to all, the film and TV sets he’s been on do often feel like a straight boys club compared to the more diverse theatre world, and it can be difficult to shift between industries. “Australia isn’t like the UK, where you have theatre writers and directors who are often poached by film and television producers,” he says. “That really doesn’t happen here that much, and it’s like when you go to university you kind of decide whether you go into theatre and the alternative arts, or film and TV and the mainstream arts.”
As a Jewish man, Abrahams is used to seeing plenty of American representations on TV, but struggles to pick out one example in Australian drama. “The only one that comes close is Essie Davis’ character in The Slap, whose mother was Jewish.”
It’s another aspect of our screen stories he’d like to see improve. “We accept all this stuff from the States, but we aren’t doing it for ourselves.”