When it comes to theatre, it can seem like there’s a paint-by-numbers formula to telling Australian stories. Set an inter-generational family drama in a seaside suburb. Add a white couple struggling with marital tension as the world changes around them or, maybe, a crisis of masculinity. Of course, these familiar narratives can make us laugh. They can make us cry. They shed light on the human condition. But they can also provide an all-too-narrow view of what an Australian story is — or can truly be.
Enter Belvoir Theatre's new play Counting and Cracking. Written by playwright S. Shakthidharan and co-produced by Western Sydney theatre company Co-Curious, it follows a Sri Lankan family who flees the Civil War and settles in Sydney’s western suburbs. It’s part of a wave of productions creating space for Australian stories that aren’t defined by whiteness.
In the last year, plays like Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female, Disapol Savetsila’s Australian Graffiti, Michele Lee’s Going Down and Aanisa Vylet’s The Girl/The Woman have challenged the myth that stories that feature minority characters are niche or incapable of exploring universal themes.
But this slow-inching toward different on-stage perspectives hasn’t eased the obstacles faced by playwrights of colour. Nor has it dulled the notion that mainstream theatre still largely privileges white, middle-class audiences.
A 2017 report independently prepared by performer and writer Kim Ho found that 70 out of 95 productions by the top Australian theatre companies were both written and directed by white artists. Often, well-meaning conversations about diversity do little to dissolve the power dynamics that shape the theatre world or barriers that still exist.
Darren Yap is an acclaimed director whose play Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam is about to premiere at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre. These days, Western Sydney theatre companies such as Urban Theatre Projects and Powerhouse Youth Theatre in Fairfield are working to make the medium more inclusive. But when Yap was growing up in Cabramatta in the 1980s, theatre wasn’t part of his world.
“There wasn’t a theatre company close by to engage or create an incentive for Chinese and Vietnamese communities and in 2018, I really don’t think this has changed,” he says. “In Australia, regardless of cultural background, going to the theatre is too expensive. Sure, there are deals and discounts but not enough opportunities to [access them].”
Law, whose 2018 production Single Asian Female attracted sell-out seasons at Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre Company and at Belvoir, agrees with Yap’s sentiment. She says the theatre world's elitism is also class-driven.
“You need to sacrifice time out of your working life to see a show (and) the people telling these stories are largely white, so people of colour feel excluded from those spaces,” she explains. For Law, this fails the very purpose of theatre — to reflect the society in which we live. “Single Asian Female was about three Asian women but so many white audience members told me how it reminded them of their families. It’s possible to empathise with [characters] who don’t look like you — people of colour have been doing it forever because we haven’t had a choice.”
Papua New Guinean actor and playwright Wendy Mocke's new play Jelbu Meri, co-written with Indigenous artist Phoebe Grainer, premieres at Festival Fatale, an upcoming feminist theatre festival at Darlinghurst’s Eternity Theatre. Mocke says that the notion that diversity is a “trend” reinforces dangerous power structures, reinforcing the idea that stories told by women of colour aren’t mainstream. “When we are able to access these spaces, there is often a feeling of uncertainty and caution. We don’t want to intimidate our white counterparts so often feel that we can only be a portion of ourselves.”
"We wanted to be able to say, see, it is possible to tell these stories. There can never be any excuses ever again.”
Vylet, a Lebanese-Australian playwright whose play The Girl/The Woman chronicles two generations of Arab-Muslim women, believes this is compounded by the fact that the foundations of Australian theatre are rooted in Western forms of storytelling.
“CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) artists are rarely encouraged to search within and to listen to their own narrative or their own unique theatrical language,” she says. “We forget to truly see, accept and have faith in ourselves. There are so many traps in the industry but [we are] bringing our narratives to the forefront.”
Eamon Flack, Belvoir Theatres’s artistic director, recounts the moment he first came across the script for Counting and Cracking.
“I read it down on the banks of the Yarra River and it was clear that this was an unprecedented script — a big, epic story about Australia as a migrant nation,” he says.
“But I also knew that we didn’t know how to do a show like this because it hadn’t been done before. We would have to learn a lot as we went. But we’d have new structures, new knowledge and new artists who would come to light through the process. We wanted to be able to say, see, it is possible to tell these stories. There can never be any excuses ever again.”
Neha Kale is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @Neha_Kale.
Counting and Cracking is produced by Co-Curious and the Belvoir Theatre and shows at Sydney Town Hall from January 11 to February 2.
Festival Fatale is produced by Women in Theatre and Screen in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Company and shows at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst from October 27.
Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam is produced by Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta and shows at Riverside Theatres until October 27th.