• A scene from Brown Skin Girl. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
It makes sense to have a diversity strategy that targets your audiences as well as your creative teams.
Emele Ugavule

1 Feb 2019 - 1:16 PM  UPDATED 1 Dec 2021 - 2:07 PM

My entire life I have been subjected to watching lived experiences that are polar opposite to my own on television and movie screens.

I could still see parts of myself reflected in pre-dominantly white, hetero, cis, able-bodied narrative. Hollywood would have you believe that it’s because the human condition is universal. I believe it’s because I am an expert empathiser. I had no choice but to try to find myself in the narratives I had access to. I have exercised that muscle so often, that my emotional intelligence learnt to unconsciously identify white fragility and disarm it before I was made to feel uncomfortable for just existing.

I’m not alone. This tale is centuries old. In the poc community at each gathering we talk of how we are forced to quietly adjust our behaviour to make white people feel comfortable. How we, the ones pushed to the fringes, are the ones expected to be energised by an abundance of compassion and empathy.

Empathy provides an emotional bridge between storyteller and audience. Our neural relay mechanism allows empathetic individuals to unconsciously mimic the postures, mannerisms and facial expressions of those we connect to.

For actors, hoping for this simulation of the same motor and sensory areas in the audience, is the difference between a positive and negative evening at the theatre. The energy exchange with a live mainstream audience who are consuming culture as another commodity, without being altered by it, is draining for performers. 

For actors of colour, watching this diversity conversation snowball is one part satisfying and two parts uncomfortable. It is not without casualties, usually the people from the communities this whole diversity conversation is advocating for.

Watching Neil Armfield struggle to answer an audience member’s question if it was okay for a white director to direct a non-white play on Q & A’s theatre special recently was the perfect example of how distant the conversation around diversity strategy is from diversity reality.

There is a concerning lack of statistics in live performance diversity (read: culturally and linguistically diverse casts) nationally. What’s more concerning is that as we witness a slow increase in intercultural theatrical works being written and produced across Australian stages, we are not seeing an increase in ethical and intercultural frameworks of engagement with these stories, artists and more broadly – their communities.

New stories equal new rules of engagement.

Mia Mingus, a queer disability justice writer and organiser, recently said in an interview with Alok, “When I think about my disability, it’s not something I need to feel positive or negative about. If we didn’t live in an ableist society, we would recognise that our bodies are all different and have different capacities. Most of us are trying to squeeze our bodies into capitalism. ”

It seems that cross-cultural casting has become the new colour blind casting. Erasing someone’s ethnic identity is tabu (the original Fijian phrase for the anglicised taboo), but exploiting it isn’t - yet. But don’t even think about getting intersectional. The reality of seeing a queer, disabled person of colour cast in a lead role is too much of a stretch for our very white audience’s imaginations. Try casting more than one, and you’re basically writing a fantasy novel - but then again according to George R.R Martin, even that is a stretch.

It’s not their fault though. Affective empathy is when individuals tend to have the most empathy for others who look or act like them, who have suffered in a similar way or those who share a common goal.

But we already know that it is easier to emotionally connect to those who share similar lived experiences. My question is, what are theatre companies doing to address the lack of emotional empathy their audiences display due to racial, ethnic, religious, gender/non-binary, or physical differences to actors on stage?

If box office sales is what drives your programming as an artistic director, does it not make sense to have a diversity strategy that targets your audiences as well as your creative teams?

For me, creating a theatre production company Black Birds with co-founder Ayeesha Ash from the ground up has meant making a lot of mistakes and learning the brutal reality of the lack of cultural sensitivity and knowledge exchange behind the scenes in Sydney’s theatre industry.

It’s not easy making sell-out independent theatre, in fact, it’s really hard. But it’s not impossible. Cross-cultural casting is an easy solution, but it’s only short term, and it feeds the current systems desperate hunger to shut us up.

As a producer and an Indigenous womxn I am obliged to prioritise the safety of my artists and my community in any space we enter.

Half of my job is building that space. Often we are made to feel as if we should be grateful to be in their theatre (when really they are cashing in on our cultural capital) or that we are stupid because we do not operate like a ‘typical’ theatre company.

Theatre should be an experience of exchange.

I have to get in early to minimise harmful interactions with production teams and front of house, increase creative control through upskilling artists with knowledge and language, and ensure artists know their rights in the spaces they are working in.

The other half is building trust and accessibility. This means forging genuine relationships with our audiences, turning up and supporting other artists in our community, making sure they know we care about what is happening in their lives listening to them, offering them an opportunity to give feedback to our artists in real time without fear of judgement.

It means acknowledging that our communities come from low socio economic backgrounds through lowering ticket prices, mapping out proximity to public transport, ensuring show times aren’t too late for parents who need to go home to their children, and the bar will be open for people to hang out and talk (but not necessarily drink).

It means sending a playlist to listen to prior to the show to become familiar with our world, allowing people to vocalise their reactions during our performance, to sing, shriek, clap, cheer and recite poetry with us.

It means only making enough to pay your artists - just - but Black and Brown womxn make up more than 50% of our audiences and walk away feeling empowered, enlightened and united.

Theatre should be an experience of exchange. A reciprocal relationship between the storyteller and the listener. This is an unconscious universal truth that Indigenous peoples understand when we share stories.

The diversity conversation in live performance must be inclusive, inter-sectional and free of illusions that changing the colour of faces that work within euro-centric development, rehearsal, production and marketing structures is the most pragmatic strategy forward.

It’s not. It must be more. It must be robust and ruthless and it must change now.

Emele Ugavule is a NIDA graduate and founder of Black Bird  productions. Her play Brown Skin Girl is screening at the Old Fitz theatre. Her upcoming show Exhale screens at the Griffin Theatre company.

You can follow Emele on Twitter @emeleugavule. 

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