Australian musical theatre needs to embrace more diverse casting, taking a lead from the diversity rules announced last week for the Academy Awards, says director and composer Mathew Frank.
Frank, head of music at the Showfit musical theatre course, music director on La Cage aux Folles and Drowsy Chaperone and co-writer of My Brilliant Career, says Australian theatre is at least 20 years behind the US, where even the most recent Billy Bigelow was black.
"Until we can all be on an even playing field, we’ll be behind," Frank says.
"We need to support those who haven’t had the leg-up that comes with white privilege, and it’s imperative we install similar supportive measures."
The call comes as a leading musical theatre scholarship faces a backlash from announcing an overwhelmingly white list of 30 semi-finalists. The Rob Guest Endowment, which awards a $50,000 prize to the annual winner to help develop their career, has delayed an announcement of the six finalists which was due on Friday.
The semi-finalist announcement last month was called a "whitewash" in an open letter by performer Hayden Tee, who blamed a "total lack of diversity on your selection committee and board", adding this was no reflection on the talent of the semi-finalists.
Director Richard Carroll said it was the Endowment's "job to initiate outreach and headhunt talent... please acknowledge the unconscious bias we all carry".
On Wednesday RGE issued a statement saying it accepted "unreservedly that the leadership committee should have done more to ensure that contestants in the competition were drawn from a much more diverse cross section of emerging theatre performers".
It apologised for its "omissions and failures" and announced it would move to have a minimum 20 per cent "BIPOC and diverse" representation in its leadership committee and judging panel, and a 20 per cent minimum of future semi-finalists would be "drawn from a diverse array of entrants including Indigenous Australians and people of colour".
Also this week, the Artists of Colour Initiative founded by Tarik Frimpong launched a scholarship competition to support six young theatre performers based in Australia who identify as black, Indigenous or of colour. Judging panel member Kurt Kansley said growing up in Australia in the '80s and '90s, "I hardly saw anyone who looked like me being represented on stage or behind the scenes in the theatre".
"I had to work harder than my peers, who came from caucasian backgrounds, to be seen and taken seriously," he said.
The initiative has so far raised more than $10,000 in donations for the prizemoney.
Performer Melanie Bird would prefer to focus on her exceptional voice and promising career but says lately she’s been thinking more about her Thai heritage.
"I never saw myself as a person of colour and I always thought I could play any role," Bird says.
"It wasn’t until I entered the world of musical theatre that I became much more aware of it. It’s a systemic issue here because we’re used to seeing a certain look for lead roles but Australia is very diverse and that should be reflected in any media."
Born and raised on the Mornington Peninsula, Bird, 20, was one of many budding musical theatre performers who entered the Rob Guest Endowment.
The song she submitted with her entry, Waiting For Life from Once On This Island, gained her entry to the Victorian College of the Arts but she chose to enrol in Showfit so she could attend auditions and have an agent.
"It was a bit discouraging to see the announcement of finalists but I didn’t want to say anything because I was afraid I’d be seen to be exploiting my heritage but it was the first thing I noticed when I saw the announcement," she says.
"It makes me upset for my friends who are even more ethnic than I am and I’d love the situation to change. I feel the audience suspends disbelief in the theatre anyway and it’s the producers’ responsibility to cast people of colour in a variety of roles, in the way that Hamilton does.
"Musical theatre in Australia needs to catch up with Broadway. The attitude here of just being defensive is not the way to go."
The problem is not just at the start of performers' careers. While musicals such as Barbara and the Camp Dogs, The Sapphires and Hamilton are written to be diverse, "people interpret the classics as being sung and looking a certain way but we have to get over that", Frank says.
"We’re in 2020, so we should ask, 'what is our take on this story and who do we see when we walk down the street, so why don’t we see those people on our stages?'
"It’s exciting and revitalises the art form to make it more accessible to different communities where this may not have been part of their cultural landscape."
Australian theatre producer Damien Hewitt notes that Broadway and the West End also have issues to overcome regarding race.
"What organisations are calling for in the US and in London is not just about casting — it’s about the whole management system, asking who are the people making the casting decisions, who are the casting agents, the producers?" Hewitt says.
"We’re in the midst of getting the industry up and running, so there’s an opportunity for fresh starts and making sure our cultural institutions are well represented throughout."
Theatre has already made strides in this area, with Zahra Newman in Wake in Fright, Paula Arundell as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Zindzi Okenyo in An Ideal Husband, but musicals are slower to catch up.
"It’s an issue we need to tackle," Hewitt says.
"We don’t want to be seen by international creatives as the territory at the bottom of the world where we don’t think this is an issue and become irrelevant."