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Kiran Gupta asks whether a change in attitude is needed when it comes to casting musical theatre in Australia.
Suspension of disbelief
Three words that are often thrown around on the theatre casting table or in rehearsal. The phrase basically acknowledges that a theatre audience must accept that the action on stage forms part of a pretend reality. After all, no performers really die in Les Miserables nor is there really a river in the middle of the stage in Phantom. This all seems fairly obvious. But what is especially interesting is where the barrier for using this idiom lies. There is an increasing tendency for directors to use this expression when it suits them but when it comes to truly interrogating some of the systemic barriers in musical theatre, the phrase suddenly leaves their vocabulary. However, with the world being upended due to COVID-19, maybe it is time for the industry to have a refresh and truly consider the benefits of more inclusive casting in musical theatre.
Musical theatre has often craved traditional casting, especially in Australia. When looking at professional casts over the last 20 or so years, there is very little diversity in casting. Indeed, this is reflective of the broader Australian entertainment industry where over 75% of employees are “white, male and aged over 35.” The argument often purported is that theatre needs to reflect the historical context and often that excludes racial and gendered minorities.
But this goes back to the issue of suspension of disbelief. If the audience knows that they are going to see a show, then should this really matter? To put this question into practice, let’s look at the musical, Hamilton. The whole premise of the musical is that there is a suspension of disbelief. By casting an African-American male as George Washington and surrounding him with an extremely diverse cast, it becomes exceedingly clear that this kind of suspension of disbelief does not detract from the performance nor its commercial success. In fact, Hamilton is a musical that has completely revitalised the musical theatre world. It grossed $4-5 million every week before the pandemic and this isn’t even including album streams and scalping prices. So when considering this, can we really say that there is no impetus for systemic change?
Unfortunately, before musical theatre shut down a lot of the discourse around diversity would amount to mere tokenism. This is where diversity was consciously and carefully curated in order to meet basic requirements and adequacy for marketing purposes. SBS managing director James Taylor recently referred to this as a “tick box” approach to diversity, which actually does more to hinder change than adequately make cultural change. This is because it creates the false illusion that this form of diversity is wholly satisfactory. Needless to say, but a tick box method is not going to be sufficient to truly make systemic change.
Generally, we might accept that change in such a large industry takes time and the status quo is likely to prevail in the absence of any clear impetus for change. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that most productions have shut down. As dire as this is for the industry, the silver lining is that this has allowed for a refresh in the industry that has not been possible before, The shows and theatres can be refreshed and so can casting practices. This starts with changing the method of casting. Too often, professional theatre auditions are closed off to the general public which means that only a select few can ever make it into the upper echelon. By opening up more auditions to the public, the workload on casting directors may increase but it may also afford more opportunities to a greater range of performers and thereby increase the overall diversity in casting.
But all the changes in casting practices will not make any difference if there isn’t a meaningful dialogue about what representation truly means. Mere tokenism will notice suffice but rather, suspension of disbelief when it comes to representation should be normalised so that diverse casting does not seem abnormal, rather, is seen to be reflective of a broader, multicultural society. In doing so, musical theatre will begin to represent what society is now rather than what society was in the past.
By normalising this culture, it will also mean that more opportunities are given to Australians. Pippin, due to launch in November this year, came under fire by veteran performer Prinnie Stevens for casting an international performer in its starring role instead of giving the role to a local woman of colour. While the producers argued that no local performer had the requisite skills required, it could easily be argued that by providing exposure to local artists, their skills and reputation will develop so that they seem more suited to leading roles.
It is clear that change needs to occur. With the diverse cast of Hamilton coming to Australia next year, it is the perfect opportunity to start normalising adequate representation in Australian musical theatre. COVID-19 has provided the perfect opportunity to refresh and potentially, the opportunity to make real change in the musical theatre industry. Whether that change occurs or not, only time will tell but if there is ever a time to shake things up, it is now.
Image: Manly Musical Society