The Rob Guest Endowment debacle is a missed opportunity for change, says Sonya Suares
Around the time that I was starting out as a baby thespian, a team of US astronomers was nearing the pointy end of an 11 year dry spell in what was widely regarded as a fool’s errand, searching for planets orbiting alien stars. When a breakthrough came, in the form of a Swiss team’s discovery of 51 Pegasi b (more affectionately dubbed “Bellepheron”), the US researchers were floored.
This planet’s mass and proximity to its parent star defied everything everyone knew about planets and their creation to date. It shouldn’t be there, so very large and so very close. The US team revisited their first principles and widened their search parameters to include the possibility of other planets like Bellepheron. The result: they found exoplanets littered everywhere across the night sky, hiding in plain sight during their 11 years of painstaking research. All that had shifted – really all – was the lens through which they looked.
Sound familiar? It should.
To the mortification of Geoff Marcy – who went on to discover thousands of exoplanets with colleagues and receive a Nobel Prize* – he had based his investigations entirely on the behaviour and formation theory of the worlds he knew: Earth and our solar siblings. The universe, it turns out, is far more diverse than our immediate neighbourhood.
This should serve as a cautionary tale for those in our industry who want to hang their change-resistant hats on some sort of immutable and irrefutable “law of talent”, a mysterious and ill-defined principle that somehow reproduces a comforting sameness and familiarity on our stages and screens. Or, indeed, year after year in the faces of the candidates shortlisted for Australia’s richest music theatre prize. It’s based on merit, they insist. That’s the only metric.
Firstly, if merit is a metric, I’ll eat my own hat metaphor. In our field, as in others, “standards” are simply a set of aesthetics and norms that are normalised by those who run the show – those in positions of power. And power replicates itself through unchecked and unconscious bias. Or, as Dan Spielman said in his 2019 reflection on another seismic cultural moment: “The language of power is bestowed by one generation to the next along vectors of privilege.”
The intergenerational patronage making headlines at this particular moment is, of course, the 2020 Rob Guest Endowment saga. ArtsHub, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Aussie Theatre, Limelight Magazine, Huffington Post and The Australian have all published articles detailing who said what when and who consulted with whom. RGE’s series of statements from August 20 to September 18 has now been countered by a statement from the 30 shortlisted candidates and, separately, from MEAA’s Equity Diversity Committee. If you haven’t yet approached the event horizon of this particular singularity, any one of these articles will provide the background information you need before reading on. As my space analogies should suggest, I’m going bigger picture.
To those uninitiated into these kinds of manoeuvres by arts institutions, this may seem a somewhat isolated incident. Likewise, the volume of commentary might lead you to believe that the backlash against RGE is universal. You’d be wrong on both counts.
Take a dive into the comments section of the SMH or Aussie Theatre articles, or worse, those on the Stage Whispers Facebook post of RGE’s latest statement. It’s enlightening. In certain quarters of our industry and in society more broadly, questioning the fact that an all-white panel produced an all-white shortlist in the context of an international movement for racial equality, provokes a very particular form of ire.
As for RGE, for all the value intended by their program, they have received constructive feedback on this same destructive selection pattern for nigh on a decade – from the wider theatre community and their own former panelists. Every time, they have offered value statements in place of action. No-one should be surprised that they fell back on such again this year. It’s a well established reflex that allows arts organisations, strongly convinced of their provision of a public good, to avert their gaze from any acts of erasure or complicity in the grand narratives of white supremacy.
This is what the “merit” argument boils down to – the idea that the cream rises to the top. That the only measure is quality and the measuring stick is above reproof. Despite, you know, decades of reproofs. Books exposing how mythologies of meritocracy serve to obstruct equal opportunity. Studies and symposiums on unconscious bias and the specifics of how it operates. Women have long fought for space in the creative industries, as in all other male-dominated industries, against the argument that men are innately better at art, writing, direction, designing, management, training, telling jokes and playing the lute.
It is at best disingenuous to blame the lack of representation on those not represented – to claim that #justnotthatmany** of them exist, presented, or were good enough when they did. Anyone who has spent any real time in studios and rehearsal rooms with people who don’t look like them or have different approaches to their craft, can attest to the fact that talent arrives in many forms.
Moreover, it thrives in different contexts. I have taught, mentored, auditioned, directed or otherwise sought to amplify opportunities for extraordinarily talented young PoC, several of whom have gone on to perform in leading roles in commercial music theatre in Australia and overseas. I am by no means the only one. Did these artists rock up to an RGE audition in their time? Of course they did. The idea that increased inclusivity in these kinds of programs – and indeed the institutions that govern them – means sacrificing standards is to posit a false distinction between diversity and excellence.
It’s a logic that even the would-be RGE beneficiaries didn’t buy for a moment. I was fortunate enough to meet with this exemplary cohort at the very outset of their journey as “The 30”. This was a group of millennials who barely knew one another and found themselves in an invidious position through no fault of their own. They were invested, generous, open and articulate. They practised kindness, making space for different voices and each other’s vulnerability, as they navigated how best to invite dialogue and live their own values. Above all, they remained determined to initiate change within their sphere of influence. Their integrity and role modeling throughout this controversy puts many an arts organisation to shame. It was profoundly affirming to witness.
Their experience of agency (something that I truly hope has been formative and will remain with them throughout their individual careers) is not the only positive to come out of these past four weeks. Our community has rallied to instigate a number of programs including the AOC Initiative and Be You Inc/ Associated Studios bursaries. These align and intersect with existing initiatives like Stage a Change to counter the barriers PoC and First Nations artists face before they even arrive in an audition room, and to ensure they are afforded a safe and supportive environment once they get there. There is also a joyous artistic collaboration soon to be released that employs the old ‘show don’t tell’ showbiz adage and simultaneously demonstrates that, as Rachel Chavkin declared at last year’s Tony awards, “this is not a pipeline issue”.
And here we orbit back to the crux of the matter. The false binaries and so-called metrics are distractions that obscure the truth. Whiteness is centred everywhere in our story-telling and cultural institutions, not by accident or an unequal distribution of natural talent. It is linked to our colonial past and the explicit racial hierarchies that have informed our nationhood since its inception. It is embedded in our collective cultural unconscious and cannot be magicked away by wishful thinking.
It takes work. It takes will. It takes imagination and humility and genuine commitment. The specific qualities the arts community prides itself on and espouses to emerging practitioners.
Certainty, by contrast, is toxic to curiosity. Some in our sector will cling rigidly to familiar modes and models, even as they demonstrably and consistently fail us, purely because that’s what they know. And make no mistake, this fails us all.
The project of decolonising our performance practices and institutions is not a fringe agenda. Nor can it be justly characterised as bullying or harassment. It is precisely the opposite: it is a sustained expression of love and hope. Every time this sort of melee unfolds, there is untold damage done to the wider community. Every time, dozens and dozens of those impacted volunteer their energy and expertise, offering dialogue and practical advice. The paradigm shifts that marginalised communities are striving to realise within our sector are achievable – not in some indefinite and ever-deferred version of the future, but right here and now. Rich gifts abound if we readjust our lens.
The discovery of the first exoplanets in the 1990s shattered astronomers’ preconceptions and exponentially enlarged our understanding of the universe. At this most precarious time for our industry, theatre that represents and thus resonates with more Australians is surely the key to our collective survival. We cannot afford to squander any opportunity to expand the dimensions of our shared storytelling.
* Before being disgraced for, you guessed it, sexual harassment.
** The title of last year’s national visibility campaign that gave the lie to this oft-invoked excuse.