Telling stories about other cultures can be a minefield for any writer, and indeed is a significant issue in Australian theatre. In this panel, playwrights from varied backgrounds discussed how to navigate this tricky space. It sparked a fascinating conversation about the limits, dangers and rich rewards of writing diverse stories.
Moderator Michele Lee opened the panel by reading out an extract of a letter by Korean-American playwright Lloyd Suh, written when he discovered that a university theatre group had cast white actors as South Asian characters in their production of his play Jesus in India. He criticised this misrepresentation of his story, arguing that it ‘contributed to an environment of hostility’ towards people of colour.
This introduction, which drew outraged muttering from the audience, provided a jumping-off point for discussing issues of representation and ownership in the theatre.
The distinguished panellists came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Kylie Coolwell spoke about her special privilege and responsibility, as an Indigenous playwright, to tell stories about her people in a way that only she can.
Donna Abela, on the other hand, has found herself having to frequently justify herself to others for representing stories that are not her own. She emphasised that her aim isn’t to pretend to be something that she’s not – her passion lies in seeing the theatre as a meeting place where people from different backgrounds can come together, learn from each other, and see their own stories in others’ experiences.
Consultation and collaboration are words that are often thrown around in discussions of representation, to the point that they can become meaningless. The panellists pointed out the importance of genuine collaboration rather than getting ‘approval’ from a community member as a token gesture.
Instead, Jada Alberts suggests having people from the community in question involved in key creative roles. She commended her writer friend who was committed to the integrity of the characters he was creating, listening to these collaborators in such a way that their voice in the production became stronger than this own.
All this being said, you can’t please everyone. Even when taking the utmost care to represent their subject communities well, the panellists were no strangers to criticism. Dhananjaya Karunarathne spoke about coming under fire from his local Sri Lankan community for telling a story about their culture – even though the critics hadn’t actually seen the play in question.
There was clearly something deeper going on here, with the community objecting to any production that may criticise them in front of a white audience. Dhananjaya understands that while in many circumstances it is essential to listen to concerns from the community, others will just criticise for the sake of it.
In a story with a happier ending, Kylie found a very receptive audience in her own community. She stated that their opinions are the ones she cares most about and, fortunately, they loved seeing their own stories played out on stage.
All the panellists were clearly in agreement about the utter importance of doing justice to stories that fall outside of your lived experience. Productions that lazily give in to generalisations about cultures only add to the silencing of already marginalised voices.
The panel wrapped up by addressing the common misconception that diverse stories are not being told in Australia – when really we are just not looking hard enough. Local community theatres are putting on these kinds of productions, even if they don’t earn the money that larger theatre companies do.
We not only have responsibilities as writers when creating these stories, but also as audiences to support these ventures and demand better from the larger companies. Australian theatre will be richer for it.