Is the actor an agent of colonisation who we are neglecting to address?
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Tokelauan Fijian actress Emele Ugavule believes conversations around diversity must fundamentally challenge the role of the actor.

Is the actor an agent of colonisation who we are neglecting to address?

by Emele Ugavule See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
20th Feb 2019
Is the actor an agent of colonisation who we are neglecting to address?

I went to NIDA. Yep. I’m a Drama School kid.

My training at NIDA was, for the most part, an extensive and rigorous continuation of the legacy of European theatre Gods. Chekov, Brecht, Shakespeare, etc.

Throughout my entire tuition, I had no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander tutors or classes on Indigenous theatre. I learnt the term ‘intercultural theatre’ in second year in one of my literature classes and ‘intra-cultural practice’ in my third year from Kristine-Langdon Smith, though I did not take her class.

My only memory of learning any kind of non-European storytelling form was a week of masterclasses with the incredible Butoh Master, Yukio Waguri.

Of those in my first year at NIDA, eight of my cohort would be classified as Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD), three of which were international students.

By second year, this figure was reduced to five CALD students (none of whom were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander).

So where did that leave me? A twenty-something Tokelauan Fijian?

I scoured the library for plays by Pasifika playwrights, dissertations on their mountings, a list of well known Pasifika directors I could aspire to work with, really just any evidence of my people’s existence in Australia’s theatrical canon.

We were nowhere to be found. At least nowhere I could easily access the existing work.

Black. That was how my tutors classified me. A Black actor. I learnt Black accents, dialects, monologues, plays. You name it, I learnt it.

Except Aboriginal Black. One day a Caucasian male classmate said to me, “I can play French, Italian, Russian…” then asked “Would you ever play an Aboriginal person?” to which I instantly replied, “Nope, not my story to tell.”

I didn’t have the language to articulate why not other than because it would be “unethical”, but I instinctively knew there was a line.

Upon graduating, I was faced with a question:

How much does my cultural identity inform my work as an actor?

Turns out it was a lot, actually.

Image from Exhale by Black Birds for Next Wave & Arts House.
Image from Exhale by Black Birds for Next Wave & Arts House.

According to written history, Thespis was the first actor to appear on stage playing a character. This is where the term Thesbian, colloquially referring to people who work in theatre, originated from. But that doesn’t mean he was the first person to do so, it just means he’s the first person in the world who has written proof he appeared on stage.

Drama school was a tiny acting utopia. You could experiment with character and voice and hone your craft without real-time industry politics affecting you. There was no class that presented case studies on the ethics of a Pacific Islander ‘embodying’ other ambiguous Black ethnicities in plays written by white men that were developed in rehearsal structures created and directed by white men and women.

There was no conversation around the difference between playing a nationality and an ethnicity.

But there should've been. I was failed by my university education and as a result I, like many other People of Colour, have since spent graduation teaching myself through like-minded peers, articles from Indigenous scholars and bold Instagram accounts.

As I become increasingly engrossed in the conversation around diversity, I feel a responsibility to challenge the discourse around theatre and it’s insistence on a Euro-centric conception, history and future.

Indigenous peoples are oral historians. Theatre has been an integral part of my people’s resistance against colonialism through the re-iteration and self-determination of our narratives in live performance four hundreds of thousands of years.

Therefore, the conversation about diversity surely must challenge not just the role of the creative time but also that of the actor.

Image from Exhale by Black Birds for Next Wave & Arts House.
Image from Exhale by Black Birds for Next Wave & Arts House.

Does cross-racial, ability and sexuality casting reinforce colonial entitlement to ownership of people, including their narratives? Is it a form of lateral violence and erasure to accept a role that is not your own lived experience?

I dare to say yes. Is it wrong? In most cases, the answer remains a foggy grey. Can it happen in isolation? Definitely not. Normalisation of diversity requires full, lateral and co-operative allyship.

If it is meaningful, it is uncomfortable for the privileged. The myriad of intersections that contribute to our complex identities deduce that even marginalised bodies experience privilege

This ‘one method suits all’ mindset is outdated. I’d like to see a genuine shift in discourse that actions trialling other methods of measuring successful storytelling and capable storytellers. I’d like to see research, development and rehearsal models that attempt to prioritise kinaesthetic process over our current literacy obsessed focus. I’d like to see an attempt to customise models to suit the needs of each individual community writers, directors and production companies work with. I’d like to see a collaborative effort of exchange and up-skilling between the privileged and the marginalised that places building genuine relationships at the core of storytelling.

The MEAA’s Diversity Committee was established to address barriers for diverse casting within the theatre, film and television industry. Namely, “the casting of culturally and linguistically diverse performers, women performers and performers with disability in roles where race, ethnicity, sexual preference, gender or the presence or absence of a disability is not relevant.”

Bali Padda, the former chair of the Diversity Committee, believes establishing a quota system is something we no longer should be scared of, but suggests that the current quota frameworks aren’t conducive to their purpose.

“You can’t just throw people into a scenario, if you just kind of handpick someone which can fill that target, that quota, you’re setting them up to fail with entering into that field and you’re setting your company and your organisation up to fail as well.”

Padda offers an alternative where not only are there number quotas to match employment rates by a certain year, but there is a shift within internal infrastructure.

“If you just go, oh yeah, we’ll hire five People of Colour within this artistic organisation by 2020, it’s like okay, where are you gonna find them? Who have you identified that is already orbiting your organisation that needs some leadership training or development or a secondment? What can you do to make sure that they’ll be ready in two years time to step into this role?”

Understanding that new pathways require time to form, Padda encourages organisations to keep moving forward even if their expectations aren’t met on the first go. Training people is one the first steps towards breaking the cycle of existing barriers.

Ethnically, ability & sexuality appropriate casting should be recognised as an investment.

I would like to be given the opportunity to excel, grow and fail without being held to the same colonial western standards of theatrical storytelling as my white counterparts. My people have done that for thousands of years. It’s time to even the playing field.

Image from Exhale by Black Birds for Next Wave & Arts House.
Image from Exhale by Black Birds for Next Wave & Arts House.

2018 saw the establishment of the first National Performers Committee for First Nations peoples. Elaine Crombie stepped into the role of First Nations organiser and Indigenous Committee Convenor after a series of roundtables were held across the country.

This historic move makes Australia the first country in the world to have a First Nations representative within a national performing arts union.

It signified the need to address and prioritise difference in cultural and legislative rights of First Nations actors, writers, directors, designers & producers within the arts sector and is an incredibly positive and integral step towards stronger inclusive practice for all across the board.

A few months ago, I attended Moogahlin Performing Arts symposium ‘What Makes a Resilient First People’s Performing Arts Ecology?’. I sat in a room with some of the industries biggest decision makers and watched them share their thoughts.

“Nothing about us without us!”, the three Artistic Directors, (Lily Shearer, Frederick Cooperwaite and Dr. Liza-Mare Syron) exclaimed proudly as we discussed the inception stage of projects involving First Peoples.

It was clear that their opinion is any storytelling project that was not organically conceived from within community, is not directly about community nor helpful.

And I agree.

With drama schools churning out hundreds of fresh graduates every year across these great nations, the market is increasingly competitive and unsustainable for actors to share opportunities and say no to work. Therefore, they have a responsibility to arm their graduates with every storytelling tool they can. Not just those invented by white European men.

Australia’s theatre industry is at a crucial turning point into meaningful, active conversation around what diversity really means and the sacrifices that need to be made to ensure it happens.

I want to imagine a beautiful, thriving collaborative world of theatre-making where everyone can be heard. But we can’t get there without some serious growing pains.

Support MEAA's Diversity Committee.

MEAA Diversity Committee
Emele Ugavule

About Emele Ugavule

Emele is a Tokelauan (Te Kaiga o Fagatiale, Nukunonu, Te Kaiga o Koloi, Uea) Fijian (Kaideuba) multi-disciplinary storyteller working across live performance and film as a performer, writer, director and photographer.  Her work is intercultural centering the development of trans-indigenous collaborative creative processes & outcomes informed by Indigenous epistemological frameworks.  She is the Creative Director of  Talanoa  

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