22/09/2020 11:24 AM AEST

Row Over Rob Guest Scholarship's Diversity Grows As Finalists Deny Bullying

The musical theatre competition said it cancelled the 2020 award after semifinalists were ‘targeted’. The top 30 say it's not true.

Rob Guest Endowment
The 30 semifinalists, in the spotlight for being predominantly white, denied that they were bullied and say they had withdrawn from the competition voluntarily “to de-centre ourselves and to amplify First Nations and POC voices”.

The 30 semifinalists for the Rob Guest Endowment (RGE), Australia’s $50,000 musical theatre scholarship, have rejected the organisation’s claim that the competition was cancelled because the competitors were “bullied” as part of a protest over the lack of diversity. 

Last month RGE was called out for overlooking artists of colour when it announced its 2020 semifinalists, a lineup that appeared to be all white. What followed was a string of disastrous PR moves by RGE.  

Last week RGE announced the cancellation of the 2020 scholarship, saying in a a statement that it was “concerned for the mental health and welfare” of this year’s finalists who have “endured significant challenges which are likely to intensify should the competition enter its second and third rounds.” 

RGE also claimed some semifinalists had been “targeted”.

“We are aware that some semifinalists have been targeted and intimidated from a number of sources and as a result have experienced significant anxiety over recent weeks. 

“Bullying and intimidation have no place in a competition that has only ever sought to bring joy and hope to talented young performers in the commercial musical theatre sector,” the RGE leadership committee wrote in a statement.

But in a statement through the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) the semifinalists blasted RGE’s reason for cancelling the prestigious award, calling it a “harmful antiquated narrative.” 

The 30 semifinalists denied they were bullied and say they had withdrawn from the competition voluntarily “to de-centre ourselves and to amplify First Nations and POC voices”.

“We categorically refute any claim or insinuation made by the Endowment, or any others, that the competition had to be cancelled in order to protect us from bullying and/or intimidation from the EDC [MEAA’s equity diversity committee], or the POC and First Nations members of our industry,” the semifinalists said in a joint statement

“We have no interest in perpetuating this harmful antiquated narrative, which serves only to deplatform and erase First Nations and POC peoples and their voices.

“In response to the events leading up to yesterday’s statement, we fervently denounce the actions of the Endowment, including but not limited to: silencing POC and First Nations voices, misrepresenting us and our stance on the matter, and the lack of transparency that has occurred from within the Endowment.” 

The Equity Diversity Committee (EDC) worked alongside the 30 semifinalists and RGE with over 100 stakeholders on a list of changes they hoped to see with the endowment. The EDC said the committee, along with the finalists, were blindsided by the cancellation of the competition. 

“It is disappointing that the time, lived experiences, and wealth of knowledge and skills that were volunteered by the EDC, our members and our wider industry has been mislabeled as ‘bullying’ and ‘intimidation,’” EDC said in a statement.  

RGE told HuffPost Australia on Monday it had no further comment.

Last month RGE was called out for selecting a group of semifinalists that appeared to be all white. 

Followers said the lack of diversity was “inherent racism” and accused RGE of basing success purely on “talent” and not considering “race and colour”.  

Writer Benjamin Law said on Twitter that RGE was blaming artists of colour for not submitting applications: 

Since the round of backlash from RGE’s first response, the endowment’s committee issued an apology and a raft of promised changes for next year’s competition, including altering the application process to ensure that people can identify their diverse backgrounds. 

“We accept 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 musical theatre performers,” RGE told HuffPost in a statement.  

“We apologise for our omissions and failures in the 2020 competition.” 

RGE has also said that the leadership team and judging panel will include “a minimum 20% BIPOC and diverse representation” as well as that 20% of the first round of finalists will be “from a diverse array of entrants including Indigenous Australians and people of colour.” 

The announcement was met with numerous replies online, with some saying RGE failed to properly address structural measures for inclusivity. Performing artist Aiv Puglielli called for a more transparent selection process and an immediate commitment to reflect “what Australian talent looks like in 2020.”

Meanwhile, a new scholarship has been launched to nurture theatre excellence for performers who identify as Bla(c)k, Indigenous or POC. The Artists of Colour Initiative (AOC), founded by actor Tarik Frimpong, will crowd-source the prize pool.