Update 4:10pm: The Rob Guest Endowment (RGE) has announced the 2020 scholarship has been cancelled. RGE said it was “concerned for the mental health and welfare” of this year’s finalists.
“They have endured significant challenges which are likely to intensify should the competition enter its second and third rounds,” RGE said in a statement on Friday. “Due to the lack of racial diversity of the semi-finalists, we received criticism for not doing enough to attract Black, Indigenous and People of Colour applicants. Our initial response in August contained language that we should have known was offensive and we apologise unreservedly for any offence caused.”
You can read the full statement on RGE’s website.
Six years ago, a white man was cast to play King Mongkut with a Thai accent in the Sydney production of ‘The King and I’.
The work was considered racist and was accused of snatching already limited job opportunities from minority actors. Now it’s 2020, and we ask: Is the Australian musical theatre scene any better at diversity?
Short answer is not really.
Last month, prestigious theatre scholarship Rob Guest Endowment (RGE) (which provides a near $50k cash prize) was called out for overlooking artists of colour when it announced its 2020 semifinalist list, a lineup that appeared to be all white.
Followers said the lack of diversity was “inherent racism” and “hugely disappointing,” which led the organisation to post a lackluster apology that stated the competition’s metric of success was based purely on “talent” and that “race and colour was not considered.”
“This response isn’t good enough,” wrote one follower.
“The only metric was ‘talent’ so you think only white people are talented,” posted another.
Writer Benjamin Law explained on Twitter that the problem comes from the top and that RGE has simply blamed artists of colour for not submitting applications:
An industry insider told HuffPost that leadership teams in the industry are a uniformly white cohort who don’t go the extra mile to seek and nurture talent from culturally diverse corners of Australia, which results in productions having to “excessively spray tan” the ensemble of Aladdin or direct Shrek to emulate a “Black-cent”.
Since the second round of social media backlash from RGE’s first response to the feedback, the committee has 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 the requests raised by advocacy groups regarding its structural measures for inclusivity.
“(We wanted) transparent disclosure of voting processes/selection criteria, apology for past statements by the RGE which gaslight the lived experiences of POC, and considerable action towards inclusivity and accurate representation of what Australian talent looks like in 2020, with tangible outcomes, effective immediately,” artist Aiv Puglielli said.
“It can be deemed (to my knowledge) performative action, rather than truly listening to outcry from POC and allies… Are you expecting applause for meeting a bare minimum standard here?”
Meanwhile, a new scholarship has been launched to nurture theatre excellence for performers who identify as Bla(c)k, Indigenous or POC. You can donate to the Artists of Colour Initiative (AOC) prize pool here.