To theatre-maker Candy Bowers, Australia’s main stage theatre scene is a bit of a “twilight zone”, strangely disconnected from the society it seeks to represent.
“It’s hard for me to think about sometimes, because my life is just really diverse, like a lot of Australians’,” she says. “I don’t get the club. I don’t get that elite stuff.”
Diversity in theatre has been a major topic in arts circles over the last month, with some theatre companies revealing 2017 seasons with more diverse line-ups, and others being slammed for launching overwhelmingly white seasons.
According to Bowers, there’s a queue when it comes to inclusion on stage, which starts with straight white men, followed by gay white men, followed by white women, then black women, then perhaps gay black women, then trans people, all the way down to people with disabilities, who tend to fall at the end of the list. And there’s no real desire to change the status quo.
“Even young people are standing in the grooves,” Bowers says. “Rather than coming with their experiences, they’re coming in and going ‘I remember what great theatre was — it had a German aesthetic, and there were only white people in it, so I’m going to put that on again.'”
Bowers, who identifies as Blasian (she’s of African and Asian descent, with some Caucasian thrown into the mix), grew up in Campbelltown in Sydney’s south-west, and graduated from NIDA’s prestigious acting course in 2001.
Since then, she’s performed all kinds of roles in Australia’s performing arts industry. She’s directed her own successful Black Honey Company, produced shows with her sister, musician Busty Beatz, and been a host for Circus Oz, but only recently made her way onto the main stage of one of Australia’s state theatre companies, with two roles this year at Melbourne Theatre Company.
At the same time, Bowers has long been a strong advocate for diversity on our stages, serving on the MEAA Equity Diversity Committee.
But despite the success of Bowers’ self-produced work, as a plus-size black woman, she’s never fit the mould for most theatre companies.
“I got into NIDA based on my ability,” Bowers says. “And only now, after 18 years in the industry, I feel like my ability is getting me places. For the longest time I couldn’t get a casting because of how I looked, and my ability didn’t even come into it, because I didn’t even get to step onto the floor.”
Bowers is certainly not alone in this experience, and one of her self-produced works, Australian Booty, sprung out of that need to place her story centre-stage. She’d been working extensively with young women from diverse backgrounds from Sydney’s south-western suburbs, and realised that most of them had never seen a woman like Bowers talking about her body and the world from her perspective.
“The show totally bloomed from that, and also my own personal experience of never seeing myself in the media, or in films, or particularly on stage, which is my great love,” Bowers says.
The festival is an absolute celebration, but we also get to be an antidote to that idea of ‘these women aren’t good enough’
Australian Booty premiered at Melbourne Fringe back in 2011 and is being revived for a one-off performance at the Women in Theatre and Screen’s (WITS) Festival Fatale in Sydney later this month. The one-woman show merges music, comedy and spoken word to explore “Australian identity, interracial dating and the booty myth.”
Bowers was initially invited to be on the selection panel for Festival Fatale, but decided her show was the perfect piece for the program and submitted the work instead.
“The festival is an absolute celebration, but we also get to be an antidote to that idea of ‘these women aren’t good enough’ or, ‘these people aren’t out there’, which is amazing that that’s still the rhetoric that exists, rather than acknowledging there’s a problem and fixing it. There are plenty of people who are ready to step into those roles at any moment.”
Theatre is such an invitation-based space, unless you’re doing fringes. You need to be asked.
WITS formed in response to gender disparity at theatre companies across the country. It placed substantial pressure on Darlinghurst Theatre Company over its 2016 season, which saw the company embrace a policy of gender parity in 2017.
Bowers hopes that leaders from theatre companies in Sydney will come to Festival Fatale and see the work being created by female artists, and give those artists greater opportunities.
“Theatre is such an invitation-based space, unless you’re doing fringes. You need to be asked. That opportunity has to be given, you can’t just go and take it.”
Bowers says big changes need to be made in Australia’s theatre culture for it to be more representative in terms of gender, race, sexuality and ability.
“For whatever reason, Australia is holding onto this idea of a classic aesthetic. For me, it ties so deeply into the history of the patriarchy and the white patriarchy and colonisation; that set of structures that comes from the white straight male gaze. For me, personally, it’s like – burn it down.”
TV is totally changing shit up, and you think ‘how embarrassing for theatre’
While theatre companies mightn’t want to upset their whitebread subscribers by moving too far away from their expectations, Bowers points out that productions which come from new and, largely, unheard perspectives can be wildly successful.
Bowers recently co-created Hot Brown Honey, a smash hit feminist burlesque featuring all woman of colour, which toured to Edinburgh earlier this year. And just last week, Leah Purcell’s radical Indigenous reimagining of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife finished its critically acclaimed, sold-out season at Belvoir.
“I would question anybody in Australia, apart from those who have seen The Drover’s Wife just now, have they ever seen a black woman with true authority on stage?”
According to Bowers, black women are seen on our stages almost exclusively in subservient roles. While that narrative is being challenged in some art forms, local theatre is lagging behind.
“TV is totally changing shit up, and you think ‘how embarrassing for theatre’,” she says. “I grew up wanting to make theatre and be a playwright and actor. I just thought theatre was going to be the leader because you can be anything and do anything — I can play a white Dutchman, which would be difficult to do on TV — and I look around and think ‘wow, theatre is just not doing it’.”