Earlier this year, Miranda Tapsell (above, left) won two Logies for her role on Love Child and used her acceptance speech to encourage Australian media to “put more beautiful people of colour on TV and connect viewers in ways which transcend race and unite us”.
Pearl Tan is also hoping to encourage diverse casting in Australian film, television and theatre with a new pledge called #creatediversity, a promise from writers to put a statement alongside their character briefs to promote more diverse casting.
Tan is the director of Sydney production company Pearly Productions as well as an actor and filmmaker, and recently spoke at the 2015 National Play Festival in Adelaide to launch the pledge, hoping to promote diversity in “not just ethnicity, but sexuality, gender, age, and in particular disability because that is one of the most underrepresented minorities at the moment”.
The #creatediversity pledge is for anyone who writes for actors or performers such as screenwriters, playwrights and publishers. The idea came from one of Tan’s personal experiences, in which she was offered a role in Sydney’s production of the play Stop Kiss due to a note in the script by the playwright Diana Son, encouraging the casting of people that reflected “the ethnic diversity of New York City”.
An initiative of the Equity Diversity Committee and supported by Playwriting Australia, Australian Writer’s Guild and national advocacy organisation Kultour, the pledge has been well-received so far according to Tan. “It’s a positive platform,” she says. “We find that everyone does want to jump on board. They do want to help, they do want to cast more diversely, but they don’t know how. So this is a way to gather lots of organisations and people, get them on the same page, and have that as a platform.”
According to Tan, the effect that the media has on real life and culture is “absolutely huge”. “Visibility is key. Adult drama seems to be a little bit more generic and safe. It’s more acceptable here to have more diversity in comedy and kids programs … but adult drama has a long way to go. We see the same faces all the time, and we do need to push for more diversity on those sorts of programs.”
Marea Jablonski, Principal Director of acting agency BGM, agrees. “I think it is a big issue, because it could be argued that casting as it is does not reflect the cultural makeup of this country.”
Jablonski also acknowledges that there have been difficulties with encouraging a shift in casting. “There have been various initiatives that they’re trying to put in place to encourage diversity in casting, … but we’re still at the hands of the commercial producers and networks.”
Rachael Maza, Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Co., agrees that “there’s been really very little progress in this area despite continuous efforts”.
According to Maza, diversity in casting is “an absolutely, seriously long overdue issue”. “[The media is] so, so important – they represent us. And I believe that they have the responsibility to represent us honestly and accurately.”
Maza thinks that the #creatediversity pledge is a step in the right direction. “I love what it’s asking writers to do, to actually add it in the script that this character could be played by anyone. I reckon that could be brilliant because if you don’t do that, it’s assumed that the character is going to be white [even if] there are no [physical] references, if that person could theoretically be played by anyone.”
“We are really confident that there is an appetite amongst audiences to see greater diversity on our stages,” says Alice Nash, Executive Producer of Back to Back Theatre. “I think that collectively as an industry we have an immense responsibility to insure that that diversity is reflected in the public domain.”
Tan thinks that more casting companies should embrace diverse casting for two reasons: business (according to the Hollywood Diversity Report, diverse casts excel in ratings) and cultural representation. “We tend to have a lot of stereotypes at the moment, so if all we’re seeing are stereotypical characters … the cultural change in terms of acceptance won’t actually move forward. So visibility, and a variety of roles and three dimensional characters, is extremely important for Australian culture.”
Tan says that public statistics about diversity in Australian casting are hard to find at the moment: “It’s a big gaping hole at the moment, and so we’re relying on information from the US and the UK … but we look forward to getting some data to support our thesis.” Tan is currently working with Screen Australia on ways to gather data and statistics, which she says is somewhat difficult due to the sensitivity of the topic.
While people seem generally supportive about the idea of more diverse casting, Tan says that a fear of quotas contributes to some resistance in diverse casting. “We also have the fact that we’re dealing with artists, and it’s really tricky to censor, control or tell artists how they should create or what stories they should be telling.”
Maza also finds that companies are often reluctant to cast minorities because it seems like a “political statement” or comment.
The subject of cultural appropriation is also often discussed, in which non-minority actors receive criticism for being cast in minority roles. Some examples include New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes as King Mongkut in Sydney’s production of The King and I last year, as well as Emma Stone in Aloha.
“It’s tricky with this one,” says Tan. “I think a bona fide search for someone appropriate should always be made before just going to star power. I do understand that it’s challenging to find someone from specific minority groups suitable to play the role sometimes, but I’m also really tired of that excuse because I think it’s important to create those pipelines and pathways [for minority actors] … if they don’t have the opportunity to practice their craft, it becomes a vicious cycle. I definitely think there should be an effort made.”
Tan often gives this advice to minority actors auditioning for roles: “While it’s important to have awareness about [the lack of diverse casting], when you go into the audition room or when you’re doing the work, you can’t think about it. You can’t carry that chip on your shoulder. You have to just ignore it, do the work, be the best that you can be, and move forward. Otherwise we’re not going to break through any of these barriers.”
Tan is hoping to eventually expand the pledge beyond writers to other areas of the media in both stage and screen. “This is what we need, this is the future of the sustainability of our industry … we need to have diverse faces.”