Ignorance is Bliss - the whiteness of Australian theatre
A few weeks ago, I got the chance to attend the inaugural Australian Playwrights’ Festival, organised by Currency Press to celebrate their 50th anniversary. It is the first major playwriting festival since 2019, which marked the last year of the National Play Festival. With the sudden implosion of several leading curatorial organisations in this sector in the last few years, it seemed that Currency Press was ready to pick up the pieces and bring the community together again.
Australian theatre has endured a particularly rough period, at all levels of the profession. As we settle into year three of the pandemic, artists are left straining to pull together careers as financial backing continues to vanish. Now is certainly the time for an honest discussion about the future of this industry, for thinking through practical ways to keep doors open to as many people as possible. While this was certainly a theme of the Festival (or at least, the panels I was able to attend), I can't help but feel a sense of trepidation. The most pressing of issues may not have been openly discussed at the APF- rather, the side-stepping I witnessed was a revealing and depressing affair.
By far the most enlightening panel I attended was entitled Black Theatre Today. Chaired by Wesley Enoch, the conversation had by Nathan Maynard, Andrea James and Nakkiah Lui was a rare opportunity to see artists of their calibre discuss the politics and systems that shape their work. They advocated for black outs at theatres and accessible ticketing to encourage Aboriginal artists and audiences into theatrical spaces. As some of the most interesting playwrights working today, they know better than most the value of reaching out to communities that have been isolated away from the mainstage, and making work that interrogates the state of Australia as a nation and as a community.
And yet, as Enoch opened the floor to questions, a pattern that had revealed itself throughout the day was solidified when a white woman began her query with the same words so many had already used-
"I don't have a question- I have a statement."
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with statements, of course- there rarely is anything inherently wrong with the tools of casual racism. It's casual, after all. Unobtrusive, almost polite, the kind of thing that raises no critical thoughts as it leaves the mouth and grinds the discussion to a halt. The panel were polite enough to listen to the lady's comment, but thankfully Nakkiah Lui took the time to explain the disrespect of getting up not to ask but to monologue. The woman had the chance to learn, and she chose instead to state.
It was a moment among many like it. More than once we watched white playwrights, talented and influential, proclaim that nothing should stop them from writing any story they like. They repeatedly conflated the playwright's right to say what they want with the right to have any script funded and performed. A successful playwright in his third decade as a cultural leader has the right to write about the experiences of refugees, Aboriginal people- anyone he wants. And of course, this was met with applause, each time it was restated. We also got the opportunity to watch a room full of people discuss the uselessness of trigger warnings. Never mind that they are an aspect of mental health accessibility, akin to access ramps or closed caption performances- no, I learned that they take the punch out of edgy subject matter. That the theatre should never coddle.
I can certainly appreciate the feeling that some artists have that they should be allowed to write whatever story grips their soul, regardless of the consequences. That's why no government agencies have cracked down on that kind of speech in Australian theatre in a long time. No one is forcing trigger warnings on theatre companies. No one will throw you out of the Paddo RSL if you give a statement during question time.
Talking over Aboriginal artists, laughing about those neurotic trigger warnings, applauding a white man's entitlement to white audience approval- this is the state of things. This is the sentiment that underpins it all. And it is the sentiment, like toxins leaked into groundwater, that all new artists risk being fuelled by. That risk is significantly higher for the emerging artists that have no urgent need to be critical of the status quo- white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, wealthy, safe and sound under the bed, ears blocked and eyes shut.
That's what I learned at the Australian Playwrights' Festival- despite the claims that Aussie theatre should be edgy, no one was budging from the most comforting comfort zone of all. A comfort so imperceptible if you simply refuse to look at it. White supremacy, racism, cultural genocide- such ugly words. Australia isn't like that, white folks comfortably say, with every white face in the crowd nodding along.
And they’re right- Australia isn't like that. For us.
The fear I had in thinking about writing this piece is what is forcing me to. I'm afraid of saying the wrong thing. I'm afraid that I'm overstepping by writing or thinking about white supremacy in Australian theatre. I don't want to offend anyone, even if they offended me first.
But if I feel comfortable in silence, and if I choose to remain there, then there is no arguing that anyone else should try.
There is a system built around white theatre makers that ensures our political comfort. We are the tolerant artists, after all- we marched with our friends and made donations and live in the big, loving melting pots of the coastal cities. We don't want to embody the nasty politics that our less-cultured family members or hometown peers might. We sustain our intellectual curiosity on a diet of good, refined, healthy culture.
Or, that is the thinking. Because our theatre culture can't be poisoning us. If we were poisoned, surely we would have noticed by now.
We know that 'ignorance is bliss', but we clearly don't understand it. To be ignorant is bad, and I am not bad- therefore, I am not ignorant. But perhaps we would all benefit from actually thinking about what bliss looks like. Bliss is not a matter of being a millionaire writing tycoon, a famous director in a big mansion, or a world-renowned actor. Bliss is simple. Bliss is making money from your art. Bliss is having your plays staged in front of cheering crowds. Bliss is having your career taken seriously, its longevity considered a given. Bliss is not being told that your characters are too diverse, and there aren't enough actors to play them. Bliss is never worrying that you'll be murdered for your words. The sooner we see that bliss is not something we automatically deserve, the sooner we become a lot less ignorant.
No one has the right to silence any artist. We do, however, have the power to simply ignore them. You have the right to make any art you want- you are in no way entitled to your art being taken seriously. If you do no take racial inequality and cultural genocide seriously, and yet you make art about it, then perhaps the truth is simply that your art is not good enough. Perhaps you should keep it in the drafts and try again. Perhaps you should stop standing up, in front of crowded rooms, giving statements and nothing more.