Equity & Inclusion Manager Cessalee Stovall offers up five practical strategies for making your theatre practice more inclusive.
The world is a-changing. Heading into 2022, change is probably the most constant theme of the last two years, and though it’s not easy, it’s not always a bad thing.
If we zoom all the way out and look at the global context, we see that there are many events and occurrences that have incrementally shifted the consciousness of theatre-makers and arts practitioners in terms of diversity in the arts. The waves of inclusion have been swelling over the last decade, but the untimely murder of George Floyd sparked a shift that has radically changed the conversation. We’re moving past the ideas of performative diversity, and into the realisation that in order to grow as an art form, theatre must engage in inclusive, accessible and equitable practices, for both the artists who create the work and the audiences who enjoy it.
If we could wave a magic wand and turn all theatre making processes into an accessible and inclusive experience where we prioritise the safety of all artists, engage all staff and stakeholders equitably, and create thought-provoking theatre that does no harm, we’d probably also be able to create world peace at the same time.
Sadly, the answer to this challenge is probably still a few decades away, but I have learned a few tips and tricks on ways to build an inclusive arts practice that moves in the direction that I am confident we, as a sector, should be moving.
These tips are relevant to a theatre practice today, specifically here at Malthouse, and hopefully will offer ways for you to build a more inclusive practice wherever you are. However, they come with the acknowledgment that change is our only constant, so please take them with a grain of salt and a spoonful of listening to the people and communities around you.
1. Check yourself before you wreck yourself and a whole lot of other people too
Step one to building an inclusive arts practice is critical self-reflection. Who are you? Where does your identity intersect with the story you’re telling? Where does it differ? Why are you the person to tell this story? Spoiler alert, if you have to convince yourself you have the right to tell this story, you probably shouldn’t be telling the story.
2. Back that bias up
Unconscious bias can really do a number on your artistic practice. In line with step one, it’s important to identify how bias might be affecting your decision-making process. Is halo bias causing you to only look to the one ‘hot’ designer for your project instead of considering who else is available? Is group think causing you to think a new production is particularly great, or not great, just because your colleagues do? Has overconfidence caused you to continue on with a project, even if it might cause harm? Consider the ways your practice might be influenced by bias and investigate the ways you can address them and adapt your behaviour.
3. We’ve got the power
Power is most powerful when you find ways to give it away. Traditional power structures tell us that the producer and director have power, the designers have some, the actors have a little and the staff has none. How can those who have power offer some to build a more equitable and inclusive process? Producers, can you offer informational power to the staff, sharing information with them that you know they want to know? Directors, can you give referential power, introducing them to people who might be good to know? Actors, can you give connective power to the FOH staff who shares the space with you every night?
4. Be more Spice Girls than Backstreet Boys
You started with you, you’re thinking about your biases, you’ve reflected on your power, now it’s time to reflect on who is rolling with you. Here’s a good test. First, write down the 10 people who most inform your arts practice – they can be your friends, artists you admire but don’t know, your favourite playwrights, anyone you’d like. Then I challenge you to think about their ethnicity, their gender, their nationality, their level of education, their religion, their income bracket. Do you notice more similarities or differences? Often our desired to be inclusive and representative in our productions is not reflected in the company we keep. Is there an option to grow your community? Can you read reviews from a perspective that is not your own? Have you listened to a podcast from artists of a different background? Do you get to know the work of artists who didn’t come through traditional tertiary pathways? If not, you’ve got a good list to get you started.
5. Scoot over, make some space
Whenever possible, wherever you can, make space. There’s always more room at the table. Make space for lived experience to supersede power dynamics. Make space for new voices with fresh ideas and new information. Make space for older voices with experience and earned knowledge. Make space for emerging voices who don’t know all the protocols but live the practice. Make space for the rebels who yell and shout loud messages while you make space for the change makers who are doing the work. Art is only as good as the community you make it with, so make space for the community you want to share in your practice.
Making theatre that is decolonized, anti-racist, emboldening for artists and audiences is a big ask. So while we work towards that in our own time, I offer these actions to you as a small way to build inclusivity into your arts practice.
Cessalee Stovall is the Equity and Inclusion Manager at Malthouse Theatre. She is also the founder and director of Stage a Change, an organisation that works to create more professional opportunities for artists of colour in Australia.