A few days ago, while embarking on my groggy morning Twitter scroll, I came upon the nominees of the 2018 Helpmann Awards. These announcements, usually one of the highlights of my creative year, rattled me for all the wrong reasons. Category after category was filled with all-white, majority-male artists. It genuinely felt like I’d awoken in the ’50s, amidst some kind of monocultural permafrost. The Helpmanns’ lofty intent to “recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in Australia's live performance sectors” suddenly appeared susceptible to bias, eerily reminiscent of George Brandis’ (widely reviled) proposal for a “National Programme for Excellence in the Arts”.
What is our criteria for artistic “excellence”? It’s inevitable that our individual tastes will inherently reflect our own lived experiences. But if those in positions of power entrench those biases within our commonly accepted standards of quality, we run the risk of further marginalising certain people, their voices and stories.
These questions arise at a time when some of the biggest arts and entertainment awards are grappling with their historical biases. The Academy Awards responded to the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite controversy by inviting a record 774 new members from 57 countries. The celebration of Hamilton, The Colour Purple and Eclipsed at the 2016 Tony Awards led to the hashtag #TonysSoDiverse.
So why is our Australian equivalent lagging behind?
I am certainly not suggesting that any arts organisations or Helpmann Award nomination panels would intentionally discriminate against certain artists, nor that the current nominees don’t deserve recognition. My concern is that unconscious bias may be adversely affecting the diversity of artists being celebrated.
Evelyn Richardson, CEO of Live Performance Australia (LPA), disagrees, noting that the awards are diverse in other ways, showcasing mature-age artists, LGBTQIA artists and artists with disabilities. Ballet and Dance categories also culturally diverse, with the Indigenous Bangarra Dance Theatre scoring nine nominations.
And yet, to the best of my knowledge, the following Helpmann categories have all-white nominees:
- Best Direction of a Play
- Best Direction of a Musical (also all-male)
- Best Direction of an Opera (also all-male)
- Best Female Actor in a Play
- Best Male Actor in a Play
- Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Play
- Best Female Actor in a Musical
- Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical
- Best Female Performer in an Opera
- Best Female Performer in a Supporting Role in an Opera
- Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in an Opera
- Best Comedy Performer
- Best Choreography in a Musical
An easy answer might be that the pool of eligible shows already lacked diversity.
“The awards and the nominees reflect what’s been presented on stage,” says Richardson. “And I think that the industry is very aware that we need to be presenting much more diverse stories and faces on our stages.”
Indeed, when I undertook a statistical analysis of cultural diversity in the 2017 seasons of Australia’s ten mainstage theatre companies, I found that a whopping 70 out of 95 productions were both written and directed by white artists. Less than a fifth (18 per cent) were written by a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) artists, while less than one seventh (14 per cent) had CALD or ATSI directors.
Whereas the 2016-17 awards season featured high-profile works with diverse casts and creatives (Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife; Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree; Future D. Fidel’s Prize Fighter), the current season was dominated by works with that familiar triumvirate of white writers, directors and leads: The Father, Muriel’s Wedding, Macbeth, The Elephant Man, The Children, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Black Rider.
The explanation offered by the Helpmanns – that they can only recognise the work that’s produced – is one frequently given by awards ceremonies when criticised for a lack of diversity. There is at least some degree of truth to it; when companies collectively produce overwhelmingly white narratives in the name of “quality”, it’s no wonder the representation is skewed.
But programming isn’t entirely to blame. Ambiguous notions of excellence not only appertain to nominated works, but also to the artists judging them. Helpmann judging panels for each artistic discipline are appointed by invitation and application to the Helpmann Awards Administration Committee (HAAC). But here’s the rub: panellists must “have each made a prominent contribution to that Artistic Discipline” and “collectively provide a reasonable representation of the Artistic Discipline”.
What does “reasonable representation” mean? Historical structural exclusion is widely acknowledged in our arts industries, so it is hardly surprising that those making “prominent contributions” are overwhelmingly white. Is it “reasonable” for the theatre nomination panel to be majority-white when every single artistic director of our mainstage theatre companies is too?
“We’re always reviewing those panels every couple of years, and we welcome suggestions for new people to come on board,” Richardson says. “The awards are evolving and we are very mindful that we need to be evolving with the broader context in which we’re presenting them.”
Perhaps, finally, some of the blame falls to us – the patrons whose tastes drive commercial imperatives, who often flock to American and British stories over new Australian work.
Robert Helpmann himself famously quipped, “I don’t despair about the cultural scene in Australia, because there isn’t one to despair about”. And that isn’t unreasonable when massive international shows dominate our stages, when an operatic adaptation of Hamlet is up for Best New Australian Work, when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will surely sweep up every Helpmann for which it’s eligible next year with dreadful predictability.
And yet, Helpmann’s extraordinary contribution to Australian arts – and yes, culture – seems to belie a deep devotion behind his contemptuous façade. With a continued investment in equal access and representation, the Helpmann Awards have the potential to champion Australia’s growth and diversification, rather than symbolise its stagnation.
“The awards evolve and the industry is committed to change, to cultural and gender diversity and a whole range of things,” Richardson tells me. “Each year it can vary in terms of what shows get nominated, but we just have to keep focused on ensuring that a wide range of Australian voices are created and told.”
The Helpmann Awards will be presented over two ceremonies in Sydney on July 15 and 16. See the full list of nominations.
Check out Time Out Sydney's latest theatre reviews.