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Multiculturalism and the Main-stage

Queensland Multicultural Week runs from 21 August to 6 September 2015. Arts Queensland asks former Australia Council Theatre Diversity Associate, Joon-Yee Kwok, to shine a light on cultural and linguistic diversity on Australian stages.

In 2013, one in four of Australia’s 22 million people were born overseas: 44 percent were born overseas or have a parent who was, and four million speak a language other than English. We speak over 260 languages and identify with more than 270 ancestries. Australia is and will remain a multicultural society.[i]

However, as writer Roanna Gonsalves, observes, “If the performing arts are meant to hold a mirror to society, then the Australian performing arts sector functions as a spectacular distortion.”[ii] Why is this so?

Some argue that embracing cultural and linguistic diversity in theatre is too risky. Some blame conservative theatre audiences and their lack of interest in seeing culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) artists and their work. Further, there is an opinion that CALD artists do not represent Australia but their ethnic origins. And although this may represent a cultural and economic opportunity to attract new culturally diverse audiences, without funding to be able to improve representation and access, some believe that embracing cultural diversity is just too financially risky.[iii]

Notions of excellence and professionalism are also at play. Perhaps due to the ghettoization of artists from diverse cultural backgrounds to the “multicultural arts” and “community arts” sectors – which come with their own negative associations – there is a perception that CALD artists have low levels of professionalism and innovation. And while there are some CALD artists working professionally in the mainstream, they are so few in number that some feel that it does not warrant investment in their development. [iv]

These perceptions and attitudes have created a distance between the sector and CALD artists who indicate a lack of connection to and knowledge of the wider arts sector and the mainstream as a barrier to their success. This disconnect is further experienced through Australian theatre norms which reflect a mono-cultural mainstream strongly influenced by English theatre traditions and a sector which prefers to work with people that they know. As such, there are a lack of appropriate plays and roles for CALD artists, actors in particular, which often results in typecasting. Further, the domination of spoken word and the English language, creates a conservatism and risk-aversion that does not seek other ways to make meaning, include diverse cultural voices, or innovate the form itself. [v]

All in all, despite the good intentions, some argue that there is simply a lack of will and responsibility to develop theatre which acknowledges and reflects Australia’s cultural diversity. [vi] And whether, consciously or unconsciously, the Australian theatre sector is excluding those who may be able to do something about it. As the Chair of Arts Council England, Peter Bazalgette stated, “If your work ends up being ‘male, pale, and stale’, it won’t look to those on the outside as if the arts belongs to them. They won’t try to get in. So the circle stays closed.” [vii]

Opening the circle is not only imperative to resolving the issue of representation, but it is vital in these times of economic uncertainty. Embracing cultural diversity presents a number of benefits and opportunities:

  • a range of voices creates a more inclusive culture, one that encourages a variety of perspectives, challenges established ways of thinking and doing, and generates innovation and new ideas;
  • a diversification of income streams through increasing reach and engagement with new markets, funders and audiences;
  • new advocates for the arts by creating connections to groups and communities from different places; and
  • artistically vibrant, resilient and relevant arts organisations that are responsive to changing environments. [viii]

Breaking down the barriers in order to take advantage of the benefits of cultural diversity is a necessary step towards the vision of cultural diversity as ‘business as usual’ and an inclusive main-stage that reflects the multicultural reality of contemporary Australia.

Joon-Yee Kwok is a Creative Producer, Experience Designer, Arts Manager and Lecturer in Creative Production and Arts Management at QUT. She is currently on the Board of Metro Arts and convenes the Australian Bureau of Asian Creatives. She is also the former Australia Council Theatre Diversity Associate (2014-15), succeeding Chris Kohn in 2014. This role was created in 2012 by the Australia Council for the Arts and Arts Queensland in response to widespread concern from the Australian theatre sector that CALD artists and audiences were under-represented in most aspects of creation and reception. This two-year pilot project, administered by BEMAC, saw a Theatre Diversity Associate shared between three collaborating organisations, Queensland Theatre Company, La Boite Theatre Company and Metro Arts, to increase engagement with CALD artists and their work.

For more information about this project and how we addressed the barriers to grow a culturally and linguistically diverse Queensland theatre sector:


[i] Department of Immigration and Citizenship. 2013. The People of Australia: Australia’s Multicultural Policy. Accessed 18 June 2015.

[ii] Gonsalves, Roanna. 2011. “Multiculturalism and Mainstage Australian Theatre”. In Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia 2 (2), 72-83.

[iii] Bertone, Santina, Clare Keating, Jenny Mullaly. 2000. The Taxidriver, the Cook and the Greengrocer: the representation of non-English speaking background people in theatre, film and television. Surry Hills: Australia Council, p. viii. Le, Huong, Una Jogulu, Ruth Rentschler. 2014. “Understanding Australian ethnic minority artists’ careers”. In Australian Journal of Career Development 23(2) 57-68. Kohn, Chris. 2013a. La Boite Work Plan March 2013, presented to La Boite Theatre Company: Brisbane, March 2013. Messariti, Anna. 1994. “Performing Artists – “We are Here, We are Visible”.” In Access to Excellence: A Review of Issues Affecting Artists and Arts from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds, 4, 83-87. Ribeiro, Leo. 2012. “Who’s afraid of cultural diversity?” Arts Hub, 29 September. Accessed 10 August 2015.

[iv] ibid.

[v] ibid.

[vi] ibid.

[vii] Bazalgette, Peter. 2014. “Delivering on Diversity”. Speech presented at the Arts Council and the Creative Case for Diversity event, Sadler’s Wells, 8 December 2014. Accessed 18 June 2015.

[viii] Nwachukwu, Tony and Mark Robinson. 2011. The role of diversity in building adaptive resilience. London: Arts Council England, 3 and 27-30; See also Australia Council for the Arts. n.d. “About Artistic Vibrancy”. Accessed 12 June 2015.