OPINION | Postcard from ATF17 – Riley Spadaro discusses diversity

Posted by Cecile Lucas, October 19th, 2017

Just how white is the Australian Performing Arts industry? How do we create space for diversity on our stages and within our organisations? This week, recent WAAPA graduate Riley Spadaro reports for us on his experience as first-time attendee at the 2017 Australian Theatre Forum, and outlines the profound challenges that arts organisations, producers and artists are facing when it comes to cultural diversity, what pathways can we create to be more inclusive and how can we embrace our differences.

What could “better” look like?

The Australian Theatre Forum is a biennial national conference for theatre artists, producers and cultural provocateurs to come together and discuss national concerns and practices. It is a significant industry event for sector-wide conversation and action. Co-curated by Alexis West and Steve Mayhew, and hosted on Kaurna Country at the Adelaide Festival Centre 3 – 5 October, ATF 2017 declared it was ABOUT TIME we tackled the sticky topics.


But where to begin? What are the problems and possibilities of our time?


Climate change?

Cultural competency?

Dismantling funding models? Gender constructs? Glass ceilings? Governance structures? Heteronormative narratives?

Implementing self care strategies?

Increasing diversity on Australian stages?


Q: “What can the arts actually do?”

A: [Pause]


A genuine dilemma here.

Deep breaths.

I can only begin by stating where I am.

I am a white, cis-gendered male who identifies as part of the LGBTQI+ community. Like most of my friends, I am standing in a space between Yes and No, between knowing and not knowing, with bullets flying past my head and “No” being written in the clouds above. It is a painful place to be, but I own that. I am a second generation Australian, but I do not identify as culturally or linguistically diverse. I am able-bodied. I am a graduate of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. I am educated (albeit with minimum earning capacity). By the time this blog is published I will be living in Sydney and working at Belvoir on Barbara and the Camp Dogs. I have mobility and I am unmistakably privileged.

I speak from this perspective because it is the one I know, but it is not a singular experience, nor should it be viewed as such. Space is not finite. Space creates space.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine (Image: Daniel Boud)

Without question, ATF 2017 was the most inclusive forum in recent memory – boasting 31 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander delegates, 47 CALD, 57 regional-based, 58 LGBTQI+ (5 of who identified using they/them pronouns), 25 people with disability, 78 young and emerging, and 101 with a special dietary requirement. I would love to believe this level of inclusivity was normal, and part of me, some days, naively thinks it is the case. But having these statistics read aloud and met with applause was an uncomfortable indication of how far we have to go. We are in a marathon – not a sprint – and we are tired.

It is important to acknowledge that we have been attacked, repeatedly, over the last two years. We have been faced with a traumatic government intervention into arts funding that quashed the small-to-medium sector, a global shift towards isolationist politics, an increase of 6 parts per million in C02 emissions, and now a divisive postal survey asking us to vote on someone else’s right to love. It is important to acknowledge that we are weary, but to give way to despair is the ultimate cop-out.

The opening keynote from Jo Bannon was a war cry.

“At our best, we are a bit fucked – personally, politically, socially.” (Yes, Jo. We know.)

“The pooch is screwed and it can’t be unscrewed.”

“Art can’t unfuck the world, but it can fuck it right back.


Invigorating. Exhausting. Toxic. The revolution was alive. What would the backlash be?

One delegate: “If you are not actively working to dismantle systemic structures of whiteness then you are participating in white supremacy.”

Another delegate: “Frankly, I’m tired of saying sorry.”

(Poor start. Let’s unpack.)


Earlier this year, I studied abroad at the Intercultural Theatre Institute in Singapore where I trained alongside students from across the Asia-Pacific Region. Studying in a culturally and linguistically diverse community forced me to confront my privilege as a white cis-gendered male (an uncomfortable discovery), and prompted me to ponder the questions: what is the underlying terror in the Australian cultural unconscious and does this terror give rise to the need to construct borders? Indeed, the imagined Australia is built on an Anglification of the geographical and ideological landscape. That is, non-Indigenous Australia – or, more specifically, ‘White Australia’ – is constructed on the idea that a person, object or geographical location can be classified as ‘Australian’ or as ‘Not Australian’ based on its seeming whiteness.

For performance studies scholar Joanne Tompkins, this anxiety with ideological classification stems from “a fundamental discomfort with the process of settlement and the establishment of nationhood” and a “will to forget what is actually known” 1 – that the Australian land mass always was (and always will be) Aboriginal land. Indeed, the notion of white ownership is institutionalised by a regime of truth which advances white nationalist discourses through legislative mechanisms of anti-immigration and marginalisation. For instance, hardline, state-sanctioned policies on border security and offshore detention work to enforce a white national identity by entrenching xenophobic attitudes towards ‘Non-Australians’ in legislative processes and systems – giving rise to a language that, in no uncertain terms, separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’

The use of this divisive language could be attributed to an unconscious lived-dislocation, or a seeming inability to construct a sense of being ‘at home.’ That is, the preoccupation with maintaining a ‘culturally pure’ national identity could stem from an innate insecurity towards the illegitimacy or non-permanence of white land ownership. Indeed, White Australia is constructed on a systemic dislocation and dispossession of land from Indigenous and First Nations people, and, therefore, any attempts to reclaim or reshape colonialist narratives are met with hostility.

But the arts are inclusive, right?

In her article Multiculturalism and the Mainstage, Dr. Roanna Gonsalves commented: “if the performing arts are meant to hold a mirror to society, then the Australian performing arts sector functions as a spectacular distortion.” 2 Today, 25% of Australia’s 22 million people were born overseas, 44% were born overseas or have a parent who was, and just under 20% speak a language other than English 3 and yet these culturally and linguistically diverse voices are largely under-represented in the Australian performing arts sector. 4

(Note: As a definition, ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ is problematic as it reinforces a sense of ‘other’ and addresses non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities as one homogenous group, rather than as separate cultures. However, despite these limitations, the definition is useful as it acknowledges that people of non-Anglo-Saxon background encounter a shared range of issues relating to access.)

Further, just over two years ago, the Australia Council for the Arts examined the programs of 135 Australian presenters and found that Indigenous and First Nations performing arts were under-represented in mainstream venues and festivals. Indigenous and First Nations works comprised around 2% of the almost 6000 works programmed in 2015 seasons. Almost 50% of presenters did not appear to program works with Indigenous or First Nations creative control, involvement or content, citing financial risk, difficulty in finding works that are not tokenistic, concerns that Indigenous work is “too serious”, fear of “doing First Nations work wrong”, and Australia’s underlying race issues as the main barriers. 5

And I get it – the truth always hurts. Being reminded that we are living on a land that never was (and never will be) ours is uncomfortable. Being told we have to “pay the rent” on stolen land is uncomfortable. But perhaps we need to lean into this discomfort and, like Indigenous performing artist Teila Watson (aka Ancestress) suggested, quietly take note of our resistances and work towards reconciling ourselves to them.

Perhaps we need to acknowledge that truth is subjective. Perhaps we need to embrace quiet and listen to each other’s truths. Listen to the pain. Listen to the wounding. Listen to the love. To listen is to move towards a space of not knowing, towards a space of zero. Conversation is the first step in dismantling the status quo. Words to speak over and over: “I don’t know, I’m listening, I don’t know, I’m listening, I don’t know.”

And I admit – all of this does seem out of reach. But it is important to remember that institutions are not natural phenomena – they have been invented and we can invent them anew. We need imagination as to what ‘better’ might look like. We need to let ourselves be led by our dreams.

Q: “So… what can the arts do?”

A: [Pause]


Art – in its most intoxicating form – holds its grounds while it destabilises yours.


On the first day of the ATF, in an incandescent response to the keynotes, Zainab Syed – Performing Lines WA Associate Producer and my friend – asked us to close our eyes and listen.


“… My dome will always shimmer in the sunshine

There will always be enough windows in me to let the light in.”


Art is to hold together. Art is thoughtful dissent. Art cannot change the world, but art can change people. People change the world.


Make the change you want to see.


Fuck back.


I have just disembarked from a red-eye flight to Sydney (a thought: is my exhaustion and lack of sleep an indication of something inherently good about myself?) and I am invigorated. This is the moment of change. Standing on the precipice of not knowing is electric.



Riley Spadaro, Independent Artist

Barbara and the Camp Dogs | 2-23 December.

Belvoir Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney | Info and tickets>>


1 Tompkins, J. (2006). Unsettling Space: Contestations in Contemporary Australian Theatre. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan.
2 Gonsalves, R. (2011). Multiculturalism and Mainstage Australian Theatre. Journal of the European Association of Studies on Australia 2(2), 72-83.
3 BEMAC. (2015). Theatre Diversity Initiative. Retrieved from http://bemac.org.au/projects/theatre-diversity-initiative/
4 Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2013). The People of Australia: Australia’s Multicultural Policy. Retrieved from https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/12_2013/people-of-australia-multicultural-policy-booklet.pdf.
5 Australia Council for the Arts. (2016). Showcasing Creativity: Programming and Presenting First Nations Performing Arts. Retrieved from http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/research/ australia-council-research-rep-57c75f3919b32.pdf