I LEFT AUSTRALIA BECAUSE THERE WASN’T ENOUGH OPPORTUNITY
WHO IS THIS GUY?
Chris Fung arrived in the UK in 2018. Since, he has appeared as a Supernumerary for the acclaimed National Theatre production of The Lehman Trilogy (5 Olivier nominations 2019), was a member of the ensemble and cover Magaldi for Evita at Regents Park (2 Olivier Nominations 2020), and was ensemble and cover Valvert in Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse, starring James McAvoy (5 Olivier Nominations 2020).
Recently, the Rob Guest Endowment received a great deal of backlash regarding their announcement of the 30 most talented young MT performers in Australia, as entirely white. The award is noteworthy, because of its immediate and transformational nature. It is the biggest scholarship and award for Musical Theatre performers in Australia. Alumni walk directly into leading roles on Australian stages. The creatives involved are commonly on the panels of all of the top shows. It’s a thing. I’ll leave the unpacking of what this portends to other writers. Suffice it to say that as a significant touchstone of production appetites, the RGE matters. It is significant that the overwhelming majority of past winners and finalists are white.
For the savvy performer of colour, the RGE is one great way to gauge the possibility of work. Of course, the RGE is not the entire industry – still if I want a career then it’s up to me to read the signs that the industry gives me so that I can answer two critical questions: As a BIPOC performer, is there enough opportunity to satisfy me? Is Australian performance too white?
I decided to leave my home in 2018 because my answer was a heartbreaking ‘No’, and then ‘Yes’. I moved to another country because of this. Here are some of the things that led me to that.
These are my thoughts and because of that, I have a limited lens. I am not writing from a position of perfect objectivity or knowledge, I hope you can forgive that.
Get in the Starting Blocks!
Day 1 of Drama School, the acting coach runs us through a little get to know you thing, where we walk across the space and say something about ourselves. The intention is to highlight how hard it is to simply be ‘ourselves’ whatever that means. The scrutiny seems to magnify all manner of strange behavior. The task however, is super simple. ‘I’m Lauren and I like to dance.’ ‘I’m Lachlan, I play 9 instruments’ etc. My mind goes blank. When it’s my turn, I stride to the middle of the room, take a moment to look at my peers and say loudly, ‘My name is Chris, I am a spot of colour in a sea of white’. After a slight pause, I smile. The room laughs.
I had a good start.
I’m a grad of the Queensland Con MT program. Run by Paul Sabey, it is increasingly gaining a reputation as one of, if not the best Musical Theatre training programs in Australia. I had a job before I finished my training: at the end of my second year, I won a role in the Opera Australia/John Frost nationally touring production of The King and I as ensemble and understudy to the King.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a New Zealand born opera star, played the King of Siam. I love Teddy – we are gym buddies. Despite a storm of public complaints over the casting which are largely ignored by production, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with a white man playing one of only a few leading asian roles in the Musical Theatre Canon. After all, the precedent was set by legendary Russian-American actor Yul Brynner when he originated the role of King Mongkhut in yellow-face. I didn’t think it strange that of the creatives involved, only Choreographer Susan Kikuchi and her daughter, Assistant Choreographer Cassey were people of colour. Teddy would get spray tanned a lot.
Of the three actors hired to portray the title role of ‘The King’, none of them were born in Australia, none of them identified as Asian-Australian. They were all internationally imported talents. All phenomenal performers and people. I never think to consider what I think about them all being overseas hires.
A Word of Advice
It’s the start of second year. I’m in Paul Sabey’s office. I tell him that I’ve been looking at professional theatre casts in Australia from the past decade and I can see very few faces like mine there. I ask him why he let me in the course. I ask him what the point of the training is if I can’t get work in Australia. I ask him if I will find work, what kind of work can I expect to find? He says something which has stuck with me ever since.
“I’m not training you to an Australian standard. I’m training you to an international one.”
He tells me about the wealth of opportunities available on a global scale. We talk about China and the Pan-Asian theatrical scene. We talk about New York and London. We talk about ships. He says that when the time comes, if I want to go overseas, he will help. I trust him implicitly.
In 2020 Vidya Makan, another Queensland Con grad, is nominated for a Green Room award for Best Leading role in a Musical. It is for a critically praised turn as Dot in Watch This’s production of Sunday in the Park with George. It is the first time in Australia’s theatrical history that a performer of colour is nominated for a major award for a role traditionally played by a Caucasian actor in Musical Theatre. The joint eventual winners are Georgie Hopson, my classmate and a former RGE winner, alongside titan of the international stage the golden-throated, Anthony Warlow.
The King and I finishes at the end of 2014, so I do what anybody would do. I get an agent and audition. The rate of auditions is slow, 2 every 3 months or so. I use the intervening time to finish my MT degree. I get a Masters of Teaching. I learn more about vocal technique and musicianship. I am seen for things like the African Villagers in The Book of Mormon, a Black Radio DJ in Jersey Boys, The Lion King, Evita, Cats. I even audition for the RGE a bunch of times.
From the next 3 years, I land two jobs.
The first, a production of Here Lies Love, one of a handful of theatrical pieces released in the past decade to feature a heavily Asian cast, this one set in a vibrant and thrumming Phillipines. This production ends up being cancelled before rehearsals.
The second, a short production of The King and I in Singapore, in which I win the role of The King outright. This too is cancelled before rehearsals begin.
In general, I am given some really positive commentary in the audition room. Despite that, I wonder if they’re just being polite, and that I’m not landing jobs because my ability is holding me back. Maybe I just need to be better. I devote myself to my training.
There are few Asian faces in any kind of Australian media. There are 2 Japanese businessmen in Muriel’s Wedding in Sydney. There are 2 Chinese workers in a contentious production of ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ with Melbourne’s Production Company, featuring a leading character in yellow-face making racial puns at the expense of Chinese characters ‘Bun Foo’ and ‘Ching Ho’.
Kaeng Chan becomes a host on beloved children’s TV program Playschool.
In 2017, a production of In the Heights at the Brisbane Powerhouse is cancelled amidst a fierce online criticism storm that all the actors appear to not be from Latinx backgrounds, in a fundamentally Latin show.
In 2020, a production of A Chorus Line, Darlinghurst Theatre Company changes the last name of Connie Wong to simply Connie, hiring a Caucasian actress to fill the role, removing one of only a handful of specifically Asian opportunities in the MT canon. After a large public outcry, they shuffle their cast and hire a BIPOC actress, reversing their decision.
In 2016, Benjamin Law’s hit show The Family Law, features for the first time in Australian history, a leading cast entirely comprised of Asian-Australians on a nationally syndicated platform. It runs for 3 successful seasons. Why did it take so long? Benjamin Law is a highly talented and widely recognised writer and creative, and he has been speaking out against the lack of diverse representation at all levels of production in Australia for years. What can I learn from him?
John Frost OAM and the East End
During the Melbourne season of The King and I in 2014, we celebrated the unprecedented occurrence of 4 musicals being open in the same town at the same time in Australia.
This never before seen gathering of theatre makers throughout Australia’s history sharply brings into focus the size disparity between the Australian market and other international markets.
There are 39 theatres in London alone, with approximately 1,100 theatres across the UK. All of which are more or less open year round.
With fewer theatres, fewer productions are possible. Fewer stories get told, fewer opportunities are available to performers. With fewer theatres, there is less room for diversity of story, and diversity of casting appetites. How many development opportunities are there for new writers/new creatives? Is the next wave of Australian talent doomed to failure unless they move overseas? Why are the two strongest new Australian theatre writers Eddie Perfect and Tim Minchin working overseas as opposed to in Australia?
The producer John Frost of the Gordon Frost organisation is without question, the single most influential and powerful figure in the Australian Musical Theatre scene over the past 2 decades. He has directly funded or produced in partnership a vast majority of the professional Musical Theatre opportunities in Australia. His opinions shape my world. I wonder what his appetites for Australian theatre are.
In a promotional interview that has since been taken down, when asked ‘How do you put on a successful show?’, John Frost responds with a laugh ‘You take a hit from overseas, and you put an Australian star in it.’
When we close our eyes to dream, it’s rare to find someone who dreams of the back row. I wonder if it’s possible for me to lead a show in Australia one day. This leads me to asking some more questions:
What is John Frost choosing to stage? Who is he choosing to cast? How many faces like mine do I see on Australian stages? How many BIPOC performers do I see? Take a look at the GFO website and tell me how many you see?
I wonder to myself if I should be grateful to Ching Ho and Bun Foo my way through a career in Australia. I wonder if it’s possible to aspire for more. I wonder what roles Australia will allow me to play.
Principal Gavin Henderson of leading acting school, the Central School of Speech and Drama here in London, resigns after representatives admit to being ‘complicit in institutional racism’. The decision comes after Mr. Henderson publicly objects to diversity quotas stating that they would ‘risk damaging the school’s standards’. The idea being that candidates from diverse backgrounds are of a significantly lower quality than their ‘normal’ caucasian counterparts.
If fewer diverse actors have access to high level training, then fewer diverse actors will have the skills needed to perform professionally. There has been a historic disproportionate graduation rate of diverse actors from UK schools, echoed by a low number of diverse teachers at drama schools. I wonder if it’s the same in Australia. Are there fewer asian performers on stages, because there are fewer asian stories? Fewer asian producers and creatives and writers?
As I audition for jobs, I see the same 5 asian faces. We are rivals yes, but we are also friends. Collectively, we migrate from audition to audition like a tribe of water thirsty dessert wanderers. Always the same 5 faces. Always for jobs that require an asian actor.
Performing is for CHUMPS
When asked for advice on entering the industry, I’ve always said that if there are words I can use to dissuade someone from wanting a career as a performer, then they don’t want it bad enough. If I can bring someone statistics and show them how few people work as performers compared to the massive number of people who train at an elite level, how high the talent level is of people who AREN’T working, and these things make you pause: you don’t want it bad enough.
There is a pronounced mental health cost associated with chasing a career in the performing arts which comes from repetitively asking the question ‘Am I Good Enough?’. Sometimes people don’t get work over long periods of time simply because they’re not at a particular standard. Sometimes it’s because of a lack of opportunity. Which is it for me?
If there’s little opportunity for everybody, can one really be mad over the perceived reasons why there is lack of opportunity for BIPOC performers specifically? If Australia really does have a systemic lack of opportunity for diverse performers, does that even matter? How can any person demand of a private producer or collection of producers, that they should spend their money a certain way? ‘Hire me! Tell my stories! Put on shows where I belong’.
In what other industry is it permissible to say ‘I deserve opportunity’?
My answer is that I can’t. That I don’t *deserve* opportunity, that I have no say in how producers spend their money.
My answer is that the system is simply what the system is, and that if I choose to participate in it, that it is my lot to accept it for what it is right now. Beautiful and difficult and fickle.
I have this maddening itch I need to scratch at the back of my head. I need to know if I’m truly not good enough, or if it is a lack of opportunity, or a lack of suitability preventing me from finding work. I want more than I’m getting. I need to know.
Like a pantomime villain, slowly the resolve to leave Australia creeps upon me. I have not worked as a performer for 3 years. I am prepared to spend the next 10: jobless, tired and frustrated, in a strange new land, away from my family and friends – looking for answers to the questions I’ve raised above. I have nursed a growing feeling inside my heart. I want to clearly see the ceiling of my capacity, and I have grown an unshakeable certainty that I cannot find that in Australia.
I am willing to sacrifice everything searching for my answer.
Every journey begins with a single step
Here are some organisations looking to increase access to aspiring performers from a BIPOC background in Australia. If you are looking to apply, then great! If you are in a position to help fund some of these initiatives, also great.
The Artists of Colour Initiative – https://www.aocinitiative.com/
An Australian musical theatre scholarship program, for performers identifying as Bla(c)k, Indigenous or People Of Colour.
Be You Inc – https://www.beyouinc.org/schoolauditiongrants
Scholarships for audition fees, a mentorship program, and a GoFundMe to source additional scholarships specifically for performers of a BIPOC background.
Associated Studios Australia – https://associatedstudios.com.au/musical-theatre-bursaries/
A full time bursary for top-level Musical Theatre training available at their Melbourne Campus for a person from a BIPOC background.
No audition fees if you apply before the 31st of August.
The Natalie Miller Fellowship – https://www.if.com.au/natalie-miller-fellowship-encourages-indigenous-women-to-apply/?fbclid=IwAR2U0Suol7DUi5pPpWZg3C7J_YislBUpuVsiAx88xW4xoSNh9P7fnNSUHyk
A 20,000 AUD scholarship actively looking for indigenous women who are aspiring Screen Creatives to apply. The award also has a great deal of career mentorship, pathway programs, internships and networking implications for applicants beyond the monetary award.
Written by Chris Fung