Spring is nearly upon us, and in Melbourne that can only mean one thing: more theatre. Melbourne Fringe Festival kicks off in a couple of weeks, followed shortly by Melbourne Festival, and the major theatre companies are announcing their 2017 seasons; all striving to provide diverse programs to satisfy Melbourne’s ferocious appetite for live entertainment. Today, Melbourne Theatre Company unveiled their 2017 season, featuring four new Australian and four new international plays, a robust development program for emerging artists, and ‘the cream of theatrical talent in this country’, in the words of Artistic Director Brett Sheehy AO. There is certainly a lot to excite theatre-lovers: big names like Simon Phillips, John Bell and Catherine McClements return to the MTC stage, new work from Lally Katz, Joanna-Murray Smith and Rashma N. Kalsie, and an exciting number of plays about women, written and directed by women. But the sheen is diminished when even a cursory glance at the program reveals a disappointing lack of cultural diversity on MTC’s mainstage.
MTC has had a successful 2016; subscriptions grew by 10%, with an 18% increase in the number of people broadening their subscription package to see every play. MTC had a number of nominations and wins at this year’s Helpmann Awards, and was recognised by playwright David Williamson as the ‘only major theatre company’ pursuing a policy of developing and producing ‘polished, incisive plays about our here and now.’ This is a policy that MTC seems to take very seriously, as Sheehy explains that an analysis was done of the company’s 63 year history, dividing productions into three categories – new Australian work, new international work and classics – which revealed that Melbournians prefer new Australian plays to international and classic plays. ‘We’ve got to keep telling Australian stories,’ Sheehy says. ‘Because this city of 4 million people is hungry for them. We need to be delivering what this city wants of its State Theatre Company’.
In their 2017 season, MTC has delivered four new Australian plays – Joanna Murray-Smith’s Three Little Words, directed by Sarah Goodes; Lally Katz’s Minnie & Liraz, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks; Eddie Perfect’s Vivid White, directed by Dean Bryant, and Rashma N. Kalsie’s Melbourne Talam which is the MTC Education production and will tour throughout regional Victoria. Kalsie’s work, in particular, is ‘thrilling’ to Sheehy as it was developed through MTC Connect, and the Neon and Cybec Electric programs. The story of three young people from India trying to get Melbourne’s rhythm right, Melbourne Talam will take to The Lawler stage in May 2017.
The season also boasts plenty of work to fulfil any cravings for the classics. There hasn’t been a production of Shakespeare’s work at MTC since Sheehy began his Directorship in 2013 as he believes that the Bard’s work ‘is not to be taken lightly’. But Sheehy has revealed that ‘the planets have aligned’ to bring Macbeth to MTC next year with Simon Phillips at the helm. Phillips last took on the Bard in 2010 with the multi-Helpmann Award winning Richard III, and has an extraordinary reputation for staging grand scale productions with incredible performances and design. But with Macbeth fresh in our minds from the 2015 film, STC’s acclaimed 2015 production and more than five independent productions in Melbourne this year, the planets seem to be aligning for many others too.
The stories across the mainstage productions, Sheehy describes as inherently Melbourne. They tailor their season for Melbourne. Indeed, the new works are very Melbourne-esque, particularly Vivid White and (female friendships)/ But they speak to a very particular slice of Melbourne’s demographic. Middle aged, middle class people. Though a going theme seems to indicate that MTC is aware, if subconsciously, of the mounting pressure to bridge the gap between generations. Even Macbeth, to some degree, reflects an obsession with generational dynasty and usurpation.
With federal funding for small-medium companies more and more competetive thanks to the cuts to the Australia Council, it is good to see that state theatre companies are creating pathways for artists in the early stages of their careers. This, of course, is a self-serving thing, too, as it provides MTC with the artists who will be producing work for them in the future. Sheehy speaks of these programs as the ‘destruction of the barrier between State theatre companies and the hotbed of new talent’. Of course, this is a self-serving act, too, as it prompts MTC to identify and help shape the promising careers of the next generation of artists.
While it is heartening to see that MTC is committed to smoothing those edges of the shattered glass ceiling, creating a permanent entrance way, there remains a huge issue with their lack of diversity onstage and off. The mainstage productions are overwhelming white: actors, directors and writers. Their education production is the only mainstage (but not really) production to engage with issues of cultural diversity in Australia. Sheehy says that MTC is working towards reflecting the diversity of the Melbourne he sees everyday on the tram. “We can’t be all things to all people”. The company has committed to PWA’s strategy of encouraging writers to put diversity pledges in their scripts. But this has clearly been ineffective when casting is evidently still completely whitewashed. There are new initiatives – people from diverse backgrounds are encouraged to apply for MTC’s many development program, but I would question whether it needs to be more proactive in reaching out to communities and artists. While he hopes that these programs, particularly the new Asian play reading program will feed into future main stage productions, it is worth asking why those changes couldn’t happen this year. With the production of Straight White Men and Disgraced demonstrating that MTC is aware of these issues, why not include an Eastern work amongst the four new international plays?
Exciting season, and after rising subscription last year MTC is sure to enjoy another year of growth. However, if they really want to expand their audiences and reflect the diversity of the Melbourne they live in – not just in casting but in the stories we have to tell and how we choose to tell them – the positive steps being implemented need to quicken.