Building an inclusive theatre scene

Building an inclusive theatre scene

Building an inclusive theatre scene

Theatre in Australia – and particularly opera – can’t seem to shake its elitist reputation. But Associate Professor Ulrike Garde and Dr John Severn from the Department of International Studies believe that the performing arts have the unique strength of being able to engage and respond to local communities and create a truly inclusive arts scene.

At a recent presentation to senior staff and researchers at the Australia Council for the Arts, Dr Severn highlighted the progress made in Berlin where the Komische Oper, led by Australian Barrie Kosky, has put community inclusion at the centre of its mission and business model.

Kosky has aimed to engage Berlin's migrant populations in the opera, including seatback translations in Turkish as well as German, English and French. Standby tickets are available on the night of performances for 3 euros for unemployed people and asylum seekers. ‘Pop-up operas’ around the city – in a men's boxing club, in a Turkish-German bar, at the airport, or a food market – have reached new audiences.

The Komische Oper's La Belle Hélène. Image credit: Iko Freese

Dr Severn said: “The Komische Oper is the only opera house where I've been seated beside a woman in a hijab, a man in a suit and sequinned turquoise stilettos, and a group of teenagers in heavy metal T-shirts. They have created somewhere you find yourself sitting next to people you wouldn't normally come across together.”

Associate Professor Garde showcased examples where multilingual theatre in Berlin has engaged people from diverse ethnic, linguistic and social backgrounds, including immigrants and asylum seekers.

“Making and watching theatre is one of the oldest platforms for a public exchange about who we are and who we want to be,” said Associate Professor Garde.

“This includes people affected by the recent increase in voluntary or forced mobility, people of different ethnic linguistic or social backgrounds, of diverse abilities and age groups.” The Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin defines itself as a ”theatre for the whole city”, and “that includes everyone who has arrived in the city in the last few decades, whether in search of asylum, in exile, immigrants or simply people who grew up in Berlin.”

Barrie Kosky's production of 'The Magic Flute'. Image credit: Iko Freese

The Australia Council’s Director of Research, Rebecca Mostyn, said: “John and Ulrike’s presentation was a great opportunity for us to engage with their stimulating and thought-provoking research. It was also very timely. It addressed issues that are under discussion around the Australia Council’s proposed strategic priorities for 2020-2024, as well as the recent consultation around the Major Performing Arts Framework.”

Access programs and affordable tickets, and better availability of performances, education and engagement programs, including outside metropolitan areas, were identified as key ways to widen access to the performing arts. The need for greater gender diversity and Indigenous representation both on and off stage, as well as in leadership roles, was also recognised.

Dr Severn said representing the community on stage not only gives visibility to marginalised groups but is essential to keeping theatre relevant and bringing in new audiences.

“One of the strengths of the live performing arts, as opposed to mainstream film, is their ability to adapt themselves to local contexts, to make locally relevant art,” said Dr Severn.

“This doesn’t have to mean that a play is set in that local context, or that it deals with the latest high-profile issue – a play can feel locally relevant just by looking and sounding like the place it’s staged in. It might mean changing long-standing casting, training and accessibility strategies so that the demographics on stage and in the audience match those in the community more closely.

“The Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in the UK have held open casting calls for disabled actors, while in Germany the Komische Oper Berlin offers extremely cheap standby tickets for the unemployed and asylum seekers.

“This can have a positive knock-on effects – a reputation for inclusivity and local relevance can create new audiences, and productions with a distinctively local character – whether that reflects Australia, Sydney, Chatswood or Macquarie University – which can help us define what it means to be part of that community.”

Associate Professor Ulrike Garde and Dr John Severn present to The Australia Council

Associate Professor Garde added, “Theatre is frequently able to provide a complex response to moments of change or crisis more quickly than film or books, so it should be able to maintain its relevance, provided theatre companies find a way of offering tickets at a price that a diverse audience can afford.”

Associate Professor Garde and Dr Severn also hosted a twin-themed conference on Theatre and Internationalisation and Barrie Kosky: Past, Present, Future on 26-27 April, with speakers from Australia, Germany and Switzerland.

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