Whose Story Are You Hearing? : The PWA Takeaway Series #3

The truth is not all stories are yours to tell.  The truth is marginalised people have had their stories stolen for centuries.  The truth is playwrights need to tell the truth.  The truth is the truth often hurts.

You bet, one of the hottest topics of conversation at the National Play Fest was the absolute push for black stories to be told by black playwrights. And Asian stories to be told by Asian playwrights. And Queer stories to be told by Queer playwrights.  This is not news to me, and the basic tenant of this sort of thinking has been infused into both my practice and JUTE Theatre Company best practice for over 25 years. The pushback against misappropriation of cultural stories has been a gaseous, pungent-smelling issue in the air for years. An enormous fart that nobody wants put their hand up and identify it when it happens, and everyone looks the other way from pretending they didn’t smell it.  And yet it still happens. Over and over and over again. Mainstage works, Miles Franklin Award-winning novels, State Premier’s Drama Award nominees and generally White People Who Should Bloody Well Know Better, are still mining, writing and producing work that largely explores non-white narratives.

Some White writers get bent out of shape by the argument that certain stories are not there for them to tell.  They get bent out of shape and cranky because:

A) they do not fully comprehend nor accept their part in the White colonial history that devastated and disenfranchised cultural and racial groups whose voice has been systematically denied until more recent times.
B) they believe they can achieve a credible, authentic voice of marginalised cultural and racial group because they are writers and have a terrific imagination.
C) they perceive that there is a dearth of skilled non-White writers working on these stories and so it is somehow their responsibility to tell the stories for them unto the rightful owners of the stories “catch up”.
D) it’s not fair!  This is politically correct nonsense! Writers should not be censored!

And frankly, it just shits them to be told they can’t write what they want.

The common counter-argument runs along the lines of  “Well bull, if I can only write stories from my own culture, then by extension of the argument, I cannot write stories about people whose world perspective is different in any way. I cannot write stories of a different gender, different age group, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.”

You can see how reductive and annoying it can get. And how frustrating. And often I’ve seen playwrights completely insulted and offended by these types of arguments.

All I know is- if I wrote a play with a non-White narrative with key non-White issues, even if I wrote a non-White character in an otherwise non-culture/race-specific play, I would not feel comfortable with it and I would not be able to have it produced at JUTE.

Intercultural work, perhaps the new buzzword for theatre in Australia, involves the idea of creating cultural-specific work by collaborative means between two or more theatre-makers from different cultures. While I think this is a great idea, I also am suspicious that the processes put in place for the development of such work aren’t widely discussed, aren’t being fairly unpacked, and are not being especially well understood. Time and time again, work is being developed with the term ‘cultural consulting’ being bandied about as a safe way for White writers to legitimately access and write stories belonging specifically to the common experience of another culture.

I don’t buy it. I just don’t. Because consulting one or two individuals, even if they are community representative in some way, or acknowledged by the community as being a key cultural leader, cannot make you expert enough in that culture’s common contemporary or historical experience. You are still walking away with another culture’s story and putting your name to it. You are still colonising.

There is one way this can work, this Intercultural Storytelling idea, one legitimate expression of it. Stop ‘consulting’ and start crediting.

White writers who want to tell a non-White story need to consider whose story they are authoring and start a deliberate framework for co-authoring.  We should be crediting “the consultant” up front and in print. If they are good enough to be consulted on that depth of understanding, then their name should appear on the first page of your script right along with yours. We should be sharing the box office with them, the press time, and the accolades. Anything less is just theft.

Given that there remain some high-flying story-tellers in this country, across all mediums of the Arts, who continue to unapologetically write non-White characters without a care in the world, the finer details of whose story is it (such as intelligent discussions on every writer’s right to write women’s stories, rape or suicide plot stories, and queer stories) are getting short straws. There were some discussions on appropriate story ownership at the Industry program running concurrently with the Play Fest.  More of that later.

My trip to Sydney to attend this event was largely supported by Cairns Regional Council and Queensland Government RADF program. The Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF) is a partnership between the Queensland Government and Cairns Regional Council to support local arts and culture in regional Queensland. It was also sponsored in part by JUTE Theatre Company.

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