Staging change: supporting diversity in Australian theatre

Tigist Strode in Company, presented by VCA Music Theatre and Production students, 2017. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Tigist Strode in Company, presented by VCA Music Theatre and Production students, 2017. Photo by Jeff Busby.

The Victorian College of the Arts is offering a Diversity in Theatre program from August to September to support authentic representation of people of colour on stage. Cessalee Smith-Stovall, Book of Mormon performer and Diversity in Theatre project coordinator, tells us more.

– As told to Susanna Ling

Can you tell us about the Diversity in Theatre program? What is it exactly?

The Diversity in Theatre program is a series of workshops, mentoring sessions, panel discussions and professional development opportunities for self-identifying students of colour aged 12 – 20 who are interested in making a career in the performing arts.

There are three stages: Introduction, Exploration and Immersion. The Introduction level is for anyone and everyone who might consider a career in the arts, their parents and their teachers. There are nuances particular to an artist of colour’s experience, so it’s very exciting to have a forum to talk to aspiring artists and help prepare them and their communities for the journey ahead.

The Exploration workshops allow students to work with professionals over five weeks to dig a bit deeper into theatre and music theatre. Working on speech and voice, movement and dance, writing and more, students will be challenged to identify which aspects of the theatre they like best, and which parts they can work on.

Selected students will be invited to participate in the final stage – Immersion – which is a four-day intensive focused on either theatre or music theatre.

How did you become involved in the program?

I’ve been working in musical theatre professionally for about 20 years, and through talking to cast mates, other actors, artistic directors and leaders, I started to see that people really cared about diversity on stage. When I moved to Australia, I saw there was a lack of diversity on Australian stages. I started a Stage A Change with the goal of creating more professional performance opportunities for actors of colour.

What started as conversations progressed to become a series of round-table discussions with agents, casting directors, artistic directors, producers, universities, dance studios, independent directors, and other performers of colour. The goal was to understand the challenges from all perspectives. Leaders in the industry all agreed that more needed to be done, and the Music Theatre and Theatre staff at the VCA were really determined to be agents of change.

It was clear that both VCA disciplines take the issue of diversity seriously, and equity and diversity objectives form part of the University’s Growing Esteem strategy. At the VCA, there is a commitment to supporting the next generation of actors, music theatre performers, theatre-makers, writers, directors and dramaturgs, in facilitating diverse representations on stage.

As part of this broader strategy, Head of VCA Music Theatre Margot Fenley and Marketing and Recruitment Manager Kate Mulqueen secured a government-funded University of Melbourne Equity Innovation Grant to produce this Diversity in Theatre program, and I’m very excited to be coordinating the project.

Why is diversity on stage important?

Diversity anywhere is important. Australia has never been more diverse, and when audiences see themselves on stage, they feel welcome. When they feel welcome, they decide to invest – whether that’s financially, emotionally or personally. And that’s what the industry needs to survive – not just individuals, but communities who are invested in theatre and its growth.

In the current global climate, we all need to learn to be empathetic and aware. I truly believe that theatre is a beautiful way to begin to understand the world around us.

Cessalee Smith-Stovall. Photo by James Banasiak.

Can you tell us a bit about your own career?

My professional musical theatre career started in the US. I worked my way up from theme parks, cruise ships and cabaret theatres to a role in The Book of Mormon.

In 2010, I started an organization called Music Dance Theatre Workshops that worked to connect aspiring artists with professional performers. My goal was to show that a career in the arts is a realistic, feasible and fulfilling possibility, no matter where you come from.

I started with Mormon in 2012 and am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had as a part of that show. While on tour, several of my castmates helped me create a web series called 5 Minute Call with Cessalee Stovall to help tell the stories of the cast, crew and creatives of Broadway’s biggest hits. Through all of this, I’ve found a passion for helping and encouraging the next generation of artists and making sure they have people to support their dreams in the same way I had mentors to support mine.

You’ve come to Australia from the United States. What do you make of the theatre/music theatre industry here?

The industry here is certainly much smaller and more intimate, but that’s exciting because it only takes a few people to create a major paradigm shift in the industry.

In the US, change seems to be a bit slow. All eyes are on Broadway, so it’s easy to miss the really exciting things that happen on a regional level. But in Australia, what you do in Melbourne gets noticed in Sydney and Adelaide and Perth, and the movers and shakers are really stirring things up – and I love that!

What does an ideal performing arts industry look like for you?

The ideal industry to me is a beautiful community made up not only of actors and directors, but also writers and dramaturgs, crew members and company managers, ushers and house managers, and most importantly an audience that demands authenticity. It’s an industry that recognises the role that we all play in creating art, telling stories respectfully, and holding a mirror up to nature.