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Dead White Men: The Problem with Student Theatre

19 June 2015

The UMSU theatre department’s approach to programming theatre is great. Union House Theatre works tirelessly to realise works entirely initiated by students. It is one of the only organisations in student theatre nationwide to do this. We are really, really lucky.

But this semester, one of the biggest pitfalls of this system has become evident. And it’s a pitfall we should not be dealing with – it’s easy to avoid. This semester, all 10 student-initiated productions in the season were written by men. All 10. This is not okay. We need to be doing better than this, and we can.

Student theatre is full of politically aware feminists of both genders. It is full of people who understand the importance of promoting and forwarding politically aware and interesting theatre.

I know this because most of them are my friends. And I know that my peers don?t believe in shaping a community where we only hear male voices on stage. They know better than to put on a musical that glorifies domestic and sexual abuse, as The Wild Party did. They know better than to support the legacy and estate of a playwright that actively discriminates against and disempowers women, as the production of Waiting for Godot did. They – we – know better.

And this is important as we go out into the wider world, because it?s not just our community that is struggling. A report from the Australia Council for the Arts found that between 2001 and 2011, only 21% of the theatrical work produced by major creative arts companies was written by women. Only 36% productions had a woman in a key creative leadership role.

This is largely because the Western theatrical canon is written almost exclusively by men. So the fairly simple solution, as far as I’m concerned, is to stop performing and re-performing and re-performing that canon simply because we like it. We need to push ourselves, and hold each other more stridently to account. Stop performing the plays we’ve seen a million times before. The plays written by Dead White Men. And start producing work that values the writing of women.

Find, or even write, the plays not in the canon. And for heaven?s sake make some of those plays written by women.

Student theatre is a place for radical and politically engaged work. It’s where we can look at the Australia Council’s statistics and actively push back. It’s where we form habits that we will take with us into the professional world. So let’s start with the habit of gender equality. Adopt the habit of saying something you believe through your work. Then add the habit of critically engaging, of pushing form and directly addressing what’s wrong with the Australian theatre community at large.

I think the theatre performed at The University of Melbourne is some of the best I’ve seen. It’s changed me fundamentally as a person. I’ve lived and breathed this world for the last four years at the cost of my studies, relationships and health because I fucking love it. I have never felt more at home. And it is for this reason I need to call out what’s happened this semester. Not to humiliate anyone, not to squash creative freedoms, but because I know that together we can rectify this small but immensely damaging oversight.


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