There is a perennial complaint throughout the Australian entertainment industry. It is regarding a perceived lack of diversity on the Australian stage and screen.
Vel Subra, a National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) graduate, aims to challenge in his own words a “tokenism-addled theatre industry” by directing and starring in a performance of the one-man play TRU.
“If someone else was directing it, the first thing they would say is ‘he’s white and you’re not’. For me as a practitioner and theatre maker, I don’t see that as an impediment for myself,” says Subra.
Information for the Parade Playhouse performances claims that Subra, who is Indian-born from Singapore, will be the first non-Caucasian to tackle the role of idiosyncratic American writer Truman Capote.
“I was thinking ‘How can I challenge myself? How can I take it to the extreme?’” Subra says.
Subra, whose full name is Subramaniam Velayutham, trained as a director at the prestigious Sydney training institute. NIDA also boasts famous alumni including Cate Blanchett and Baz Lurhmann.
This isn’t the first time Subra has turned a work on its head to challenge the audience. As his final NIDA graduation staging, he produced a reverse adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, titled Monsieur Jean.
Written by Jay Presson Allen, TRU is adapted from the works of the infamous Capote. It is set within the writer’s New York apartment after Esquire publishes an excerpt from Capote’s unfinished roman à clef (novel with fictitious characters that represent real people) Answers and Prayers.
The Manhattan socialites that Capote considers friends recognise thinly veiled versions of themselves and abandon him. Capote is left lonely and musing on his life and career choices during the two-act monodrama.
Subra, who uses the stage name Ezekiel Day, was inspired to use Tru to challenge perceptions after watching Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
The 2007 biographical musical film directed by Todd Haynes features six actors portraying different stages of the singer’s life. Cate Blanchett received particular praise and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress with her incarnation.
“It blew my mind,” says Subra of Blanchett’s performance.
“She can cross boundaries and she pulled it off so miraculously. I thought if that can be done, I should be able to do something crazy.”
Perhaps it isn’t as cut and dry as minorities being excluded from predominantly white roles. Subra feels that funding for the arts and creating works at the most basic level needs to happen from the ground up instead of relying on the big theatre companies.
“All good art comes from the street; the people, the subversive groups. You can see all kinds of cultures actually come from the bottom up, more than something that is promoted from the top down,” he says.
“I think we should be starting at the bottom.”
At a Sydney Theatre Company (STC) open house in 2008, Subra took the opportunity to address his concerns with Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett directly when they invited feedback from the public.
“I did ask ‘How is STC catering to developments happening in the streets?’ because you walk down Sydney [sic] and you see all kinds of people. I think the whole composition of the Australian public is changing so radically, so what are STC doing to address these changes?” says Subra.
A spokesperson for STC says, “Every year we program works that feature cross cultural casting, or explore cross cultural issues, or both, but we won’t get into diversity as a box ticking exercise.
“We would hate to think that any artist could feel they were offered a role for any reason other than their artistry. We program works and we cast artists where there is talent, interest and passion.”
According to Subra the root cause of this issue may have more to do with other problems that are not being addressed.
“Are they talented? Is their standard of performance coming up to maximum levels?” he says.
“The problem could be they don’t understand the production process. There are a lot of actors here but they don’t know how to apply for rights and produce a show. Maybe there is a gap in knowledge that people are lacking.”
From a country that prides itself on presenting a multicultural identity does this ever-present debate about tokenism mean Australia is failing? The director doesn’t think so.
“I won’t say failing, it’s still progressing. I think it is a slow progress. Like anything they are trying to test how things work,” he says.
“When you come to Australia, it is a bigger mix [of races] so it is a bit more complex… trying to find the values that strike a note in each other. You have to negotiate a lot of sensitivity.”
Subra sees his production of Tru as an opportunity to introduce freshness into the industry and as a call to arms for minority groups.
“Tokenism only exists if you rely on somebody else to give you the role. There is only a limited number of theatre groups and a huge pool of actors who are going to be contesting the same role. Evidently you are going to be competing and someone is always going to be better than you. So what are you going to do about it?” he challenges. (LL)
Dec 9 & 10, Parade Playhouse, NIDA, 215 Anzac Pde, Kensington, $35-65, 1300 795 012, nida.edu.au