So you aren’t happy with producers importing artists onto Australian stages? Let’s make a change

Humour me a while. I would like to indulge in some discussion about an issue which has suddenly swept through the Australian (and international) musical theatre industry this week with a fervour and passion usually reserved for comment threads on the US Presidential Candidate debate.

Agreement. Image by o5com
Agreement. Image by o5com

I’m talking about the sudden fire in the bellies of hundreds of artists, concerned for their jobs, concerned for their industry. About days of debate, ranting, blaming and worrying about our regression to an age gone by. 

I’m taking about the incredible amount of chatter surrounding importing artists – specifically performers in the musical theatre genre – to star or appear in musical theatre productions across Australia.

Now, I want to make sure one thing is clear: I’m not thrilled with this either. I was saddened back in April 2012 to learn that the LPA walked away from the foreign artists agreement which regulated the importation of overseas performers and workers in Live Performance. I wrote this opinion piece about it. And later in 2012, I wrote this paragraph:

For producers, importing artists has been made easier of late by recent action taken by Live Performance Australia. The LPA (Australia’s employer’s organisation for the live entertainment and performing arts industry) decided to walk away from the existing Foreign Artists Agreement, which was established in 1993 and outlined a set of mutually agreed circumstances in which a producers can import overseas performers for Australian productions.

At the time, the union labelled the move as “outrageous” and fought hard to renegotiate the agreement. They are still, four years on, fighting.

What I want to address is the sudden uproar about an issue which really isn’t a new one in our industry. It’s just becoming more relevant to artists right now because, well, what we feared would happen is actually happening.

Here’s What Happened

Arielle Jacobs: Jasmine Aladdin the Musical
Not her fault: American actress Arielle Jacob will star as Jasmine in the Australian Aladdin tour.

This week, Disney have announced that the coveted role of Jasmine in the musical Aladdin will be played in the Australian season by an American actress. She is probably an exceptionally talented woman, and will perform the role beautifully, but I seriously find it hard to believe that there are no Australian women available or suitable to play the role. It’s Jasmine. Come on, really?

That alone isn’t the issue, though, is it? It’s just the straw that broke the industry’s back. Not only are producers currently preparing to import Jasmine, they are also importing the actor to play Genie in the same show, the leading role of Lola in Kinky Boots, reportedly various cast members for the upcoming The Book of Mormon, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady and we all know about the imported cast in The Lion King and Ghost.

However, it’s not the fault of the performers. Sure, they haven’t worked for years with a determination aimed at applying for an Australian work visa so as to relocate here and “make it” in the bustling Aussie Musical Theatre Industry. But they are artists, and these are jobs they are being offered. As much as it sucks for Aussie performers missing out, I’m not going to misplace my frustration and fire away at these artists themselves.

So, where do we direct our frustration?

Action, not noise 

I’ve been watching this issue unfold on social media and via various outlets online for three days now. I’ve read and absorbed hundreds of comments from members of the industry and frankly I’m concerned that many of us are reacting but not ready for action.

Change only comes from action. Not reaction and noise. Rather than simply getting mad about it on social media, which is easy to do, let’s all take a moment to think about the other ways in which we can help.

Now, I’m not saying that what I suggest in the paragraphs to come are the only options. Goodness, no. I am calling for everyone in the industry to analyse the issue, to contemplate and to figure out how they think they could best assist in bringing about a change.

(But if some of these steps help others get started on their own action journeys, someone will come up with a much better idea than me.)

The History

Back in 2012, when the Foreign Artists Agreement was done away with, prominent performers and directors signed an open letter to theatre and musical theatre producers “calling on them to renegotiate a 20-year agreement on the use of foreign performers.”

The 20-year agreement was in place as a result of the struggles of artists who had had enough of previous casting practices in Australia. From the J.C. Williamson era of the 1950s (which has been referenced a-plenty in the discussions surrounding the issue this week) to the late 1980s, Aussie performers (and audiences) wanted Aussie faces in leading roles. The action worked, and it helped create the musical theatre stars of the 1990s. No more imports – we had the Marina Priors, Anthony Warlows, Rob Guests and Debra Byrnes as headliners to proudly marquee and star in our shows.

Now in 2016, it does appear that while the MEAA have been attempting to renegotiate the agreement for four years, many of us had forgotten the issue until it landed in our laps again.

But it’s in the forefront of our minds RIGHT NOW. So let’s do something about it.

Yes, it sucks that we don’t have the power at the moment to fix the particular issues that have made people angry this week. But we do have the power (or at least we can regain the power) to stop it continuing.

Changing the Australian Musical Theatre Landscape?

The commercial musical theatre landscape in Australia is one of mostly imported works. Mostly American, telling stories written by Americans for Americans. And if they aren’t American, they are often British. Written by the Brits for the Brits.

The Book of Mormon, An Officer and a Gentleman, Avenue Q, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, RENT, Legally Blonde, GREASE, Annie – just to name a few – are all VERY American, specifically referencing American culture, landmarks, cities, personalities. In performance, our actors speak in American accents, sing with American twang. In order to tell these stories (which may have universal themes, granted) we have to imitate the speech of the American people.

Kinky Boots, My Fair Lady, Blood Bothers are very British and reference the mother country, its language, dialect, class system.

Could it be possible that our general lack of workshopped and funded (don’t even get me started on Arts funding!) Australian works on commercial stages means that we are perpetuating the problem?

Performer, composer and writer Eddie Perfect hit the nail on the head when he posted an passionate status on Facebook today.

“I believe Music Theatre in this country needs to take a long, serious, grown-up look at itself. Why aren’t we writing the musicals that head to Broadway and exporting our own bloody performers with them? Who’s sticking up for the writers? Who’s cultivating the writers? When are we going to value not only our PERFORMERS, but our STORIES? Our CONTENT? Huh? Who has that VISION?

Once the fight to restore our performers in roles where they speak and sing in American accents is won, let’s perhaps fight for our performers to try out their Australian accents.

That’s it. I’m starting a theatre composer’s club. Who wants in?”

I’m no composer so I’m not actually joining the newly formed Australian Composer’s Collective (yes, this man takes action fast!), but I’ll join the fan club. #HelpMeNameTheFanClub

Stronger United

Speaking of joining the club, there has been much talk about the MEAA (Actor’s Equity – our performer’s union) and what they are doing about this issue. Might I gently remind everyone reading this far down my little passionate essay that the union’s strength lies with its members. The more members, the more strength. If you are not a member of the union or if you are not currently a financial member, perhaps it’s time you considered joining / re-joining. We are back to where we were 20 years ago when artists FOUGHT for this Foreign Artists Agreement, so we need to fight again. But we only fight united, it’s not only up to the people working at the union. We are the union.

Where to from here?

There is not going to be a quick fix here. No singular way to make everyone happy. So each of us needs to play our part in setting our little wheels in motion. Be the change you want to see. Support the arts in practice, not just in theory, and let’s build a better, stronger, Australian industry.

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Erin James is's Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

Erin has written 1,541 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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