Rewind to December 2019, and most countries comprising the ‘free world’ would no doubt describe themselves as tolerant, egalitarian and diverse. Yet history has shown that during periods of difficulty our best and worst characteristics can surface. Crises can augment both unity and division. And so it is, with the minuscule pathogen that gate-crashed our planet earlier this year; microscopic it may be, but its impact has been monumental. All sectors of society have been affected, not least the already fragile arts community, which is now forced to defend itself more ferociously than ever. In such circumstances, the aforementioned tolerance, egalitarianism and diversity can take a back seat to self-preservation. And this battle for survival can manifest itself in a contemporary strain of economic nationalism, giving rise to an interesting dialectic: is importing talent, at such a time, a wise move or an insensitive one?
Charity Begins at Home?
It could, with some justification, be argued that the depleted number of roles available for performers in Australia should be ring-fenced for home-grown talent. In June, Australia’s Bureau of Statistics published some sobering figures: it was estimated that 26% of the Australian workforce would lose their jobs, ballooning to 75% for those working in the creative sector. The young have been particularly affected. And this estimate has been borne out, as countless young, aspiring actors have been impelled to abandon their pursuit of an acting career in Sydney and head back home to live with parents. Established performers, well used to juggling a variety of roles and jobs, have found themselves ineligible for government-funded relief. The inevitable result is poverty. In March a Tweet by David Campbell lamented that many Australian performers were set to ‘lose their livelihoods’. The truth of this is materialising before our eyes. And it’s not like Australia is short on native talent: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe to name but a few, are all enjoying success on a global scale. Little wonder then, that feelings run high when the few roles up for grabs become even less attainable when competing for them on a global basis; when, in an already competitive industry, the field of recruitment is infinite. Much like Canada’s protectionist regime, designed to protect its dairy industry, some believe that Australian talent should be prioritised when roles become available. Whether one agrees with such isolationist sentiment or not, it is easy to empathise with homegrown performers.
There is also a contingent of the population that would argue that if ever there was a time for national unity, it is now. As a nation, Australia prides itself on its values of loyalty, kindness, independence and intelligence. With a belief that the nation should be kind and loyal to its own, it is not surprising that any perceived betrayal is met with a Rumpelstiltskin-like reaction. The independent spirit is knitted into the very fabric of this vast, expansive nation: ever since prison hulks disgorged their convicted felons on Antipodean shores, Australia has forged its own identity and claimed autonomy. Many of those newly-arrived convicts were skilled craftsmen and utilised their skills and intelligence to help build a strong, vibrant land, culminating in the 1986 Australia Act, which successfully emancipated Australia from British sovereignty. Over the years, Australia has emerged as a unique and optimistic nation, over time embracing a diverse range of inhabitants as part of her cultural identity. Australians are rightly proud of this hard-won independence, and resistance to any attempt at dilution is understandable. After all, this is a country that has taken the long journey from penal colony to urbanised idyll. The pandemic has been compounded by economic recession and the worldwide reaction to racism. With so much to protect, it is easy to see how defensive principles can emerge on both an individual and national level.
One cannot help but think that a global problem demands a global solution. Coronavirus is a pandemic, and the prefix ‘pan’ should not be lost on us. It means ‘all’. This means treating the globe as one location. Guyanese poet Grace Nicholls ended one of her best-known poems with the line ‘The earth is the earth is the earth’. She is describing how she had been feeling homesick after moving to England from Guyana – until, one night in 1986, a hurricane hits the south coast of the UK. Caught up in the middle of it, Nicholls is reminded of her homeland, where hurricanes are nothing out of the ordinary. The hurricane is personified as a visiting relative, leading to Nicolls’ epiphany, whereby she realises that the earth – as opposed to the place we hail from – is our home. All isolationism does is arm aggressors, as any student of the USA’s role in WWII will attest. United we stand; divided we fall.
Moreover, the principles of the import and export economy complement the philosophy of globalism. No country is completely independent. And those that appear to be completely self-sufficient, well, would you really want to live there? Import and export is a reciprocal relationship. Australia relies heavily on its exports of iron ore, coal, gold, petroleum, not to mention services such as education; road vehicles, machinery, coffee and chocolate are among the imports. But goods are not the only commodities flowing back and forth: information and people are also subject to trade movement. In fact, more than one Australian performer has taken advantage of the opportunity to showcase their talent on Broadway, the West End and beyond. On that basis, it would be deeply hypocritical to deny non-Australians the opportunity to perform Down Under; trading must be mutually beneficial. Talent is a commodity like any other. John Donne once famously said that ‘no man is an island’. Of course, Australia is an island but its strength and growth are dependent upon trade agreements with other nations. The concept of ‘no man is an island’ is not only Christian but an ethos which features in numerous religions, including Buddhism. And Buddhism is famous for its belief in ‘karma’. Perhaps then, that famous Australian kindness will be repaid with kindness? Sounds like a good trade agreement to me.
As with any contentious issue, there is no real right or wrong. There is no simple solution. Every argument can be met with counter-argument.
Yet, naïve as it might be, leave politics out of the equation for a moment. Forget about fulfilling quotas. Forget about what’s going on in the world. Think about theatre as the magical escapism it should be. When it comes to awarding a role, who is the right person to fill it? The answer to that is unambiguous: the person who performs best of all, in the eyes of the casting panel. Consequently, that performer will attract other renowned artistes and draw audiences. Bigger audiences generate more revenue. More revenue equates to success. Success is the hallmark of a thriving industry. And a thriving industry means enough room for both native and international performers.