Racism, gaslighting, and the Rob Guest Endowment

Earlier this week, it was announced that the 2020 Rob Guest Endowment Scholarship would be cancelled, and the endowment postponed until 2022.

The 2020 semi-finalists

The Endowment is a scholarship program which aims to provide financial assistance and support to a new generation of theatre performers, but the Endowment’s selection of semi-finalists both this year and in the past has been overwhelmingly white. For years, the Endowment has faced criticism about the lack of racial diversity in their finalists — criticism which builds on ongoing discussions around inequality and issues of access for BIPOC performers in a white-dominated industry. Since the initial announcement of the 2020 semi-finalists, the RGE has received a cascade of criticism for blindness to its own whitewashing, and its unjust deflection of responsibility onto people of colour.

In response to those accusations of racism, the RGE issued a statement claiming that they “did not consider race, colour, religion or gender when choosing a semi-finalist”, and that they were “seeing few entries from [the BIPOC] community.”

Following this statement, there was an unprecedented outpouring of support towards the Bla(c)k, First Nations, and People of Colour artist communities. Countless performers and creatives have voiced their disappointment in the RGE across both social and traditional print media. 

Past RGE winner Georgina Hopson expressed her disappointment in an email to the board of the Endowment, stating that they have shown “no understanding of the deeply rooted racism issues within our industry and Australia at large.”

The past and present domination of the theatre industry by white voices, creatives, and performers is an irrefutable fact. As a result, the structures developed within and around the theatre industry have been constructed in a way that has privileged and benefited white performers in casting, show development, production, creative endeavours, and education. Major performing arts institutions consistently have inexcusably low numbers of BIPOC enrolments. These institutions continually reiterate the rhetoric of ‘not seeing or considering color’, which in turn reifies a harmful reality — one which erases the struggles and injustices that BIPOC artists and people have faced their entire lives.

Bianca Baykara

In their most recent statement announcing the cancellation, the RGE cited concerns for semi-finalists’ mental health and well-being as a catalyst for the cancellation of this year’s event, stating that the cancellation was to “protect” the semi-finalists from “bullying and intimidation”. The RGE faced immediate condemnation for these claims, with many members of the arts industry asserting that the RGE statement’s gaslighting and villainising of the BIPOC community as bullies was utterly unacceptable.

Accomplished professional actress and three time RGE semi-finalist Bianca Baykara expressed her disappointment in a statement to AussieTheatre:

It is disappointing that the RGE Committee has cancelled the 2020 competition. As a three time semi-finalist, I have experienced first hand the value in the competition for a performer from a diverse background. My hope is that many more diverse performers get the opportunity to participate in this competition in the future, and that there won’t be lasting negative impacts on the young BIPOC performers as a result of the harmful public statements made by the Endowment. I wholeheartedly support the 2020 Top 30 semi-finalists.

This sentiment has been publicly echoed by many of the semi-finalists, who have plainly stated that the bullying and intimidation which the RGE’s statement has alleged did not, in fact, occur at all. Earlier today, through a statement with the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), the collective semi-finalists stated their rejection of the RGE’s claims.

AussieTheatre received the following statement from one of the semi-finalists, who wished to remain anonymous, but wanted to personally reiterate their rejection of the claims:

When the initial Rob Guest Endowment top 30 was released I was deeply saddened by the clear lack of diversity in the lineup of semi finalists. Unfortunately throughout my experience in the top 30 my disappointment with the endowment only grew.

I feel it is incredibly important I make clear that neither myself, nor anyone I have spoken to personally within the top 30 ever felt targeted, bullied or intimidated by the wider community. In fact, the conversations we had with the Equity Diversity Committee were wonderfully informative, educational and inspiring. I’d like to thank them for allowing us the space to listen and learn from them.

The top 30 came to the unanimous decision to withdraw from the competition prior to the Endowments cancellation. It is my belief they proceeded with the cancellation not to protect the semifinalists, but to save face. I feel the Endowment used the top 30 as scapegoats to further place blame on Black, Indigenous and POC voices in our community.

Members of the wider arts community are pushing for the $50,000 endowment prize to be redistributed between various charities and initiatives working to help and support BIPOC performers and creatives, such as Be You Inc., The People of Cabaret, Stage A Change, and AOC Initiative; organisations whose goal is to create an equitable and safe industry for performers and creatives of colour to thrive. 

The RGE has pledged to implement changes to the competition’s structure, including a minimum 20% BIPOC presence both on the judging panel and in the ranks of the semi-finalists. These steps are a measurable improvement over the previous situation, but whether they will be enough to repair the harms caused and damage done to the BIPOC theatre community is another matter entirely.

AussieTheatre acknowledges that our past coverage of the incident has been one-sided, and we understand and accept the criticism we have received as a result. We apologise for any harm caused by the imbalance of voices in our reporting. Our coverage thus far of the news around the RGE does not reflect the values of AussieTheatre as a platform. We stand as allies to Bla(c)k, First Nations, and POC artists and creatives, and we are making a conscious and ongoing commitment to showcasing their voices on these issues.

We hope that the events which have transpired over the past few weeks lead to positive and permanent change not only for the Australian theatre community, but the theatre industry as a whole.

AussieTheatre always welcomes a diverse range of voices and perspectives to feature on our site. If you are a performer, creative, or writer interested in contributing to AussieTheatre.com, please visit our Get Involved page.

This article was amended on 21/09/2020 to reflect the most current information available to us.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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