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Diversity in Casting: Michael Turkic's Perspective.

interCulture Casting And Management (iCCAM) is a talent agency that is boutique in approach yet ever-growing in size. It’s not too tricky to figure out what the clientele find so attractive in iCCAM; it’s right there in the name.

Michael Turkic has worked previously as a performer, both in theatre and musical theatre with Sydney Theatre and Cameron Mackintosh. He’s been a director with Gordon Frost, and a teacher at WAAPA and NIDA (this is, of course, the condensed bio). Not so long ago, Michael felt that he’d pretty much exhausted his options in the theatre world until he met his life partner, William. William Uy Vu Le is a Vietnamese, hearing-impaired writer and film-maker. Together, they recognised a need within the industry for everybody to be put on an even playing field, regardless of race or disability. Their agency is the result of this vision.

This week, I met up with Michael Turkic to talk about ethnicity in casting.

So, what made Michael and William feel the need to start up interCulture Casting and Management?

We wanted to be an advocate of sorts. To provide a voice for people who have traditionally been voiceless in the industry”

The long-term goal is that iCCAM’s efforts in supporting diversity in the industry won’t just have a positive effect for Michael’s clients alone. He explains to me that, with such a dominant anglo-presence on stage, we’re not exactly welcoming people of colour to come to the theatre. If people of diverse ethnicity can’t see themselves in the characters on the stage, they’ll be made to think that theatre isn’t for them. Of course, the same goes for people with disabilities. Under an all-inclusive model, the industry will be better supported and the audience demographic will likely expand too.

It’s worth mentioning that screen is possibly more problematic than stage, in terms of a multicultural and disabled presence. This is clear enough in Michael’s personal anecdote from his time spent as an actor on the audition circuit. He is, by the way, Australian-Croatian; 

“It was demonstrable to me that film and television particularly did not reflect what was on the street… When I was starting my acting career I kind of got lumped into the Greek, Italian, Lebanese… refugee, migrant camp. Taxi drivers and Green grocers… Thank goodness, because I had a singing voice, I could get into musical theatre, which was generally a more accepting environment”. 

What makes television seemingly less inclusive? 

Michael points out that, generally, the people who call the shots in series television have been there a while, and are still preserving a snapshot of what worked for them thirty years ago:

“We think of our film and television companies as kind of the last bastions of an anglo-50’s world and way of thinking… If they want us to be like we were then, here’s some news for them: Australia actually never was whatever we’re pretending it was”

Perhaps it’s true that people are more willing to suspend their imagination for stage. The actors are generally stepping into a role that’s been played before them. There are tracks to follow. The audience are acutely aware that they are seeing a production, a version of something they’d already heard of existing on Broadway, on West End, and so on. Theatre seems to give primacy to the actors as creators of the drama, as opposed to television and film, which by contrast, use a whole variety of elements and creatives to tell the story, without the actor being so clearly at the forefront of the process. It may even be possible to say that the actors’ skills are more highly regarded in theatre, because it feels more a part of the experience.

Television seems to function differently. Actors stepping into television roles are much more a part of creating their character. Viewers become attached to that face to that name. Think Bec Cartwright as ‘Hayley’ on Home and Away. She played the “sweetheart” in the show 1998-2005, while the show was at the height of popularity in Australia and in the UK, and became an iconic national “golden girl” because of it. We see it a little less now, but there is a sort of attached patriotic pride to these characters who grace our screens. 

Perhaps because, to an extent, we’ve spent so much time preserving a white, British-rooted, culture in television, there’s a general fear that any characters of a diverse identity will now be too great a shock to the system, or too tokenistic. Is it possible that due to the comparably low numbers of non-white population in Australia (on a statistical level at least), TV series refrain from casting people from diverse backgrounds because producers want somebody that their standard viewers find relatable – that the majority of the television audience look like?

Michael points out that the classic Australian television series, Neighbours, has “famously had a turn-around”. Recently, the hit Australian television series copped a lot of flack for having an almost exclusively white cast, and then, in 2011, received criticism for the decision to move an Indian family into Ramsay Street. Criticism for the latter was widespread, deemed “un-Australian” by some sections of the media and the family were eventually removed from the show. According to Michael, when Neighbours has attempted to introduce characters of a diverse background in the past, they’ve been unable to do so without making a fuss. It doesn’t help that the show’s premise is predicated on the constant stream of new residents brought in to spice things up, and announced with fanfare. Therefore, the show inevitably feels like it’s forcing change (still, I’d say it’s worth it, perhaps?). In 2008 executive producer Susan Bower said "I would like (Neighbours) to reflect Australian society, but I can't give Libby and Dan a black baby, so it has to come in a natural way”. In 2014 the show finally cast an Indigenous Australian, without any blatant comments as to his background. Now, Michael tells me, they are approaching iCCAM quite regularly in an attempt to find diverse actors that will assist in slowly changing the Ramsay Street scene, so as to accurately reflect Australian suburbia. One quick look at the current 2017 cast tells me they have a long way to go: 



Is there a trend that actors of colour, or ethnically diverse actors, are getting cast in roles only where their ethnicity is part of their characters’ story (ie. the chinese man working at the Chinese restaurant)?

“Yes. It’s not a trend. Unfortunately, it’s a fact. But it’s trending away from what it used to be… Casting directors used to lead with a person’s ethnicity. “

Michael tells me about an iCCAM client of Sri Lankan background. This actor graduated from NIDA in its first year of 1977, alongside Mel Gibson and other great Australian names. While at NIDA, he was told he shouldn’t expect lead Australian roles, and that he will only ever be cast as a Sri Lanken. He soon went on to be a very successful voice-over actor amongst other things (including independent film, I should note), but it’s inevitable that this kind of teaching stuck with him. He was told where his space was.

“The perennial problem is that white people have always appropriated the stories, the histories and sometimes the futures of people of colour. They give themselves the right to say “that’s your place”… If you’re a neurosurgeon who’s African American, you’re a neurosurgeon first. If you’re a great actor who’s African American, you should have the right to be an actor first”.

The trend is shifting, however, particularly in the independent scene. Indie films, web-series and theatre are all becoming increasingly diverse as the new generation takes up the mantle of telling tomorrow’s stories. There seems to be more open-mindedness, and so if an actor of diverse ethnicity is playing the lead, it’s almost not worth commenting on! The more popular these examples become, the more likely it is that the big production companies will be inclined to include the people involved. 

Still, token race roles are an ongoing dilemma. I asked Michael if, with an agency called “InterCulture Casting and Management”, there’s a risk of companies coming to him just for the token roles. Michael says it happens all the time. The world has a lot of changing to do before we stop mentally associating people of particular backgrounds with particular positions in society. Michael reassures me:

“Where we (iCCAM) benefit from this is we get the first cab off the rank. It’s never stopped them from asking us ‘oh and by the way, who else have you got?’”. 

Is there visible change to all of this?

“Most of the change that happens actually isn’t in series television… the change is being driven by advertisers who are making more direct decisions in diverse casting… So, the change is actually coming from the spending market because people only buy things and go to these places if they are made to feel welcome… Change traditionally comes from a place in marketing. Alan Joyce, head of Qantas, is in a position to openly support gender equality because he recognises that his business relies on patronage with gender-diverse backgrounds. If more big names like that are vocal, then change is inevitable. They’re making waves.”

Stop and think about it, and it’s a no-brainer. Television and theatre is a product too. It’s only a matter of time before these industries see the benefit in using diverse characters. 

I’ve already mentioned the subversive style of the independent scene, and it’s role in prompting change. It’s doing the same for actors with disability: just look at Belvoir casting Keith Robinson in “Twelfth Night” last year. Robinson is wheelchair-bound with a muscular degenerative disorder. Actually, 2016 delivered in the mainstream world too when Kate Hood, wheel-chair dependent, was cast in Neighbours.

With a push for multiculturalism becoming more and more prominent, what does this mean for actors of anglo-saxon appearance and heritage?

“The question is asked of me “will I be put forward for the same roles as your more diverse actors?”… There’s a little bit off “if I move into that neighbourhood with those people, what does that mean for me?” which we don’t see on the reverse. In the reverse, the concern is to get into any neighbourhood that’ll have us… There’s also an interesting trend I’m observing where anglo-saxon actors are beginning to panic that as this push for diversity takes place, they are no longer considered first and foremost – that they will be a part of the hateful habit, and so nobody will cast them out of fear… You’ve had it your way for the last one hundred and fifty years and now for the last five it’s someone else’s turn. It’s about loss of privilege, a loss of ‘we get to decide what work we do’. It’s changing now. For the better. But there’s still pain, and you can feel it”. 

The way I see it, if the overall goal is to represent society with accuracy on screen and on stage, there’s still plenty of room for white casting. But we can’t keep blurring out the rest. It’s their turn to have priority choice. 

So, is the industry racist? 

“It’s not racist, but it has casual racism in it. It’s unintentional, I think. It kind of works in the same way as the kind of hetero-normative view of the world. In school there a children who might identity as a seven year-old gender diverse person. They get told stories about mum and dad, and they think “that’s funny.. I have two mums…”

They have no choice but to accept their being ‘different’ as what’s ‘normal’. For too long, television and theatre have been upholding a range of assumptions. It’s not a crime, they just need to take a look at contemporary society, and reconsider the notion of “mainstream”.

My verdict? Production companies need to have a little more faith in their audience. The people in positions of power need to trust that the audience can see and relate to diversity on screen, on the stage, if only for the reason that they are human. 

 

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