A debate about the lack of diversity in Australian musical theatre has resulted in the cancellation of a $50,000 scholarship amid disputed allegations of bullying and intimidation.
The 2020 Rob Guest Endowment, a lucrative professional development program for musical theatre, was cancelled late last week, with organisers saying they were concerned for the “mental health and welfare” of the prize’s 30 semifinalists, alleging that the latter had experienced “bullying and intimidation” as a consequence of a recent outcry about their apparent lack of diversity.
But the semifinalists have roundly rejected claims that they are the victims of bullying, instead saying that after weeks of negotiation with prize organisers, they had been planning to withdraw from the competition en masse, before the endowment beat them to the punch by announcing its cancellation.
The dispute follows weeks of tense discussions about diversity and inclusion between the endowment leadership committee, the semifinalists and the performers’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).
Complaints erupted in August around the prize’s semifinalist announcement, with many observers noting the chosen 30 performers appeared to be uniformly white. In response to the backlash, the endowment organisers said they “clearly [needed] to work harder at encouraging entrants from the BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of colour] community”.
At the time, the 30 semifinalists said they stood in solidarity with artists and performers who were people of colour. “We are uniting to listen, learn and actively be part of the solution,” they said in a joint statement.
The endowment released a statement last Wednesday in which the leadership committee apologised for its “omissions and failures” in the 2020 competition, saying it had sought guidance from “industry leaders” to ensure the program was “inclusive, safe and welcoming”.
The statement listed a number of strategies the endowment was proposing to implement, including diversity quotas for its leadership board, judging panels and finalist selections, as well as allowing prize entrants to self-identify by ethnicity.
“It became clear that given the progress so far, the best path forward would be to continue to work with and support the current semi-finalists, while working to bring significant and exciting change to future years,” the statement said.
Two days later, the organisers cancelled the 2020 prize entirely.
The endowment said on Friday afternoon it was calling off the competition and suspending its scholarship grant until 2022 “to protect” the semifinalists, saying the latter had been “targeted and intimidated from a number of sources and as a result have experienced significant anxiety over recent weeks”.
The finalists, however, rejected the endowment’s claim that they were bullied.
“We categorically refute any claim or insinuation made by the endowment, or any others, that the competition had to be cancelled in order to protect us from bullying and/or intimidation,” they said in a joint statement on Sunday, released through the MEAA.
The semifinalists said they had, from the outset, sought assistance from the diversity committee of the MEAA’s Equity branch, the arm of the union that represents performers.
Following those discussions “and through our own volition”, the semifinalists said, they had decided to withdraw from the competition en masse, “to prevent our colleagues from further trauma, to de-centre ourselves and to amplify the First Nations and POC voices”.
“The endowment’s reactive cancellation prevented us from enacting this step,” they said. “We fervently denounce the actions of the endowment, including but not limited to silencing POC and First Nations voices, misrepresenting us and our stance on the matter, and the lack of transparency that has occurred from within the endowment.”
The endowment had been involved in negotiations with the semifinalists, the Equity diversity committee and other members of the performing arts community since 20 August, the union said in a separate statement on Sunday.
A log of claims, which the union said had been created from “discussion with over 100 vested stakeholders” and which detailed changes the industry had hoped to see in the prize, had been presented to the endowment on 2 September.
Further claims had been put to the endowment last week, after its proposed actions fell short of what the performers’ coalition had hoped for.
“It is disappointing that the time, lived experiences, and wealth of knowledge and skills that were volunteered by the [equity diversity committee], our members and our wider industry has been mislabeled as ‘bullying’ and ‘intimidation’,” the union said.
“It’s concerning to see the endowment rob the semi-finalists of the commendable agency we’ve witnessed over the past month, to silence their voices and co-opt them in a narrative they were not part, let alone aware of. This work should not be discounted or invalidated, but engaged with.”
The Rob Guest Endowment declined to comment.