Shifting the Spotlight is a feature series aiming to showcase individuals and organisations that are making a positive and active change to the Australian theatre landscape. Our second instalment is with Cessalee Stovall, creative and founder of Stage A Change.
Cessalee Stovall has done it all.
An artist at her core, she has shifted from local church choirs to starring roles, completing her theatrical training in Florida, performing in summer stock circuits, on cruise ships, and in theme parks. In 2012, she joined the U.S. National Tour of The Book of Mormon, and continued as part of the show for 5 and a half years, even travelling down under to be part of the Australian premiere cast. However, in navigating the theatre industry as a woman of colour, Cessalee noticed something was off.
Even at a time where shifts were happening in the theatrical landscape, where BIPOC roles were moving away from tokenistic background characters and being showcased in stories such as Hairspray and Aida, Cessalee felt like there were obstacles blocking her path into the industry as a woman of colour. “It was really difficult to conceptualise that someone was going to find a career without either being an amazing dancer, or was 40 years old and was the big belting black woman. Those were the two options, and I didn’t fit either of those.”
Thankfully, many tertiary theatre institutions are now moving away from this model of trying to push performers through a mould, and are instead honing the individual skills of each person. “I think that’s really important in terms of equity and inclusion and diversifying the stages,” states Cessalee. “We’ve seen trying to fit people into a mould and it didn’t work. What ends up happening is a cycle of ‘asking people to assimilate into a product you’re already making. If they don’t fit, that obviously doesn’t work, so never mind, let’s just go back to what we know works.’ And we can’t actually move forward if all we do is fit people into spaces we already have. We have to expand it.”
When Cessalee moved to Australia in 2016 to perform as part of the ensemble of The Book of Mormon, something became very clear to her. “I was kind of confronted with the fact that there had been actors who were white brought over, and the response of the sector to those actors, versus the response of the sector to the large number of Black actors who had been brought over for the same production. And I guess my question then was like… why aren’t people mad about this? Why don’t you care about us?”
These questions lead to the formation of Stage A Change.
Stage A Change is a group of theatre professionals whose aim is to create, amplify, and sustain more professional opportunities for performing artists of colour in Australia. The organisation operates on three ‘spokes,’ as Cessalee fondly refers to them – artist training, industry standards, and community engagement. “I refer to them as spokes because I see it as sort of this… wheel, and we’ve got to move all of the pieces in order to make forward progress.”
Cessalee explains that within their ‘Industry Standard’ spoke, they will assist companies in updating policies or protocols, offer training and workshops, and/or provide an Equity and Inclusion Support Officer to assist the production with being inclusive in their practice. SAC also has a Changemakers program, where this support is offered in a long term or ongoing capacity.
While there have been improvements in terms of access for Culturally and Linguistically diverse (CALD) and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) people within the performing arts industry, equity is a long way off. “The Book of Mormon, in a lot of ways, was the first time that Australia saw a commercial theatre production with a racial 50/50,” notes Cessalee.
Ironically nicknamed “The Great White Way,” racism and bigotry are no strangers to the world of Broadway. Even shows that are heralded as triumphs of diversity with large BIPOC and CALD cast like Aida, Hairspray, The Book of Mormon, and Flower Drum Song are still written and helmed by white production teams. While, yes, it is a major step in terms of representation and having non-white stories on main stages, it raises the question of just who should be telling these stories, and what the intention in telling them truly is. In a perfect world, diverse performers would be able to play roles that are authentic and representative of their lived experiences, rather than caricatures of what life as a ‘person of colour’ is to a white audience.
“It’s really about asking hard questions of ourselves, of the sector, of each other, and learning how to articulate the vision that we want our sector to be and not chasing what other countries or other places are doing, but really establishing what Australia needs in response to what’s happening here,” notes Cessalee.
We need to acknowledge who’s behind the table as well as who’s on the stage too. The concept of cultural safety is one that’s often thought about after the diversity question, and I think it actually needs to come first. Equity and inclusion, which go hand in hand to build a psychologically and culturally safe space, have to come before your efforts to diversity. And if it doesn’t, it’s performative at best, but quite often harmful and exclusionary at worst, making people really not interested in coming back.
Since its establishment, Stage A Change have hosted several industry roundtable discussions, launched training programs in partnership with major Performing Arts institutions, engaged in community outreach, collected and compiled data to understand diversity within the sector, and provided consultancy for anti-racist practice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and strategic planning. To say their contribution to the theatre industry has been immeasurable would be an understatement.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that theatre, as an institution, has fundamental roots in classism and whiteness. While there are more visible elements of this, such as seeing homogeneous cast announcements time and time again, there are others that are more insidious. It extends into our secondary and tertiary systems, with a clear split in access towards further arts education for those who may come from different backgrounds. These biases, even unknowingly, create further obstacles around access for those wishing to pursue a career in the arts.
“Where I think there’s a real gap in our sector are things how to find out about auditions, what it means when they say ‘bring a pop-rock song’, what you’re supposed to send, what a self tape is… You’ve got a whole community of people who haven’t necessarily gone through a traditional training program who have a gap in knowledge, not necessarily about how to sing, dance, and act, but how to get access to the place where they can sing, dance, and act.”
Even once this access has been granted, there are still further hurdles for young artists. While tertiary study is not the be all and end all for those wishing to pursue a career in the arts, Cessalee comments that those who don’t pursue training will still be at a level of social stigma and disadvantage, even if they are of equal ability to their uni-trained peers, due to that perceived lack of access.
“There exists a very strong inherent bias that those people who don’t go to school or don’t have training might not be able to do eight shows a week, or might not have the skills to be able to do it. So how do we teach people about the pathway, not just the destination? How do we as a sector check our internalised biases that might also be creating additional barriers on the pathway that are unnecessary?”
Depending on the census data you consult, there are approximately 39 percent of Australians who identify as a Person of Colour. However, BIPOC representation on our stage and screens is exponentially less. “It’s really easy to say ‘Well, they’re here, so obviously we can put them on stage.’,” states Cessalee, “But that would assume that all 39 percent of that population wants to go into a career in the arts. Yes, absolutely, the bodies are here. But that doesn’t remove the barriers of interest, impact, access, knowledge, time, et cetera.”
Cessalee’s advocacy extends beyond her work with Stage A Change – at the end of 2022, she published an open letter on ScreenHub for reviewers, critics, and editors looking to shift the conversation around diversity, inclusion, representation, and equity. In it, she highlights several pertinent issues that plague the written sector of the arts industry, and the inherent biases that we hold and project, even when well-intentioned. This open letter was a valuable resource to me in writing and editing this piece, and will be a constant point of reflection in my work on the STS series.
To say that speaking with Cessalee was eye opening would be an understatement. She is a beacon of knowledge, experience, and professionalism, and anyone who has the privilege of working with her will know what an immeasurable contribution she will make. I am excited to see our changing theatre landscape with someone like her at the helm.
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.