Producer responds to casting concerns
In late October, Equity wrote to producers of Priscilla the Musical in response to a media story that the only indigenous character had been cut from the New Zealand tour because of “an apparent lack of Aboriginal performers”. We received a detailed response from the producer, pointing out that a number of versions of the production have evolved to suit different touring requirements, with creative changes made in a consultative collaborative way.
While certain characters (the tourists and Jimmy) do not appear in the short season UK regional and NZ tour, they have appeared in every other production of Priscilla from South Korea to Sao Paulo and all languages including French, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek and Swedish. Equity advised the producer that we appreciate his considered response and with his consent, his response is below.
From: Garry McQuinn
To: Zoe Angus
Subject: Re: INDIGENOUS ROLE IN PRISCILLA
Thank you for your note, I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight and to reassure you and your members.
Reports from New Zealand are based on misunderstanding and misinterpretation, with the resulting controversy unfounded, unwarranted and distressing to me.
If I have contributed to any confusion then it's arisen because I spent 20 minutes trying to find different and polite ways to answer the same (and only) question posed by an interview tag team. It was clear that their concern was based solely on some familiarity with Priscilla the film; neither of them had seen the musical and they had no interest in talking about it. To be clear, my reference to casting problems was not made in relation to this production, I was making a general point about the casting of non-aboriginal performers in the aboriginal role in our international, other-language and smaller-scale productions. And (ironically) my discomfort with this outcome.
Now I face personal criticism for comments made in relation to a related but different issue, intended to support appropriate casting and misinterpreted by people who imperfectly remember the movie and have not seen our show. And refer to the wrong character.
Self-evidently we made significant changes to the book when translating to the stage ten years ago. These changes were made by the authors of both film and musical, and our creative team led by the director. They were driven by dramaturgical imperatives, and not by my business judgements.
Furthermore the international productions of Priscilla are dynamic, this is not a fixed replica production such as Australian audiences are used to with major international musicals. The show has evolved considerably; there are now several versions and all of them are quite different to the production that left Australia 8 years ago.
Any changes we have made (and will make) are very carefully considered, with the major imperative being to preserve and refine the audience focus on three unique characters on a literal and personal journey - because that’s the story we have chosen to tell.
Over time we have added, amended and/or lost the opening number, Kylie, various Benji scenes, journey numbers, roadkill, floorshow, the tourist’s scene with Jimmy … I could go on for some time. There are various reasons; we have always considered the lessons given by our audiences, the advice of local producing partners, the input of a new cast, advances in production technology and the realities imposed by local economic circumstances.
The judgements we have made (and will continue to make) are collaborative and consultative. My Australian creative partners are amongst the best theatre practitioners in the world, I am proud of the show we produce together, I am involved in every discussion but I have neither the ability nor the will to impose creative choices and I’m a bit surprised that you should think so little of them. My role as producer then and now is to find the resources needed to fulfil the vision of my creative team, and to work with them on appropriate and creative compromises when that’s not possible. Our common goal is to present the best possible version of Priscilla wherever we play. But if we had not allowed a degree of flexibility the show would not have lasted 10 years to become Australia’s our most successful theatrical export.
My attempt to explain (non-specifically) the complexities and compromises behind those judgements has clearly been taken out of it's context, and I obviously failed to avoid an agenda that was obvious, even to me at the time.
So here's the context: the NZ Priscilla is a stand-alone season based on the existing year-long UK regional tour production - because it's the only production that could possibly work in that short season. And it was the only production that could have toured the smaller theatres and lesser audiences in the UK regions.
For the avoidance of doubt the UK regional / New Zealand production that has invited your angst is the only production in which the tourists and Jimmy do not appear - a decision that was based on the tourists, not Jimmy. Without this and the other changes made to the book and to the production we would not have toured. Those characters (the tourists and Jimmy) have appeared in every other production of Priscilla in all territories from South Korea to Sao Paulo and all languages including French, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Swedish ....
To be clear: it was this version of Priscilla, or no version of Priscilla for New Zealand.
Despite the naysaying, the audience and press response has been wonderful, in fact the show is in better shape in every way (including dramaturgically, scale, production-wise, book and music) than the version we took from Sydney in 2008. This is not an inferior production, but a production I’m proud of in every respect.
After Auckland we do not face the restrictions imposed by 5 isolated weeks with no adjoining international dates and that company will close. We spend next year touring internationally, with an entirely new company opening after a full rehearsal and tech. period driven by the original creative team. That production has already been cast - not as the result of a faux controversy but because we always begin with the intention to present the best possible version of Priscilla wherever we play.
For the avoidance of doubt, that international tour will include the character you refer to as Bob in your note (the name is wrong, your cast numbers are also wrong). However the cast breakdown and roles will match (and perhaps exceed) the London and Broadway versions of Priscilla. This is not a decision forced on us by anyone, least of all a bandwagon that runs counter to everything Priscilla stands for - the auditions were held and finalised last May. Not (by the way) by non-Australian associates imported for the occasion but by members of the original Australian creative team.
If and when we return to Australia the production values will be as high as we can possibly make them and the casting (along with all other show elements) will be based on our default position - a show we’re proud of, standards we’re proud of, a story we’re proud of, characters we’re proud of. Whether or not I’m the Donald Trump of the producing world, anything less would be strategically nonsensical - my partners would not allow it into the country’s biggest theatres, the press would be rightly critical and we would pay a price with our audiences.
I’ve now spent more than 20 years taking Australian shows to the world. Our two most successful theatrical exports (Tap Dogs and Priscilla) have been produced by me and I was one of the producers who took Ningali to the world. I fought against the imposition of a non-Australian creative team for Broadway and I fought your international colleagues for three years to maintain Tony Sheldon's role in the show in London and Broadway. I have funded an international scholarship for young Australian production students and I have been directly and constantly involved in the education and sponsorship of our theatre students for four decades. I was a proud member of ATAEA for years, I was responsible for the introduction of union representatives to the students of the national theatre school and I remain committed to the involvement of the MEAA in all levels of our industry. I do not import carbon copy productions with non-Australian creatives and I have never asked your permission to cast my Australian-mounted productions with overseas performers. You might therefore understand my resentment at the implications attached to this issue.
Aside from my offence however there's a much more serious issue here.
Priscilla carries a message of tolerance, diversity and anti-bigotry. My creative oversight and my business judgements have sustained this message and this proudly Australian musical for ten years. I will continue to do whatever I can to see that the bus journey continues for as long as possible - not only on the world's largest stages but also (and increasingly) playing to the communities that perhaps can learn more from our show, but who cannot afford the first class production.
Whether directly or by implication apparently you're assuming a measure of control over the stories we tell, how we tell them and who tells them. And inevitably therefore the audience reach. Regardless of your opinion of me, this is antithetical to the processes of development, creation, evolution and exploitation. There’s a reason why so few original Australian commercial musicals are produced and make it out of our country - the development process is a fragile one, hard enough with the stakeholders and economic challenges we now have. Whether by intent, naivety or twitter trial, anything that further complicates the business of our business risks damaging the ventures that you should be protecting, supporting, and celebrating.
I will post this message on our social media and forward it to anyone who has shown interest in this issue. I’m also happy to further discuss it directly with you.