Diversity in Australian Media will be presenting: Diversity in Practice, a panel discussion programmed as part of this year’s Vivid Sydney Festival, with an aim of examining how change can occur within organisations and age-old institutions. We had a chat with one of the panelists- Playwright, performance poet and screenwriter Tasnim Hossain whose most recent solo show Letters to John has seen seasons across Newcastle and Sydney.
What drew you to writing for performance – stage & screen?
I love the immediacy of writing for performance. I started writing and performing at poetry slams when I was still at university. Writing for theatre was the next logical step for me. While at uni, I also did a playwriting course with Canberra Youth Theatre, and then also did writing programs through Playwriting Australia and what is now called Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP), and the Australian Theatre for Young People- a company I am still involved with. It meant that I could explore more complex ideas, over a length of time, with voices speaking other than my own. There’s an incredible moment when you hear actors speak your words in a way that makes you forget that you were the one who wrote them. And to then have audiences respond to it; it’s like nothing else. I was approached to write for screen through relationships built in the theatre and I was interested because it’s such a powerful medium and has such scope to reach people. With theatre, the thing that makes it extraordinary is also one of its biggest weaknesses in that it is so ephemeral. I also thought about my community and how much more accessible screen is for them.
How has your career been affected by being a visibly Muslim woman and a Person of Colour?
I have no intention of writing something that tells a “Muslim” story. I want to write coming-of-age stories, or romances, or whodunits that have Muslim characters and People of Colour in their casts. I think Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White, which premiered last year and had a return season at Sydney Theatre Company, does that so well. The characters are Indigenous Australians and it certainly informs who they are. However, it’s not an “Indigenous story” as imagined by (often) well-meaning, gawping outsiders, but a love story – a romantic comedy – with Indigenous characters. I think that’s also why films like Ali’s Wedding have done so well, because they’re not about how terrible and hard it is to come from a systemically marginalised background, it just reflects, elevates and celebrates the realities of what it’s like to be us. Sometimes, it can be hard and sometimes it can be wonderful.
Why do you think inclusion is important for the stage and screen? What would a more inclusive theatre space for Muslim women and Women of Colour (WOC) look like? What about a more inclusive film industry?
Diverse representation isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s the reality of the world we live in and it puts people on seats in theatres and cinemas. I think a lot of it [the exclusivity of theatre] has to do with physical space. I think it can be hard to navigate foyers and box offices and theatres if you have never been to see theatre. I’d like to see more done to have young people attend theatres. I think by the time you’re an adult, if you’re not used to seeing things onstage, it can be hard to go. I still find theatres incredibly intimidating places, especially when I can see that the vast majority of people in the audience look so different from me. Theatres are increasingly recognising this and programming accordingly.
In terms of film, I’d like to see emerging screen creatives from diverse backgrounds given opportunities to work on projects that aren’t just connected to their culture in some way. Equally, when someone is asked to consult on a project as a representative of a marginalised group, I think it’s important that the nature of the engagement is meaningful, and if possible, has more than one person from that background represented. I think it’s important to do these things in good faith, rather than just to rubber stamp problematic portrayals or stereotyped characters.
What was it like to be involved with an inclusive theatre space for Muslim women and WOC such as CAAP’s Lotus program? How do you think this model could be applied to have a more inclusive film industry?
It was great because it provided a sense of solidarity and support with other artists who might have had similar experiences, in spite of our diverse backgrounds. Asia is a very large continent so there were many different backgrounds, and creative practices represented! The Lotus program also introduced me to mentors who are still in my life, championing my career, providing me with opportunities and building me up when I’m pretty sure I should pack it in and go home.
I think film is starting to do great work in inclusion, examples which come to mind include the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS)-led Talent Camp, which has been developing and supporting creators for the screen, and a number of Screen Australia and Create NSW initiatives which are focused on developing diverse creatives. I think what industries can do is create paid attachment and mentoring opportunities. For people who are already experiencing marginalisation, I think payment is the only way to show good faith and an investment in developing people and their stories for stage and screen.