Candy Bowers is not pacified by sweets. Equal parts talent and thoughtful fury, Candy is a multi-talented performer, producer and provocateur with a deep commitment to shaping the Australian theatre landscape in ways that are more reflective and welcoming of Australia’s cultural diversity. She will be appearing for the Brisbane Festival/Queensland Poetry Festival collaborations, Tongues of Flame, just a mere 24 hours from now (and for Hot Brown Girls Burlesque Taste Test). Here she answers the sticky questions.
Since leaving NIDA, you’ve forged a really interesting path for yourself as a hip hop artist, performer, youth engagement worker – after eight or so years, do you feel closer to realising your dream of Australian theatre-scape that reflects diversity and is welcoming?
I graduated 2001, so it has been 13 years since l left NIDA. When I first stepped into the industry I recognized the overwhelming exclusion of people of colour and women of diverse body shapes. I remember thinking “the Australian Theatre and Entertainment scene doesn’t like black women.” For me the oppression created a huge desire to fight for my place and the stories I want to tell. The slog towards a more diverse and inclusive space in the theatre has been multifaceted and tiring to say the least. Over the past 3 years I’ve seen the most change; in 2012 the Queensland Theatre Sector (La Boite/ QTC/ MetroArts) appointed a Diversity Associate (first and currently only one in the country) and his presence has already shifted the imbalance across the scene. In 2014 Melbourne Theatre Company will be working on ways to be more inclusive of culturally and linguistically diverse communities and are working hard to reflect Melbourne’s multiculturalism. The first time I performed my solo show WHO’S THAT CHIK? at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo in 2009 it was met with much disdain and criticism, hostility and down-right racism because I directly spoke from my perspective as a big brown girl- ie. an outcast on the scene. It was at the time when Chris Mead and Lee Lewis had published there Platform Papers on how Australia had failed ethnic writers and the lack of colour-blind casting. Taking a step back and looking around I can see small shifts across the sector- from casting to the stories that are being told, from comedy to who’s on TV. ITS BEEN PAINFULLY SLOW.
I often wonder whether real and sustained change will occur whereby we reflect the stories and faces of our country with depth and complexity. There are excellent examples of the real Australia in shows like The Slap and Playschool on the telly or one-offs on the stage like Sovereign Wife by Sixxters Grim Theatre Company or the work of Leticia Caceres and Angela Beltzien from RealTV. Staying in the game is tough and as I move into the next level of my practice (from emerging to mid-career Artist) I am confronted with the challenge of brokering for more money, more support, better positions in programs and better conditions to create in. As I climb I am faced with new challenges, I ask questions like: does my body of work hold enough currency in the sector? Is my profile strong enough to leverage real investment from funding bodies? How do I make an impression and develop my practice/work without more ongoing support? I often ask myself whether it’s time to give up. Keeping the faith can be very tough.
You’ve lead/devised/co-created/collaborated/supported a range of projects that engage with issues of race, gender, sexuality, body image, politics and arts – hardly lightweight topics – yet you bring an innate humour to your work, how important is that sense of the celebratory, the humorous?
It’s true the comedy side of my practice comes easily and naturally- perhaps that clowning originally came from a need to reframe the crap around me, to interrupt the oppression perhaps? It’s difficult to say- I am in general a person who believes in nurture as opposed to nature, but there are some personality traits and values that seem to be innate- comedy is one for me. I have definitely been honing in on humour as I find it the best way to thrown down the most painful/ difficult information and still have people on board. I have also explored and experimented with more didactic forms and put straight up rage on the stage. It’s all about what I’m trying to get out of the crowd- sympathy, alienation, thought, love etc? The genesis of moving from WHO’S THAT CHIK? to Australian Booty to Hot Brown Honey Burlesque is very complex and interesting. I have been trying much more spiky and darker material in the burlesque show to a much more mainstream crowd and it’s been really explosive. Sometimes I get nervous that the ideas are too intense, but the humour finds a way to keep me on point yet deliver the killer blow.
I’ve spoken to a number of women, women of colour, queer women – audiences that really deeply identify with your work and its particular ability to interrogate stereotypes and celebrate diversity – how do you find that more “mainstream” (I’m open to how you define that!) audiences respond to the stories you’re sharing?
I’ve had many discussions of late across the theatre/ entertainment world about audiences and what they will and won’t “like.” I’m actually off to do the Bite the Big Apple Arts and Cultural Management Tour in New York early October (2013) to get International strategies regarding attracting diverse audiences to the theatre. I think about this stuff a lot, sometimes it takes over the Artistic process and it is a symbiotic part of my art making. My experiences with audiences is really unique, when I perform my own work I play to a majority of women, half are Queer and many are people of colour, then I perform in commercial theatre settings to mainly white middle-class people. I find mainstream marketing departments ghettoize the work more. I am seen as a stereotype (I often get comparisons to the latest women of colour on the box, be it Faustina “Fuzzy” Agolley or Macey Grey) and that’s really hard to deal with. I always hope a shift in understanding happens for the audience through their experience of the performance and sometimes it does, but due to the real absence (shutting out) of women from the African and Chinese Diaspora in the Australia Theatre scene it can be slightly too much of an educational experience for my liking. There is also a presumption that black work simply won’t relate. That it is not universal. Presuming an audience won’t be able to access story and themes before they’ve even been presented presumes racism…. I think the answer is MORE stories, faces, and bodies MORE often and we’ll begin to break this racist legacy that haunts the stage.
As a performer who often challenges gender roles, either by questioning contemporary notions of beauty in, say, Australian Booty, or by using male or gender-bending characters, what roles models and creative leaders/colleagues inspire you?
I am inspired by Chris Green who plays Tina C, my adolescent hero was Julian Cleary, my first heart-throb was Boy George, I love Margret Cho, the entire Drag King scene in Melbourne (which I cut me teeth in), Taylor Mac, Lesbian films of the 80’s and 90’s, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker are my foundation for so much of what I do. Gender bending also comes really naturally. I went to an all-girl school so I played male roles from around 13. My current peer group is a sizzling hot mix of Queens, Kings and cross-disciplinary Artists like Lisa Fa’alafi, Ben Graetz (Boganvillea/ Miscellaneous), Le Gateau Chocolate, Fez Fa’anana, Captain Kid, Constantina Bush, Rocco D’Amore and my sister Busty Beatz.