“Diversity is part of my identity, so being a minority and talking about marginalised voices is part of my story. In anything I write, that’s going to be the undercurrent.”
Vidya Makan is nothing less than a one-woman tour de force. The Queensland native with Indian and South African roots can act, sing, compose, play piano, and write. Her recent performance credits include the role of Catherine Parr in SIX, a musical re-telling of the lives of King Henry VIII’s wives which toured Australia in 2020, and the lead role of Maria in The Colour of Darkness, a film about India’s social history available on SBS On Demand.
“Diversity is interesting, and makes for interesting storytelling,” Vidya tells Indian Link. “Musical theatre is all about the underdog, where a character will want something and then have to go through obstacles to prove that they can get it. In Disney movies, [the hero is] almost always someone who’s unseen, or pushed to the side, or one of the freaks. Which is the minority story.”
This minority story is something Vidya has lived experience of. Exposed to the arts at a young age with her theatre loving family (“I learned to read music before I learned to read English”), she was inspired by Julie Andrews’ performance as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Yet the self-proclaimed tomboy recalls that despite her parents’ full support of her following her artistic endeavours, they did show initial apprehension when she expressed her desire to take up performance as a career.
“They were hesitant because there was no one who looked like me in the industry or in all the theatre shows we’d seen,” she explains. “The idea of having a career in a space that we weren’t typically part of, was scary for them.”
Pushing forward nonetheless and studying a Bachelor of Music at the Queensland Conservatorium in the mid-2010s, Vidya’s career coincides with a turning point in the performance industry. Revisionist musicals like Hamilton (created by one of Vidya’s all-time favourite creatives, Lin-Manuel Miranda) are revolutionising the way that people of colour can get on stage, replacing all-white historical figures with multi-ethnic casts and crew. Outrage over the lack of opportunities for culturally and linguistically diverse performers on screen is leading to movements championing this issue, giving us films like Black Panther. The Australian theatre industry is following this path towards inclusivity, of which SIX is a good example.
“[SIX is] revolutionary in the way that it gives power to these women’s voices and contextualises them in the modern day for a modern-day audience. Each of [Henry VIII’s] wives, who have always been portrayed through a very white, male, patriarchal lens, get their own retelling of how they’re so famously known. Even though the musical is set up as a pop concert and is not a realistic show, its power is that we actually get to see who these characters are in their own perspectives.”
This power is central to another piece of work from 2020 for which Vidya found herself nominated for a Green Room Award, a performing arts prize. Her song I Need You To See Me featured over 100 performers of colour in its music video. Described as an ‘explicit invitation to the entertainment industry for visibility and diverse representation’, it includes lines such as
Your world never saw me
Look what I’ve already achieved
I won’t let you ignore me…
I breathe the air of this land
And I need you to see me.
Clearly, as she writes borrowing from a much-regarded idol, Vidya is keen ‘to be in the room where it happens.’
Having packed in over half a decade of working full-time in the performing arts, Vidya has witnessed her star power (and workload) continue to rise. Aside from SIX (which will resume its nationwide tour after lockdown ends), she is set to perform in Hayes Theatres’ Merrily We Roll Along (which was delayed due to COVID) and continue developing The Lucky Country and a new musical in conjunction with the Create NSW Musical Theatre Fellowship.
While a career in Bollywood still eludes her – though an enthusiastic “hell yeah” indicates she’d rectify that in an instant – she’s also finding time to engage with those cultural roots, having recently watched films like Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham “for the first time in my life”.
With those experiences in mind, she candidly offers the following advice for all diverse artists trying to follow in her footsteps.
“You have to be unafraid to take up space and assert your presence in spaces that might not necessarily see you. Also, find your tribe. Find your community, because that’s where my career started to take off. If I hadn’t found the incredible creatives that I did, I wouldn’t be achieving success in the commercial world now. They gave me a space where I could actually be myself and be seen as myself. And I guess the world took note because of that.”
She laughs, “That’s such stereotypical advice, but it works.”
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Currently Reading: Putting it Together by James Lapine.
Currently Listening To: The Daily by The New York Times.
All-time Favourite Artists: Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Toby Marlow, and Lucy Moss.
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