There’s been much talk about the need for theatre to reflect the UK’s cultural diversity. With change so slow to be implemented, are quotas the only way to bring about a transformation?
We know that we have very little diversity in theatre and that things are very slow to change. At the Act for Change meeting at the National Theatre in London last week, Adrian Lester called the lack of diversity “embarrassing”, suggesting that if the industry won’t change of its own accord to genuinely reflect the cultural diversity of the UK, then it must be publicly shamed into doing so.
That means talking loudly about those directors who won’t cast black or Asian actors in Chekhov, the casting directors who “don’t know” any disabled actors, and the artistic director who differentiates between directors and “black directors”. Oh, and if as some claim, it’s just too difficult to make change because of the repertoire and all those classic plays, what about doing what Cush Jumbosuggests, and simply putting on some different plays telling different stories from the ones that dominate our stages?
Or what about introducing quotas? After discovering that only 35% of the plays it has produced in the last seven years were written by women, Headlong announced last week that in the future it would commission an equal number of plays from male and female writers.
That’s cheering and a reminder that things are changing, particularly in the wake of the work being done by Lucy Kerbel and Tonic Theatre and others, too, that has concentrated minds on the gender issue and made it something about which some directors and theatres, such as Daniel Evans at Sheffield, are instigating positive action. When they instigate gender equality quotas, others can no longer claim not to have noticed. It’s important because, as director Phyllida Lloyd has drily opined, women are too often kept off our stages, as writers, directors and actors, not as the result of some fiendish male conspiracy, but simply “because they don’t notice if we are not there”.
So why not take a similar approach to ethnicity and disability so that what we see on stage reflects society?
Change is certainly needed, and fast. Act for Change took a snapshot of British theatre over the Easter weekend. It was a small survey, but guess what? Out of 326 actors, there was only one actor with a visible disability on London stages (at the NT), either in the West End (represented by five theatres) or subsidised sector (represented by four theatres). Among lead creatives in the West End that weekend there were none from black and Asian backgrounds. In subsidised London venues, actors from these backgrounds represented 5% of lead performers. In the regions (represented by the Royal Exchange, Manchester, Sheffield Crucible, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Liverpool Playhouse, the Royal and Derngate, Nottingham Playhouse, Royal Shakespeare theatre and Chichester) black and Asian lead creatives stood at 7%.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that later in the week at the Soho Create festival, Talawa’s Michael Buffong called for immediate change and the implementation of quotas, saying that the conversation had gone on too long and that it was time to actively make change. “Otherwise we will talk about it for ever. People say that you can’t legislate like that, but how else are you going to change anything?”
He’s got a good point, because even those with the very best of intentions, such as Rufus Norris, who says that under him the NT is pursuing a policy to “reflect this city and country” in relation to ethnicity, gender and disability, there is a mistaken belief that quotas may damage what is delivered on stages. When being given a grilling during the Act for Change meeting, Norris didn’t rule out quotas (“the last thing I’m saying is no”), but added: “We have to make sure that our standard of excellence is the best it can be.”
Not surprisingly, that didn’t go down well, and it’s no surprise that it made Graeae’s passionate artistic director, Jenny Sealey, despair, pointing out that not only is that exactly what Graeae and others aspire to every bit as much as Norris and the NT, but that it remains a dream for many deaf and disabled performers when they can’t get “a foot in drama schools”.
Even without training opportunities, anyone who has seen the work of companies such as Graeae or Deafinitely, or producers such as Unlimited and disabled actors and creatives, or the work produced by many black and Asian directors, companies and actors, will know that there is no shortage of excellent talent. The shortage is in excellent opportunities. So let’s stop talking about change but actually implement it, and see theatres pledge to give quotas a try.
Source: The Guardian – http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2015/jun/09/do-we-need-diversity-quotas-for-theatre