As long as theatre’s gatekeepers remain predominantly white and middle class, we are never going to achieve a cultural equality that reflects the rich and diverse society we live in, says Bush artistic director Madani Younis
What I love about London is that it’s one of those rare places where, if you walk down the street, you will meet the world. Every day the city makes me want to look at life from another vantage point. So when I took over as artistic director of the Bush theatre two years ago, I knew I wanted to tell stories for the local community that embraces us. I wanted to see their faces in our theatre, both in the audience and on stage – and I wanted to see my face too.
As one of the very few non-white people running a major arts organisation in the UK, I know how vital it is to embrace a great diversity of cultures. It has been heartening to know in recent months that I am not alone in my ambitions – both the culture secretary, Sajid Javid, and the shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman, have called for greater diversity in our theatres, and Danny Lee Wynter is spearheading the brilliant Act For Change project to increase diversity in television.
I can only speak for our theatre, but last year at the Bush half of our main stage shows were written by black and minority ethnic (BAME) playwrights; and half of our main stage writers and directors were female. You might assume that we sit down as a team and work out how many women and how many BAME individuals we want to have on our stage, but we are simply responding to our city and the broad landscape of our country. My fervent hope is that by embracing the richness and realities of contemporary society we can make our work relevant to all. I hope that by looking at the world and contributing to culture in this way, we might also shape its future.
In two decades more than half of all young people in London will be of dual heritage. It’s crucial that we create opportunities for a rich diversity of artists to make work on our main stages and so redefine the canon of British theatre. I am proud that so many works we have recently staged at the Bush, like Disgraced, Josephine and I, We Are Proud to Present … and the forthcoming Perseverance Drive – one of very few contemporary plays to feature an all-black cast – are contributing to that canon.
However, structural inequalities still exist. Since 1997 there has been some investment in black and minority ethnic work in our sector, and as a result we’ve seen some amazing artists emerge – such as Keith Saha,Michaela Coel, Arinze Kene and Sabrina Mahfouz. But I fear decision-makers and gatekeepers have constructed parallel realities policed by outmoded notions of what is “proper theatre”: black work exists over here and the work we describe as mainstream rests over there. Essentially, the work we’re describing as mainstream, we’re supposing belongs to a middle-class white British audience and is made by more white middle-class Britons. That must change.
Let’s challenge how cultural institutions see themselves and who they see themselves serving. Let’s be honest: if cultural value is dictated by an entrenched elite, is it any surprise that we have such a narrow understanding of what and who we are? I live in one of the most diverse cities in the world, yet on a press night here this is not reflected in the critics who sit in front of the work. We can’t say we want diversity and not expect cultural institutions to look different, to act differently.
Unless we start broadening our own outlook on the world around us, we will be condemned to react to events rather than to shape our futures. We need a sharp and significant shift in the makeup of cultural leadership in our country and the creation of a new canon of work for future generations to call their own.
• Perseverance Drive is at the Bush theatre, London W12, from 4 July to 16 August.