Centre Stage report co-author Danuta Kean: Hideously white? Theatre will be hideously irrelevant if it doesn’t fund greater diversity

A year after the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation declared British theatre to be ‘hideously white’, one of the co-writers of the Centre Stage report, Danuta Kean, assesses what progress has been made within the industry in that time

Earlier this year, Jaime (not her real name) landed a role in a London play. Excited, she told her fellow final-year students at the prestigious drama school she attended. Not everyone on her course was thrilled. “Of course you would get that role,” one said tartly. “It is easy for people like you.”

“By ‘people like you’, she meant ‘black’,” Jaime told me. The white, public school-educated blonde student could not have been more wrong.

A year ago, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation grabbed headlines when it declared British theatre “hideously white”. His comments marked the launch of Centre Stage, a report into the pipelines through which black and Asian talent reaches UK theatres.

Funded by Lloyd Webber’s charitable foundation and written and edited by Mel Larsen and myself, we found that black and Asian actors struggled to get into drama school. Not only that, but once there they were isolated and had careers blighted by a ‘default to white’ for lead roles, stereotyped casting and exclusion from informal networks that help white, middle-class actors like the one Jaime encountered.

Actors, directors and the handful of technical stage people of colour expressed frustration at an industry in danger of becoming culturally irrelevant in a Britain where 14% of residents are black, Asian and minority ethnic, rising to 30% in 20 years. In London, the hub of British theatre, that figure is already 40%.

With the Centre Stage report, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation pushed against an open door. The reaction was a mix of shock at its findings and determination to make things better. But a year on has anything changed?

Judging by the casual racism of the comment made to Jaime, it is tempting to think not. But that would be wrong.

As well as adding to a broad range of diversity initiatives by actors union Equity, The Stage and even the Labour Party, the report rode a crest of a wave of anger, interest and frustration among black and Asian theatre professionals that led some to take things into their own hands.

The most high profile is the Act for Change project, set up in 2014 to improve diversity across the live and recorded arts. Backed by star names including Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry and Adrian Lester, the group has initiated research, workshops and training aimed at improving representation across a broad range, from older women and disabled people to BAME people.

But two lower-profile organisations spotlight the problems faced with bringing lasting change.

The Diversity School Initiative was launched in June by playwright Steven Kavuma and three drama students frustrated by the homogeneity of their courses. “If year-in, year-out, we keep producing white, middle-class students to go into the industry then our industry will end up being white and middle-class – which it is,” Kavuma says of its founding principles.

Not only has DSI focused on broadening the range of intake by drama schools with outreach into state schools, it has supported existing students and challenged the inclusiveness of curriculums, faculties and student bodies in drama schools.

Among DSI’s cheerleaders is RADA director Edward Kemp, who has worked hard to slough off the institution’s posh- kid image: in 2015/16 the school awarded scholarships worth £420,000. This year it offered an unlimited number of audition-fee waivers for poorer students, it has increased the number of regional auditions, focused efforts on recruiting more diverse staff and addressed the low level of BAME representation among technical staff through research and partnerships with the likes of the National Theatre and the Old Vic.

A sign that its focus works is that cultural diversity on the school’s prestigious BA in acting has increased to 29% in the past two years. RADA is steaming ahead in challenging the diversity deficit, but for Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway, founder and chief executive of Artistic Directors of the Future and the Beyond the Canon project, without changes in leadership within the theatre world the current push for diversity will not last.

That there is a need for ADF, which has focused on creating and developing management opportunities for culturally diverse theatremakers through leadership, interview training and shadowing programmes, is reflected in the fact that already it has 300 members. Beyond the Canon champions the work of culturally diverse playwrights in a way that should open doors for a wider array of talent and audiences.

The work of DSI and Hodge-Dallaway is exactly what the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation wanted to see in the aftermath of Centre Stage: forward-looking, dynamic and providing positive solutions.

But both highlight a problem Hodge-Dallaway acknowledges. “BAME-led organisations such as ADF and Beyond the Canon do not receive core funding to deliver policy-changing and effective programmes,” she says. “Instead [Arts Council England national portfolio organisations] are given funding to implement changes with no monitoring, which encourages further exploitation and maintains the power structures and the status quo.”

That important initiatives are run by volunteers should shame the industry. If diversity is centre stage, where is the money to fund it? Not just core funding from the Arts Council, but fees paid for the services they provide. Because without that, these organisations will last until the spirited individuals who run them burn out or become jaded at trying to deliver diversity on a shoestring.

Money makes a difference, which is why the ALWF has invested heavily in diversity scholarships and is looking at how next to invest for lasting change.

Fear that current interest in diversity risks being a fashion rather than a permanent change haunts veteran actors of colour such as Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre. “The focus on younger actors means that a lot of older actors fear a cycle of repetition,” she says. Older actors need to be heard if another generation of black and Asian actors are not going to suffer deja vu. “Everything has to be relearned by young actors every 20 years and there is no acknowledgment by the establishment that there are older people within it and our voices are not learned from or acknowledged,” she adds.

The risk of not bringing lasting change isn’t just that BAME actors such as Jaime remain marginalised, but that the BAME population, with a disposable income of £300 million, will spend their money elsewhere. Should that happen, UK theatre won’t just be “hideously white”, it will be hideously irrelevant.

First published 05.12.17: https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2017/hideously-white-theatre-will-hideously-irrelevant-doesnt-fund-greater-diversity/

Written by: Danuta Kean 

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