‘Only 12% booked me under my real name’ : BAME performers at the fringe

For Scotland’s capital August means the rushed arrival of throngs of people in search of the quality theatre, comedy and performance arts on offer as part of Edinburgh’s month-long festival fringe. Billed as the biggest arts festival in the world, the fringe offers thousands of different shows with plenty to cater for almost any taste you might imagine. Almost.

For the last two years grassroots organisation Fringe of Colour has been on a mission to highlight and rectify the lack of BAME presence at the festival. Last year Layton Williams, an actor who has appeared on BBC Three in Bad Education and on the West End as Billy Elliot, accused security staff at the Assembly George Square venue of racial profiling after they alleged that he looked like a man who had jumped the fence two weeks before. The venue eventually apologised, but Williams’ experience is not unique.

Not every experience is negative, and of course the fringe also offers unimaginable opportunity for directors, producers and performers, with many considering it the highlight of their creative year. Those in charge of the fringe are also making an effort to increase inclusivity, having designated diversity as one of the key strands of this year’s fringe central programme. But is enough being done to welcome people of all backgrounds to the fringe? We asked comedians, performers and Guardian readers about their experiences.

‘Edinburgh changed my life and I owe my career to it’

I haven’t had any proper negative experiences unless you count the occasional hostile reaction from drunk men when I tell them I’m not Romesh Ranganathan. When I told another BAME friend that I hadn’t experienced much racism in Edinburgh, they said “It’s because you get to be Nish”. I’ve been able to exist outside of the usual micro-aggressions because of the status I have at the fringe.

I have heard more stories about racism in Edinburgh from other performers over the last couple years, but I suspect that is a symptom of a wider national problem with people becoming more comfortably racist. There’s also this weird strain of liberal racism where people believe they’re so liberal that they couldn’t possibly be racist – at another festival I had a woman describe me as “a little bit namaste”. Edinburgh changed my life and I owe my career to it so I really want to give more people from backgrounds like mine the sense that this is something they can do too. Nish Kumar, comedian

‘I’ve been discouraged from taking part in the fringe’

I have been actively discouraged from taking part in the fringe before, so last year at the Edinburgh festival I decided to run an experiment. I applied for comedy spots with two names, my real name and an anglicised one, with an identical comedy CV and routine; 81% of comedy promoters booked me with the anglicised name, but only 12% did with my real name. I’ve also been told before by directors that I shouldn’t talk too much about ethnicity in my comedy because it will ruin my chances of success. Jenan Younis, 28, performer, London

‘You’re fighting an uphill battle if you’re doing something different’

I’ve heard other BAME acts talk about how their friends don’t even come up to Edinburgh because of the associated costs. The fringe is definitely skewed towards wealthier people who might not be from a BAME background, and so you’re fighting an uphill battle if you’re doing something for a more varied audience. Personally I haven’t experienced any racism at the fringe, but I still think what Fringe of Colour is doing is fantastic – if only there was a way they could eliminate the transport and hotel costs since they’re likely the biggest inhibitor stopping young BAME people from going up to the fringe. Arnab Chanda

 Poetry collective, 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE: Roshni Goyate, Sharan Hunjan, Sunnah Khan, and Sheena Patel Photograph: Alia Romagnoli

‘We need spaces with performances by and for people of colour’

Our poetry collective, 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE, did a five-day run at the fringe with three sell-out shows. We felt that it was important to create a space for performers of colour. Both our white and non-white audience members felt empowered by the stories and voices on our stage and we even had one white member of the audience tell us that the show had helped her reflect on her privilege. We received a great response from our audiences who said there weren’t any shows like ours. We were there to creatively challenge the audience through our collective vulnerability of what it’s like to be “othered” – and people were welcoming of the space we created. 4 Brown Girls Who Write, performers and poets, London

‘I love the fringe, but the subtle ignorance is tiring’

I love the fringe and want to keep going every year, but sometimes the subtle ignorance can get tiring. As a hijab-wearing Muslim, people handing out flyers for shows don’t approach me but instead give flyers to my white, non-hijab wearing friends. At comedy shows I’ve gotten used to comedians never trying to begin a conversation with me, no matter how many times I sit in the front row, and at bars I find people staring at me before quickly looking away. These things may be small but they all add up to make it clear that the fringe is not meant for people who look like me. Faaiza, 33, London

‘To succeed you have to be a fighter’

I have a love-hate relationship with the fringe. Having worked on it 14 years out of the past 29, I love that the best emerging acts come to Edinburgh in August and I get the artistic nourishment that isn’t there the rest of the year. However, as an Indian woman and a creative, I hate how invisible BAME work and artists are made, through lack of access to high-profile showcases, press coverage and reviews. It can be a breeze for some BAME people but for most of us it’s not about our art, it’s about physical and mental stamina. To succeed you have to be a fighter. Annie George, performer, Edinburgh

‘I’ve never felt out of place as an ethnic minority’

I’ve been attending the fringe for almost 13 years and have never felt out of place as an ethnic minority. Perhaps more widening access schemes and better space and accommodation would help ease this problem. I think it would be more effective to reduce prices of concession tickets overall and have cheaper tickets for Edinburgh locals. It’s expensive to put on a show and this is off-putting for poorer people generally. Gurjit, Edinburgh

‘To fix the diversity issue there there has to be a top-down movement’

As brilliant as the fringe is, I did look around when I was there and think: “why is this not more diverse?” And I didn’t have an answer to that. With more diversity you get more interesting stories, which is especially important for art forms like theatre. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that a lack of diversity is a problem for the fringe. I do believe that to fix that there has to be a top-down movement with people who organise it making an effort to be more inclusive. Mez Galaria, performer, Bradford

Main image copyright: BBC/Chris Lander/Idil Sukan

Written by: Serena Bhandari and Guardian readers

First published 09.08.19: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/aug/09/only-12-booked-me-under-my-real-name-bame-performers-at-the-fringe

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