BME artists, practitioners and managers in Scottish theatre - where are they?

Jon Morgan, 28 July 2012

Attended: Jon Morgan, Joyce Rosario, Orla O'Loughlin, Alex McGowan, Stewart Laing, Michael Emans, Kim Simpson, Rachel Amey

Is there BME work happening in scotland which we are unaware of? Or is it no happening and if so why and what can we do about it?

Should we be bothered? Don't people who who want to work in theatre end up getting there? Or are there real barriers for BME practitioners? Also Scotland still has a relatively small BME population.

One Asian artist recently arrived in Scotland feels very isolated and marginalised - feels Scotland is a racist society and that this is also an issue with professional theatre.

But also theatre reflects the wider societal issues too - e.g. talking at conference in plush hotels where the majority of delegates are white and the only Black people in the building are serving the coffee or emptying the bins.

BUT if we in the theatre sector are generally liberally minded how come we don't seem to accept or involve BME practitioners?

Tramway in Glasgow is in the middle of a significant Asian population but they don't go to shows.

There IS lots of cultural activity within BME communities in Scotland, but how often do we in professional theatre attend these events?

Don't we have a duty to engage - even the RSC has been regularly working with BME artists for decades! Why can't we?

Positive action (as opposed to positive discrimination) how hard do we try to promote opportunities to BME practitioners / communities and how hard do we look? This applies to theatres and to colleges recruiting students.

Scotland has a very small pool of BME actions (about 5 and we all know who they are!). So how can you cast? Also, quality is important - but is this just an excuse? If BME practitioners are not getting the opportunity to work here how can they develop their skills and knowledge?

“As a BME practitioner I find I have to prove myself twice as good to prove that I'm not just here for tokenistic reasons.”

Are cultural expectations of some BME communities a barrier to participation? They can be but 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants tend to be more ‘westernised’ than their parents.

Also there is a fear amongst white people in the industry of ‘getting it wrong’ or saying

the wrong thing so they just leave the whole question alone.

It's also about power. Are we ready to give power away? How many white writers think about the ethnicity of their characters? How many white directors think about casting more widely?

“As a BME artist why should I have to do work always about ‘BME issues’?”

Arts Councils have created a new term ‘protected characteristics’ which refers to 11 different ‘minority’ groups.

Is the first step to engage with BME communities in Scotland and see what they are interested in?

It's also about being ‘hospitable’ - how do we make our organisations and venues truly welcoming to all? Contact Theatre thinks about this all the time - ensuring people feel that everything they see and feel says ‘this is a space for me’.

As part of this it's about being more flexible about different cultural norms for audience behaviour.

“There is a big Chinese community in Glasgow - I never see them at the theatre”

We need to break the cycle even if that means in the first instance ‘importing’ practitioners and companies from England.

Should it be middle class white people deciding how to take this forward? How do we

discuss this question with BME communities in Scotland?

Do targeted placements / bursaries help or are they tokenistic and don't ensure things are ‘embedded’?

Can we learn from other artforms in scotland? Film? TV? not really - but there are some Asian characters on River City!!

It needs longer term action and commitment - this is not going to change overnight.

Critical mass - the sector in Scotland is just so small overall that its hard for practitioners to sustain a career here. Is it an attractive place to work per se and then added to that, if you are BME? (Are young BME practitioners moving to London to train and work??)

Q: Can FST take do anything useful to intervene o this question:

A: You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don;t, so you may as well do something!

SUGGESTIONS: Playwrights Studio did an event about non-white writers. They had to bring in a lot of people from outside scotland but everyone present founds it encouraging and useful. Should FST do a similar event but across a wider range of theatre roles / functions?

Ideas around this included: Talk to Shabina Aslam, Annie George and Julie Ellen (amongst others). And get people in form outwith Scotland e.g.ACE / Dawn Walton (re

Eclipse, Decibel, Black Theatre Initiative); Sue Emma who ruins Young Vic directors' programme; someone from Contact; Hilary Cater (Cultural Leadership Prog at ACE); Keith Khan (Rich Mix). Also in scotland ELREC and Glasgow Anti-Racist Alliance.

Audiences - Annie George does great work supporting groups of young people to attend theatre. Can this be further supported and developed? Likewise, can we develop Lyceum Theatre Big Night Out programme (class is also a barrier - this prog works with young people form disadvantaged backgrounds)?

With audiences, go where the audience are. e.g. NVA engaged local community in the Tramway garden design project and they use it loads - can we build on this?

So, we need to work on audiences and the profession at the same time!

With the profession - we need to overcome fear of engaging with this.

In Australia they are even further behind. Organisations tend to be very engaged with this or not at all. Is there a danger of engaging in a half-hearted way? Or is that just an excuse not to even try?

It does not have to be a massive ‘initiative’. It's about a way of thinking. How often when we are planning do we think about diversity and how we can actively support this? How many people's Equal Ops policies are just a passive statement of their general belief in equalities rather than something they actively implement and is ‘lived’ in their organisational culture and processes?

Untitled Projects always rewrite their equal ops policy for each application so it is fresh

and properly considered.

In Australia there is an orgniasation called Kultur who supports organisaiotns to do just this!

Can we check what research SAC/CS already have (so as not to reinvent the wheel).

Disability in theatre in Scotland is ‘relatively’ advanced by comparison in Scotland. There are more companies and they have been around longer. It means that the few BME companies we do have have a ridiculous pressure on them to deliver against this area.

Real change involves shifting out of our comfort zones!

Theatre is about communication, shared experience and empathy as an artform. Can we use this unique characteristic to help us address this question?


Director, Actor, Equalities, Designer, Manager, Black Asian BME Polish Practitioners, director

Comments: 2

Kim Simpson, 30 July 2012

thanks for setting this Jon. It's an issue i have been wary of tackling badly but this session has given me a bit more confidence in dealing with it, especially as i hope to produce work and events which will address important questions like this.

Angie Bual, 30 July 2012

Yes - we hope to open some of this up in LAB, the talent development symposium in Edinburgh.

I'd like to be kept in the loop about anything that comes of this.