Don't Trust Whitey

Nick Ahad, 5 October 2012

Turns out the great philosopher Belinda Carlisle was right - we Do Dream the same thing and we Do want the same thing.
Phelim, wandering wise man that he is, appeared to materalise towards the end of our discussion and coalesce in one emotional moment what we had been working toward for the previous hour and a bit.

White theatre makers want to see more ethnics in the theatre, making and watching work and ethnics want to be among the white theatre makers, watching and making work (by the way, I am aware I'm using language that might be considered offensive. I don't mean to be. If it helps, every time you come across a word that makes you go ‘ooh’ then imagine a winky face emoticon). Any road up. Whitey wants us in the theatres, we want in.

So what's the problem? Waddya think? Racism.

There was a really lovely turn out and someone brave from an organisation admitted that, yes, institutional racism - albeit low level, might well exist.
But we're theatre makers, lefties, liberal hug a hoodie types? Maybe, but institutions are institutions and they remain sometimes impenetrable monoliths to those who are a darker shade of pale.

So what do we do about that? Hold your horses, we'll get to that - but let's take a look at how we got there.

The title of discussion was not actually the offensive (winky emoticon) title here, but: Look Around. Where are all the Asians? It was tinkered with to become: Where are all the Asians / Ethnics?

It was prompted by counting the number of ‘black’ (we'll come to that word, too) faces on the first morning of D&D Leeds. I could count them. That was the problem.

Leah kicked us off by saying that ‘we’ feel alienated and uncomfortable and we ‘don’t know what's going to happen'. I think she was referring to the audience as much as anything else, but the thing she sees on the faces of ‘us lot’ in a theatre is ‘Is this for us?’.

Let's just deal, real quick, with that term black. At least three of us in the group were mixed race. Actually, four, my sister was there. For a bit. That's out of six people who were visibly ethnic minority in the group (I think we're called BAME at the minute. Which sounds a bit like a Batman baddie). One of our mixed race number, Javaad, suggested a reclamation of the term ‘black’ as the political term as it was in the Seventies in America. You might be African, Latino, Chinese, but in the way you were treated by the police, looked over for employment, meant you were politically ‘Black’. So even though some of us are way beige on the brown scale we decided to go with Black Artists.

So. Pauline, a practitioner, said the problem was that ethnic minorities are only ever seen as ‘service providers’. “They call when the shit hits the fan, but when you get in front of the directors or the funders, all these layers suddenly get put in place.”
“The people who hand out the jobs don't have confidence in us to be able to lead - even though I have a record that speaks for itself,” she said.

Someone from within the Playhouse (lovely hosts) wondered allowed if the problem was one of access. Middle class folk have access to theatre, younger, and therefore understand how to access it when they're older.

One of the major moments for me, was when we talked about colourblind casting. It seemed that a section of the room were essentially going ‘yeah. fuck yeah. YEAH’ ...but for some reason this just didn't seem like a possibility. At all. Not when you've got Cat on a Hot Tin Roof happening about 50ft from where we're having the discussion and the only black faces you're going to see are delivering the fucking drinks.

What was really interesting - again from the person who works at the Playhouse was that it could, possibly, be about a season of work, or at least a through line through the season. The point I made was that there appears to be a box ticking exercise at some theatres - ‘there’s the brown play for the season, there's the black play for the season'. What was really heartening to hear was that someone else, someone with (possibly) a bit of power was actually saying ‘yes, we see that one or two plays a year (bought in from touring companies) that feature all Asian or all Black casts isn’t really doing enough representation and maybe it's an ethos that needs to be carried through a season.

There was a really good point made that actually, theatre exists in the context of the real world. If Bangladeshi and Pakistani (we were talking about Bradford fairly specifically at this point) communities are impoverished - which many in Bradford are - then their access to theatre is restricted from the get go. Add that to the fact that they are also restricted by race then it's a bleeding miracle you get any brown faces

through the doors. Ever.

Pete, who runs a theatre company and taught drama at Bradford college, said that one of the issues he faced was that, even when casting a play in Bradford, in a college where 60 percent of the students were Asian, he struggled to get actors in who were not white.

We talked a bit about this perception that ‘of course Asian families don’t really let their children go into performing' and I called bollocks. Javaad had a brilliant story to call bluff to my bollocks: “My family were confused when I came to Leeds Uni to study Physics,” he said.

“They didn't know why I was doing something so arty.”
His timing in delivering this comic line was awesome. Get this man on stage.

Mez, an actor (female actor - i don't like the word actress) said that her family had always been really supportive and her family in Pakistan were always involved in the arts. The irony is that now when she auditions she is only ever seen for castings for lawyer, doctor dentist. “All the ‘traditional’ jobs that I decided against pursuing when I was younger.”

While we're on casting: Sarah,a writer, was casting, earlier this year, for a black African woman, a white man and a white woman. She lost count of the number of white actors that auditioned. For the black role? Five. She had five actors turn up to audition in the North and ended up going South to find someone to play the character. Is the problem that there aren't enough actors out there? The view was put forward that actually, perhaps the problem is that those actors don't know / aren't told about how to find those casting opportunties. When Geraldine Connor, bless her, staged

Carnival Messiah at the Playhouse, she found plenty ethnic minority actors to take part. Just saying.

At this point Javaad wanted to give Eastenders a round of applause for having a Muslim on screen - and a gay muslim at that. Bit bored of seeing us lot as terrorists and that.

The fella off of the Arts Council made a really interesting point about diversity. Apparently he's lost count of the number of agendas where diversity is at the bottom of the agenda. And invariably gets pushed off when time ticks its inevitable clock. Gordon had this amazing, radical, extraordinary idea. Running out of time to discuss diversity, the thing that's on the bottom of the agenda every time? Put it to the top of the agenda.

Pete started to hint at something that I found revelatory (the revelation came, stick with me). He said:“No-one's going to stand up and say that they are a racist, but institutions naturally end up looking towards casting a certain sort of person.”

This was, basically, because the institutions are run by white, middle class, men and so they are likely to be employing the same. They are monoliths with procedures. Ergo, pretty difficult to break into.

The revelation came when someone said (to bring this back to the beginning): “We want to see black artists in the theatres. The white theatre makers want to see black artists in theatres. Perhaps the inevitable truth is that theatres are, at a low level perhaps, but they are institutionally racist. Maybe that has to be acknowledged. And then dealt with.”

It was a great discussion, with lots more points (which I'm about to bulletpoint cos this has gone on waayyy too long. And there's a session about getting a job on the other side of the room). But this felt like the epiphany. As I explained, appropriately, the night before the discussion, much like MLK, I had a dream. Mine was of little black theatre makers and little white theatre makers gathering together. And i was in the middle without my trousers. But it was an anxiety dream. So that happens.

I couldn't really have dreamt to hear someone say ‘yeah, theatres might be racist. We should do something about that’.

- Javaad has spent a year trying to get funding to work with some destitute asylum seekers. Why is it so hard to get funding (it ain't, there are people who know how to get at it. In buildings. But we need access to their knowledge).

- poverty is a block to accessing theatre. Ethnic minorities tend to experience poverty. Doublefucked.

- Geraldine Connor spent aaagggeeesssss trying to make the Playhouse understand her vision. They were so used to thinking about theatre in a certain way they just couldn't understand. When they did: Carnival Messiah. Boom.

- ‘ethnic’ minority theatre can be risky. Can it? All theatre is risky. Stop using that as an excuse.

- organisations need to get out and engage with communities and ‘teach’ them about theatre.

- colourblind casting. For a season. Try It. It could be like Dr Pepper.

- ‘We’ might be bitter about some experiences from the past with organisations - maybe we need to leave that behind to move forward. Yes, we actually used the words Bitterness Amnesty.

- we're fed up with having to advocate for our race.

- Nobody likes Gilbert and Sullivan.

- Whitey ain't all that bad really.


casting, colourblind casting, Race, Belinda Carlisle, Asian, Casting, Diversity, black, race, diversity

Comments: 2

Nicky Taylor, 7 October 2012

Hi Nick
I only caught part of your session but just got back from watching a piece that's very relevant to this discussion - Speak of Me As I Am - Wyllie Longmore's exploration of Ira Aldridge, a great 19th Century black American actor who made England his home but is often written out of theatre history - the show included reference to Aldridge having to ‘white up’ in order to be allowed to play great Shakespearian roles other than Othello, and the racism he experienced because he dared to go on stage with his own black hands on show, rather than with gloves, as white actors who ‘blacked up’ for the part of Othello did. The piece drew comparisons with today's challenges for black actors - looking at colourblind casting, all black companies, the availability of great roles for black actors. A fascinating insight into race and theatre. Here's the link:

Matt Rogers, 7 October 2012

I really wanted to be in this session but I was running one at the same time (always the way).

Whenever there's a meetup of artists, I feel like the fact that the room is SO white suggests that we're doing something wrong because the range of people in that room doesn't seem to reflect the city at all.

but the idea of working with someone BECAUSE they are black, makes me feel a bit sick. Equally the idea of an all black company who set out to be one for the reason of being one makes me cringe.

There is a problem for me though, if I only meet with white artists (for the most part) then when am I going to form a collaboration with an artist who isn't white? That's the visible pool.

So my question is this: If there is a pool of artists out there that I have no connection with because they aren't (for whatever reason) drawn to the same events that I am, where are those people meeting to form collaborations and share ideas? Maybe I need to go there and see who I meet.