Why are there no black people in this room?

Convener(s): Steve

Participants: Charles, Daud, Charlie, Sara, Nick, Alan, James, Suba Das, Josh N, Will B, Amie Tsang, Fiona, Suki, Stella Scott.

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

There were actually three black people in the room. Two were working the canteen. Neither of the latter were asked about their experience of theatre. Or what they thought… 

This started as quite a small group, but grew as the session went on. It lasted for over two hours. It was intense. The consensus seemed to be that it was very useful.

We talked a lot about separate development of black professionals in theatre. The example of Identity Theatre School at Arcola was brought up. Was it ghettoizing black theatre-makers?

This led to a discussion of the work done at Stratford East. Suba, who had worked there, felt that there was a danger that although there it had built a strong and loyal black audience-base, that audience did not go to other theatres. That it was insular, inward-looking. That it didn’t necessarily ‘get us any further forward’. He compared it with Hackney Empire which he felt was more inclusive and diverse. That their work was much more cross-cultural and that that was more the way forward where the work of black theatre-makers could benefit from other influences. And vice versa. Ditto the Hackney audiences benefited from a broader experience. With regard to ‘reflecting the community, he pointed out that if Stratford East was going to be truly representative, then, for example where was the theatre that reflected the big Eastern European community in Newham…

This led to a discussion of ‘quality’. Was most black theatre any good?  A number of BME people said that it was not unusual that their first experiences of BME theatre was it wasn’t very good. That they felt patronized. That it was only being funded and put on to tick boxes.  That if it was white, it wouldn’t exist. This led to a rejoinder from others that BME theatre had the right to be as shitty as any other theatre.

Amy talked of the feeling of not belonging to the majority culture that most black people experienced.  People moving between cultures. People in transition. It was a major threme - that this was not reflected in the theatremaking, writing, casting and growing of audiences. 

Also to a lot of discussion about the need for education. Miriam talked passionately about the diversity of London. The need to work from an early age and illicit the diversity of cultures from the young people. Others took up this theme with equal passion. Black schoolkids are as passionate about theatre as white kids, so what happens to them as they get older? That a lot of BME schoolkids could be made aware that there are jobs in the theatre. That people design, light, stage-manage, direct, choreograph, market shows. These jobs exist. Many BME youngsters aren’t even aware of this. So how can they aspire to such work?

A working class guy talked about low self-esteem amongst working class kids. How could this be changed was a question we discussed.

There was also a lot of discussion about the need to train people. That theatre-makers – or audiences don’t just happen by accident. The need to take control. 

But there did seem to be quite a feeling that black or  Asian or working-class potential theatremakers might need to have a ‘safe environment’ – a nursery – including positive discrimination to develop what would be considered ‘the norm’… A woman (Fiona) from Vancouver Island cited the work done in the early nineties in Stratford Ontario to cast black actors as Juliet or Beatrice etc. How this was a decision taken by the directors of the theatre, how it was quite a radical and sudden decision, and how such casting is now taken as ‘normal’ in the work of that company. Also that now some of the best actors in that company are ‘black’(non-white). The company has nurtured a new ‘normalcy’. And a quality.  That ‘normal’ is dynamic and progressive - not fixed.

Charlie, an actor and teacher talked of positive discrimination or ring-fenced training and encouragement being only a stepping-stone to something much more inclusive in which everyone is an individual and not a category.

Many felt that, given market mechanisms - the fallacious even-handedness of the market - these things will not happen by themselves. The norm needs nurturing.

Commercial theatre and tv/film is quick to stereotype actors so that they only have a limited number of roles available to them. We need to fight this, making all roles , both on the stage and off it equally available to all.

Charles, on the other hand seemed to be suggesting that it had to be rather a top-down thing. That the individual had to help themselves if things were to change. It was not structural. Not dynamic. That change could not come about, if at all, other than by individual or elite effort.

There was a lot of discussion about the need for better professional theatre training. And encouragement, including financial incentives, to help people train. How the drama schools are often very white. The reason often being that even to audition you need to pay forty pounds, let alone the thousands and thousands of pounds it costs to do the training, if successful in that audition…

A theatre-worker who had worked as a doctor for six years said that colour of his skin was not an issue that was drawn attention to (even though he had witnessed racism within the health service) until he became an actor and then it BECAME an identity – he became an ethnic actor.  It envolved embracing this identity that allowed him to gain work (albeit as a terrorist! – most of the time)

The discussion evolved into one in which issues of class came to the fore. There seemed to be some agreement that, actually, ‘black’ is just another word for poor. That it was financial disincentive that barred the people – both onstage and off – that we seldom see in our theatre.

Also the empathy of a BME towards the dominant culture is a learnt behaviour where as a white audience doesn’t necessary empathise with a BME due to lack of exposure or dependent on their upbringing which leads to the thought of the necessity of visible representation.  This is also important for young people and society as a whole where a certain element of teenagers are disenfranchised and whose behaviour is becoming destructive.  Role models in the arts are very important but perhaps due to theatres ‘middle class feel’ and lack of glamour/celebratory it dissuades the young black kids from a cultural/aspirational element rather than because of a worry about not feeling inclusive.  Film/TV for example feels like there is a space and a possibility for making a living.


To target black and other theatre companies to attend the next conference – like has been done with the disability community

…and other BME practitioners we know

Education at an earlier age to make kids aware at the whole range of work in the theatre, not just acting.