Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

Diversity Be Damned: What's the Problem?

Mohamad Shaifulbahri Bin Sawaluddin - 15 January 2017




Starting Questions:
Why are theatre-makers still finding it a challenge?
Why are venues/programmers still finding it a challenge?
What is the problem?

Bigger Question:
If we've been discussing diversity year after year, then what's the next step? How can our discussion about diversity be more progressive?

I started the session sharing about what triggered the session:
1. In starting my company, Bhumi Collective, I found myself being categorised as a BAME producer, so I wanted to understand this further.

2. Annabel Turpin's blogpost about London national organisations wanting to bring work to Stockton but not having deeper understanding of the community there, which made me think about how as theatre-makers when we bring work to such venues, we don't often ask what problems some of these venues are facing where diversity is concerned.

We didn't come up with a definition for diversity but referred to D&D 2015 & 2016 definitions from previous sessions on diversity.

Apologies for not capturing the names of all who participated, it was a robust discussion from the get-go.

The following are notes from the discussion:

The Print Room saga - a missed opportunity in opening the doors to a dialogue. Why be defensive about it?

frustrating that venues still programme with the notion of “perceived lack of audience” when the truth is, “if you build it, they will come”. Example of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom where bus loads of an older black audience came to catch a matinee show.

Question was asked, “Why do we see theatre?”

Theatre is about seeing a story that needs to be addressed on stage and to be discussed after, rather than allowing it to fester underneath which led to something like Brexit.

Question was asked, “Is this session meant to look at diversity as a reflection of what the UK is today or is it to address the imbalance?”

A bit of both, somewhere in the middle ground.

Riz Ahmed's article about his experiences and the different stages of casting for him was brought up as an example to look at.

This segued into having stories about China or Congo having a white lead's perspective, in reference to Chimerica and They Drink It in the Congo at the Almeida. Going into this journey but needing a white character to frame it. Feels that sometimes there is a simplicity in a production's approach to how characters talk or reference diversity - how to not patronise?

Response felt that it was embarrassing that theatres feel this way, doing the above as an entry for and audience, into a story that's diverse. Sounds like an imperialistic point of view.

Is whitewashing not that obvious an issue?

Question asked about thoughts surrounding Joseph Fiennes' casting as Michael Jackson on TV.

Interesting case for those in session - how does one even begin to approach this?

Question asked about “What the dream theatre diversity is like?”

BAME communities not talking to each other, companies not telling stories that are representative of Britain today.

An example of a disabled actor performing in a play at Tristan Bates not called disabled theatre was refreshing. Also brought up was Jack Thorne's Solid Life of Sugar Water.

The Borrowers at The Sherman had a mixed-race Welsh performer - surprised and delighted by that.

If casting in a fictional casting, why not go with a mixed cast? In reference to The Print Room saga.

A thought was raised about how the casting of women in male roles was problematic and newsworthy - don't play it as pretend male, play it as female, in reference to Maxine Peak as Hamlet.

Example of erroneous decision to cast a black actress as Cordelia when 2 other sisters and Lear are white - what were they trying to say? The implications of it.

Questions about how gender-blend(?)/colour-blind casting is marketed as “Look at us, we've done this, isn't this so great?”

Is it meant as a warning to audiences?

Response raised included an experience of how a director working with an all-female cast on a play which had 1 male character led to audience being confused when this wasn't marketed.

Question raised about appropriate language used in an audition call. Would like to cast an Asian performer but no on Asian performer turned up.

Recommendations include:
Performers of diverse background are welcome
Actor of any ethnic background are welcome to audition

The topic of colour-blind casting was brought up - is the diverse experience enough? How much good does it have? Where is the responsibility? Should, when working with a diverse cast, race be a factor? If so, should gender or age or…? (Does this apply to straight man playing gay man or 70-year old woman playing a 40-year old woman? Gender, sexuality, age) Or is it patronising? Don't want to appear as tokenistic.

Response was that this is project-based and duty of theatre-maker to address and protect it. Depends on work, depends on project.

Diversity for the sake of a diverse cast isn't helping to move the case forward. Bored of seeing a diverse casting of a Shakespearean play. New stories need to be told that are more reflective of what we see on the streets today.

Recommendation to impose a 10-year ban on Shakespeare! (joke, or was it?)

The issue of diversity is not new but needs to be conscious till it becomes unconscious.

Question raised about puppetry - there are few BAME puppeteers - would one need to seek a puppeteer of BAME background if there are puppet characters of that ethnicity?

Recommendations include: working with a mixed cast or working with the community by sharing puppetry skills/techniques and look into encouraging more puppetry training and getting them more involved

Group acknowledged that this was not an issue most of us had thought about before and should be a part of the conversation.

In closing, a pity that we were unable to hear more from venues or programmers about the problems they were encountering. This would be helpful and a dialogue on this should be further explored.

Diversity as a session topic has been brought up every year and I was worried about people going “Diversity? Again?” but the discussion and issues raised suggest that it was necessary and that it needs to continue.





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