Diversity in theatre: small players leading the way

 13 July 2017

The lack of social and cultural diversity in the arts is the most pressing challenge the industry is currently facing. So how can theatre be relevant to our society and help us create a better one, if it doesn’t reflect its actual composition?

The obstacles young actors from social and cultural minorities are facing are manifold and often uncharted.

An example is feelings of isolation, having to do your own makeup and hair because 'makeup artists are just not trained to deal with black actors'.

This comes from young actor Emmanuel Kojo, who explained his feelings to the Lloyd Webber Foundation in their 2016 Diversity Report.

All the report's participants expressed the necessity for UK theatre to stop being 'hideously white' if it wants to be relevant in our multicultural society.

How is the problem being addressed?

Slowly but surely, things are shifting!

A new charity supporting equality in the live and recorded arts called Act For Change was launched in June 2014 with a conference at the Young Vic.

Real diversity must blossom to erode what we perceive to be 'normal' and expected on stage

The students and alumni led Diversity School Initiative launched at RADA earlier this June, and is supported by a diverse cohort of performers, directors and practitioners.

Including Steve Medlin, Wac Arts Diploma in Musical Theatre's Head of Drama.

And more diverse productions are taking centre stage!

From Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse, to Barrie Rutter's Richard III at the Hull Truck Theatre starring Mat Fraser, the first disabled actor to play the title role.

Fraser wrote in The Stage that, "It honestly now feels backward to me, to have a non-disabled actor play this deliciously dastardly disabled role".

What more needs to be done?

The shift needs to be deeper and more structural to transform the mainstream.

Real diversity must blossom to erode what we perceive to be 'normal' and expected on stage.

We also need to defeat the idea that we can't connect to another person's emotions if we don't have the same physical experience of being alive.

This is tragically unimaginative, particularly in a city like London, where the number of ethnic minorities has increased to 40 per cent of and approximately 1.4 million people are deaf and disabled.

But how do we move beyond the (white, male, straight, able-bodied and middle class) 'normal'?

How can we make disability in the arts not just a quota or an array of single initiatives, but a structural fact?

Access to opportunities

Access to training and development opportunities must be guaranteed for everybody, beginning with the community.

Never seeing anyone looking or talking like you on stage can be alienating and can lead people to consider the theatre as something exclusively open to middle class, able-bodied white people.

That is why the role of youth theatres, school drama clubs and outreach programmes is so vital, as well as the promotion of texts and traditions beyond the Western canon.

How is Wac Arts helping?

Community centred, pivotal organisations like Wac Arts (which has given young people from disadvantaged backgrounds access to training of the highest level for 40 years) are speeding up the arduous process of change.

They are helping everybody fight the structural inequalities and unconscious biases which are pestering the industry.

Wac Arts shines in the Lloyd Webber report with its 78 per cent BAME and 40 per cent disability rate, and is a trailblazing presence in the industry.

Never seeing anyone looking or talking like you on stage can be alienating

Wac Arts has gathered and nurtured wonderful diverse talents since its inception in the 1970s, becoming a hub of excellence in performing arts and media for children and young people.

The Diploma in Professional Musical Theatre that Wac Arts offers is a truly unique programme which incorporates contemporary and traditional techniques from both Western and non-Western traditions.

The Diploma offers bursaries and is designed to give access to all young people, regardless of their background or life circumstances.

The strengths of such rich training are reflected in the successes of the Diploma alumni.

One example is alumna Sophia Mackay, who recently performed in The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin at Theatre Royal Stratford East. She will also be playing Elisabeth in the forthcoming Dirty Dancing tour.

Celebrate the smaller organisations

A recent article in The Stage analyses diversity in the major UK Drama Schools and celebrates those with the highest rates of BAME students.

But it doesn't mention smaller organisations like Wac Arts and the invaluable work they have been doing for decades. This doesn't help the cause.

Given that the latest UK census clearly shows how unemployment and low wages are structurally affecting some communities more than any others, localised provisions, like Wac Arts are offering exposure to a life in the arts that is crucial to imagine oneself on stage.

Celebrate the vital work of organisations which continue to change things from scratch.

Wac Arts is empowering young people to change their world through the arts, to create a better future for all of us.