Whoever comes are the right people

What are we REALLY going to do about Race and Diversity in UK Theatre?

Lemn Sissay [British Library]
Lemn Sissay [British Library]
I went to the recent Devoted & Disgruntled event at the Southbank Centre last week. The invitation was written by Tyrone Huggins, actor-manager & playwright. The poet Lemn Sissay opened the open space, reading from flashcards provided by Phelim McDermott/Improbable Theatre. It’s a script I know well, having attended four D&Ds in the last few years. Lemn stuck to it, but added a little decoration as he got distracted by the general usefulness of the statements he was reading, statements such as: ‘the brilliant thing about the people who are not here is that they are not here’ and ‘whatever happens is the only thing that could have’ and ‘when it’s over it’s over.’ He did a bit of walking backwards then reverted to walking forwards again with the observation that it’s pretty much the same.

This D&D was about race and diversity. It’s the first themed D&D I’ve attended. My previous D&Ds were in Devon, where I used to live. The Plymouth event was almost entirely white, as expected; the Exeter event was almost entirely white, as expected. Then I moved to Birmingham a little while ago so attended one here (almost entirely white, unexpected).  I’ve also managed to get to one of the London ones, not the latest, but the year before (almost entirely white, unexpected).

Birmingham and London are the two largest cities in the country, both with non-white populations of around 40% – so why don’t the people around the D&D circle reflect that? Are the artists out there but not coming because they don’t know about them? Do they know about them but choose not to come? Never mind. ‘Whoever comes are the right people.’

Last week’s event was pretty ‘diverse’, when it comes to theatre. I heard people reflecting happily about the number of East Asians there, but one of the sessions was titled ‘why aren’t more black people here today?’ And the man who called it said he’d looked around the room in disappointment, full of white faces, again. Oh well. ‘Whoever comes are the right people.’

It’s a weird thing, to be so focused on skin colour. It’s weird because people are people, we’re all the same and we’re all different. It’s strange to be a ‘white’ woman talking about ‘black’ and ‘of colour’ and cautiously using such labels because I can’t use them comfortably, without feeling that I might be ‘othering’ others from my white position, but not to use those labels is to pretend ours is a colourblind culture, which it isn’t.  I don’t want to be a definer, I don’t want to ‘do’ race, but just as, at the recent Black and Asian Writers Conference in Manchester, Fred D’Aguiar talked about the skin of the black body allowing access to a larger history:

The black figure isn’t confined to time and space … you are able to get into a larger history and a larger hurt … something about skin and the nervous system allows you to know and feel things beyond the limitations of your body …

…likewise the skin of a white body makes us part of ‘a larger history and a larger hurt’ from the side of those who did the hurting. I may not have had anything to do with colonialism but I can’t assume that I have nothing at all to do with the traces of history and hurt that are still so present, as Steve Martinot puts it in his brilliant book, ‘The Machinery of Whiteness’:

Because whites are the definers, “race” as a concept is inseparable from white supremacy. That is, “race” as a concept is inseparable from the white hierarchical domination that constructs it. (19)

I have some gaping gaps that require filling in when it comes to the history of this country. My schooling didn’t mention colonialism, and from the sounds of it, Michael Gove’s proposals are not going to provide a solution. Perhaps if the middle classes were better educated, British period drama wouldn’t be quite so limited to Austen and Downton.

One of the sessions focused on the impact of education on careers in theatre: ‘what’s school got to do with it? How did you get where you are today?’ At drama school the British actor Mitesh Soni was constantly asked to put on an Indian accent and ‘do a funny head shake’  – all good preparation for professional auditions for which he is told to bring his own turban (he’s not Sikh) … Questions were raised such as, should drama school be explicitly teaching its British students of colour to do an array of accents to give them the tools they will need in an industry in which they will be typecast? Or should they continue to pretend the problem doesn’t exist on the surface whilst asking a young woman who has had what she describes as a ‘white middle class upbringing’ and who speaks with the most refined RP I’ve ever heard offstage, to do an accent that’s like her mother’s, and when that doesn’t result in what they are looking for they say: ‘a bit more fresh off the boat’. Perhaps the answer is to set up new schools.

The problem is that men watching TV shows full of men don’t notice there are no women in them. White people watching a play with only white actors don’t notice there are no people of colour. We don’t see what we are not when it is not there. This not seeing, is one way in which we white people ‘do’ race:

White people “do” race in the sense of “committing” certain practices, actions, and attitudes … What white people do to others through these practices, however, tends to remain unseen by their white perpetrators once the practices become elements of a cultural structure in which they simply “go without saying.” (Martinot, 23)

So, it ‘goes without saying’ that we just have to put on period dramas with all white casts. It ‘goes without saying’ that 12 Angry Men ‘aint broke so don’t fix it’. It ‘goes without saying’ that a drama school has to limit the number of black actors they accept. It goes without saying that English = white. It goes without saying that actor = white. It goes without saying that a cast list that doesn’t specify skin colour will be cast as white. It goes without saying that political dramas will be full of posh white men.


The British public (or perhaps that’s a particular slice of the British public) has only recently realised how great it is to see women in leading roles in TV drama. They weren’t reported missing until The Killing and The Bridge and Borgen. But in spite of Roifield Brown’s observation that  ‘the ability to talk effortlessly about … increasingly, the right fashionable Scandinavian drama’ can gain you entry ‘into this club’ (referring to the UK media), the producers in the club don’t seem to have clocked why viewers are so enamoured. The BBC Radio spin off version of Borgen thought it was the coalition Danish politics that’s the important thing. The four male characters are listed as:

The ‘unflinchingly determined’  ‘permanent secretary for the Ministry of the Environment’ [Hans, the lead]

‘A  hard drinking journalist’

‘An environmental rights campaigner’

‘The permanent secretary for the Ministry of Finance’

The two female characters are listed as:

‘Han’s daughter’

‘A long standing friend of Hans’

In Danish drama women get to solve crimes and run the country. In the UK we are cast in relation to the leading man.

Francesca Beard [R Denney]
Francesca Beard [R Denney]
Apples and Snakes (with generous Arts Council funding) were instrumental in cultivating a diverse English spoken word scene (also described as ‘performance poetry’/’poetry in performance’ etc). They have always done this consciously, looking to support the ‘disenfranshised voice’. In the eighties that was the black British voice. Now the focus is on voices from the regions. I believe that one of reasons why the spoken word scene (although by no means perfect) is so much more diverse than the theatre world is because it has no gatekeepers at its entrance. Anyone can do an open mic. Everyone is applauded. I started out doing open mic. That’s the way we can experiment. We can get heard. No unpaid internships. No writers’ groups that you don’t find out about until you’re too old for them. No unofficial mentoring via a friend of a friend. No job offer via your mother. No debt-for-life trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. Just the opportunity to try out work and get better at it, and then the open mics turn into paid gigs, opportunities to work with others, and maybe that turns into a touring theatre show. Like these: Francesca Beard; Lemn Sissay; Hannah Jane Walker; Ross Sutherland; Zena Edwards, Inua Ellams, Kate Tempest (not to make assumptions about how these artists got to where they are, but …they have all worked with Apples and Snakes). I think this section of the poetry scene (which increasingly bleeds into the theatre scene) is becoming the new mainstream when it comes to poetry, (either that or it’s not poetry at all, depending on who you ask). Certainly, far more poets working in performance reach an audience and earn a living by writing/performing than those who focus on the page.  But that debate aside, when it comes to race and diversity, can theatre learn from spoken word?

The discussions at D&D focused around the mainstream theatre, the casting of actors of colour, and possible solutions. There’s no getting away from the fact that ‘mainstream’ theatre and TV is where the money and the work is, so it’s not as easy to say, ‘make a new mainstream’ as it is in the poetry world. There are also a large number of white actors, writers and directors who have given up on the impossible task of trying to crack the little London circuit and are making their own work. Both Lemn Sissay and Tyrone Huggins got established by making their own work.

I was inducted into the make it yourself philosophy in Amsterdam and then at Dartington College of Arts. At Dartington there’s no talk of the ‘industry’ or ‘agents’ or ‘casting directors’, there’s no question that anyone’s skin colour will have anything to do with their success, there’s no unofficial quota on how many people of colour can be accepted. But then, there’s no Dartington anymore either. And when there was, it was overwhelmingly white. Hidden away in the Devon countryside, I only knew about it because my mum did.

One of the sessions called at D&D was ‘Is anyone else tired of all this shit?’- something like that. These are conversations that have taken place many times before, issues that have been raised many times before, it’s shocking that the issues are still issues. Kwame Kwei-Armah, discussing his decision to leave the UK to become the artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage: ‘I thought we had won those arguments already. I couldn’t face it again.’ He adds: ‘we still cannot get through glass ceilings to save our lives back at home.’

D&Ds can be very cozy and comfortable. There are rules (principles) that help us feel comfortable. Whoever comes are the right people. In Devon I knew pretty much everyone there. When I went to the general London one, in spite of the fact I’ve never lived in London (and in spite of the fact I’m pretty outside of all this), I knew quite a lot of people. It’s a tiny world.  Is it too tiny? Whoever comes are the right people. I could try to argue with that, and it’d make a nice conclusion to the blog, but these D&D open space principles are pretty solid. So, let’s go with it. We are the right people. But we, the right people, also have a responsibility to try and bring in the people who aren’t here, whether those people are casting plays, running theatres, or working on a weekday. And then, whoever we are, as Tyrone Huggins says: ‘I think we have to bust this thing open. “They” (whoever “they” are) are never going to fix this. It’s down to us. To me and you.’

‘When it’s over it’s over.’

It’s not over. Here are Tyrone Huggins’ questions:

Is it pointless to continue to discuss issues of diversity?

 Why bother to take the complaints of black theatre to an industry that has mastered the art of inertia?

 Given the literary core of the British theatre aesthetic, is it not an exercise in futility to image an equitable sharing of resources for alternative theatre forms and practice?

 Isn’t it true that when we talk about race we’re really talking about skin colour politics?

 Why talk about race anyway, shouldn’t the focus be on excellent work?

If the Creative Case for Cultural Diversity holds any truth, why is it not at the heart of our creative industries?

If Black Asian and Minority Ethnic audiences don’t turn out for theatre in sufficient numbers to support its economics, why spend time or money worrying about them? 

Does the digital world hold any opportunities for diversity or race in the performing arts?


2 thoughts on “Whoever comes are the right people

  1. Thanks for this blog. I wasn’t able to be there, but had wanted to attend the event, whilst also harbouring a shameful exhaustion with the topic (which, of course, as you point out, was addressed).

    I wanted to share a couple of links to other thinkers too, who have helped shape my thoughts on this recently. Firstly, Sara Ahmed on her wonderful blog ‘Feminist Killjoys’ writing about perception and the fact that “When you expose a problem you pose a problem” i.e. the problem (of racism, sexism etc) doesn’t ever get addressed, just re-filed, shifted onto the person who pointed it out as the outsider or problem-maker:


    Also interesting to note this approach in New Zealand, where a mainstream drama school takes on Maori principles as a site for learning:



  2. Hi Rajni,
    Thanks for reading and for the links! The first article is very interesting, ‘no wonder diversity work is so trying: it takes a conscious willed effort not to reproduce how things tend to fall,’ and the observation about how the people pointing out the problem are made into the problem is fascinating too. (There are some comments on Lyn Gardner’s recent blog on the topic that point to this.) http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2014/mar/03/theatre-middle-class-white-male-diversify
    And the New Zealand school’s principles sound brilliant – craft, learning to learn, and listening. Totally agree!
    I hope your work is going well,

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