Meet Charlotte Bevan, the most important person at the National Theatre you’ve never heard of
The woman at the helm of the National Theatre’s Creative Diversity Project tells Lyn Gardner why she is determined to keep the conversation around diversity and inclusion provocative and current, making sure it is embedded in every decision and how voices outside the bubble spur her on
Charlotte Bevan is almost certainly the most important person at the National Theatre you have never heard of. Bevan leads the NT’s Creative Diversity Project, a role that puts her in the driving seat at an organisation that, under the leadership of Rufus Norris, wants to be a beacon for diversity policies. The National wants lasting transformation for itself and the wider industry, but because of the company’s sheer size and scale this can be tricky. Not least, Bevan says, because it can mean involving “58 different people in the conversation over every single decision”.
That can make progress slow, but Bevan is patient and tireless. She is determined not just to keep the conversation around diversity provocative and current but also to ensure that it is embedded in every decision made at the NT.
Putting a black or disabled actor on stage makes diversity immediately visible, but it’s mere tokenism if there is no real cultural change within the organisation.
There is a very good reason the operation she runs was named the Creative Diversity Project and not the Creative Diversity Department. “Make it a department and you make diversity someone else’s job,” Bevan says. “Diversity becomes sidelined. By calling it the Creative Diversity Project it is an active thing. Something we are all doing together, and which is part of everything happening in the building.”
Bevan, previously the NT’s casting associate, is now in the second year of a project that she herself proposed. It is not the first time she has carved herself out a job. While working at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2008 as what she calls “a general dogsbody”, she realised that increasing numbers of actors wanted to work there but their calls were fielded by whoever happened to pick up the phone.
She approached artistic director Dominic Dromgoole and proposed setting up a casting department. He agreed, and she ran it for five years until arriving at the NT as associate to Wendy Spon in 2012. Over the last nine years, Bevan has cast more than 100 shows at the Globe and NT. The last production she cast before moving to her new role was Angels in America.
But sitting in the NT’s casting department she became increasingly aware that, however good the intentions around diversity and however many targets were introduced, progress was far too slow – unless someone was making diversity their priority and ensuring everyone else made it their priority too.
“I was aware of targets being pulled together about the percentages of actors on our stages and thinking, ‘This is a huge building and these ambitions are fantastic, but unless they are really practically thought out, then they are not going to happen’.”
With three different casting directors casting 20 different shows “it’s all very well to say, ‘We want it like this’,” Bevan says, but unless someone is there asking about practical changes and how those targets apply to casting “it gets forgotten”.
Bevan says everyone working at the NT knows change is necessary, and everyone knows the industry needs to be more inclusive. But change takes time and brain space that a lot of people are lacking because most people in theatre are already working at capacity.
“People say they want to cast a deaf actor in a show, and they really do want to do it, but then they go, ‘Hang on, how would we ensure that person can communicate with the other actors, and what will happen if the fire alarm goes off?’ If there is nobody thinking around these challenges, what happens is that people go ‘Oh well, I don’t have time to do that on this show, but I will on the next one.’ And then, of course, they don’t.”
Sometimes when I look back at the shows I cast, I am now horrified by their lack of diversity
She includes herself in that. “Sometimes when I look back at the shows I cast, I am now horrified by their lack of diversity.”
Long before she took up her current role, perhaps spurred by her interest in psychology, she was questioning how casting was done and asking why the same actors so often get cast over and over.
“What made me interested in diversity initially was trying to understand the process of why, as a casting director or director, we just keep going back to the same people over and over. Why it is so much more comfortable to cast people we know are good rather than actively trying to find new people? I think it is because new people are viewed as a risk, when really widening the pool is an opportunity. It made me interested in how we might balance risk and opportunity.”
Q&A: Charlotte Bevan
What was your first professional theatre job? Royal Court Theatre in school and university holidays, doing anything and everything. I worked in 10 different departments, including press, admin, front of house, finance, bookshop, bar. Everything but the casting department.
What was your first non-theatre job? Behind the bar in pubs.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Psychology.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself and prepare properly. People don’t prepare enough. A lot of actors worry about what to wear. It’s different in film and telly, but in theatre it’s a lot more about the text than the shoes you’re wearing.
If you hadn’t worked in theatre, what would you have done? I would have been a psychotherapist. I’ve done the first year of the four-year training. I will finish it. It’s my backup.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I don’t, no.
It’s not for nothing that the word ‘creative’ is in the project’s title. Bevan sees diversity as a creative opportunity for the NT. When she started questioning why change wasn’t happening fast, Bevan realised that unless it is someone’s priority, then diversity will always sit on people’s to-do list but will never top it.
“In an ideal world it shouldn’t be separate to anyone’s job,” she says. “It should be part of every job, but I don’t think we are there yet. So I drew up a proposal for Rufus and said that if we were going to achieve these ambitions for diversity, we need somebody – me, because I’d like to do it please, and because my background in casting makes me suitable – to do that difficult, knotty thinking and make time for it.
“I carved out a job that prioritised thinking about those difficult things, and Rufus said, ‘Yes’. It all comes down to Rufus, because what I do would never have come about without his appetite for real change.”
Bevan’s “difficult thinking” isn’t just around casting, the most obvious manifestation of diversity for someone seeing a show at the NT. Though she has done plenty of that, including partnering with Spotlight to set up ProFile, a website featuring deaf and disabled actors performing monologues that is available free for them to showcase their talents and for casting directors to view.
“Essentially, it’s a way for casting directors to increase the pool of actors they know about. It launched in October and it’s just passed 6,000 views from 1,000 unique users. So that means people are using it and they are going back. If a casting director watches all 120 tapes and then goes, ‘There’s nobody right for the part I’m casting’, that’s fine, but at least they’ve watched them. They know about 120 more disabled actors than they previously knew about. It’s a start.”
But it’s not just about what is happening on stage but also what is happening off it that Bevan is trying to embed in the organisation. Her job includes thinking of how you might implement gender-neutral toilets in a way that makes sure everyone involved is heard and looked after. Or having conversations with the wig department about how to improve the provision for Afro hair in a department where everyone was trained on white European hair. The solution? Bringing in a new member of staff who can help train others up.
Bevan hopes that she might eventually make herself redundant, but reckons there is a still a long way to go before the NT gets to that point.
“It would be great if I was no longer needed because it would mean all this stuff was happening automatically. But we aren’t there,” she says.
“There are a lot of different stages of progress here because there are a lot of different departments. Some are much further ahead than others. Ultimately that first year was about shaking things up and asking, what do we mean by diversity and inclusion, why we are talking about it, what do those words mean to us as a building both in the work we make, and about the people we have working here?”
She says the process was “absolutely brilliant and completely overwhelming”, adding: “For the first time I was someone with diversity in their job title; it just opened this flood of stuff that had been sitting there for years. Even things like the fact that certain photos in a certain room are all 20 years old and are all of white actors. That’s not good enough anymore. It’s trying to uncover those strands, and going, ‘We can change this and that, and with very little effort.’
“Often change doesn’t cost anything. It’s looking at the way decisions get made here, and who is making them, and how they are making them, and asking what is inhibiting our capacity to change – and change now, not next month or next year.”
Again, Bevan’s psychology training can sometimes prove useful. “My job isn’t to wag fingers at people, it is to help them bring about lasting change.”
The job can of course be frustrating, because in a building as big as the NT, which employs so many people, there are no quick fixes.
“Quick fixes are not sustainable. In order to change the output, you have to go all the way back to the input. Some of those inputs happen years before the output is visible,” Bevan says. “It’s about trying to infiltrate the process as early as possible. That might mean I have a conversation today about how a show that won’t start rehearsing for 18 months will be cast. It means the time span on all decisions is a long one.”
Not only does that mean she has to be painstaking and patient, but she recognises that from the outside it can be hard for people to see that change is really happening. Over the last four years, the National has cast just nine deaf and disabled actors. It is heartening that seven of those actors were cast in the last year. But then set this against the fact that during the time those nine deaf and disabled actors played on the NT stages 1,200 able-bodied actors also played there and it looks poor.
“I know,” says Bevan. “You have to accept the provocation when people say that it’s not good enough. Setting change in motion requires constant attention. You need people to provoke and say, ‘You said you were going to do that and you haven’t.’ You need people both in and outside of the building to be constantly challenging the status quo.
“The criticism is hard because we are trying, we are trying really hard, but the criticism is really healthy too. I have had to get quite robust. In the beginning, every time I got something wrong or there was a criticism I’d go, ‘Oh no, we are terrible people,’ and thought maybe I should just give up. But then I realised these provocations are necessary and you have to hear them. We need to hear voices from outside our bubble. Now they spur me on.”
Charlotte Bevan on…
… sexual harassment in the theatre
“I agree completely with Vicky Featherstone when she says we all knew. All those conversations in which somebody says, ‘So-and-so behaved like this’ and there was a general eye roll around the table. Of course we all knew. To some extent. If not the full extent. We have to acknowledge that is true.”
… a changing culture
“For years people have found themselves in uncomfortable situations and just taken it for granted. People will no longer put up with certain language or situations. More gender equality and female leadership will help. But the environment has already shifted because people will no longer stay silent.”
“Sometimes people in the industry forget how vulnerable you are making yourself as an actor. We should be looking after them better. It’s your responsibility when that actor is in your care, even if it’s just for 20 minutes for an audition, to make sure they have a respectful experience. We all give an element of ourselves to our job, but actors give the most of themselves. So we must look after them.”
“Auditions are brutal. It all happens so fast and there is seldom any feedback. The admin of responding after auditions is difficult but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get better at doing it. This is a harsh industry and drama schools don’t really prepare actors for that and the constant rejection.”
“Often time, or rather lack of it, is the excuse the industry uses for the way things are done. It may be true, but it’s still not right.”
… the future
“The younger end of the industry is far more diverse than the older end. I hope that age and time will carry those people through. But we’ve got to help them on the way.”
Bevan believes that targets can be a spur too. “There is a huge amount to be said for targets. They keep us accountable. But you can’t just play to targets. If you did, in any given year you could cast a certain way to fulfil the targets and then not worry about it. But that’s the least sustainable type of change. It doesn’t really change thinking within an organisation.”
She gives an example. She was approached by Equal Representation for Actresses, asking why the NT didn’t have a 50/50 target for performers on stage.
“I went away, looked at it, talked to people and found we had a 54/46% split of men and women on stage. When I went back, ERA said, ‘Yes, it’s great you are at 46% – and that is better than many – but unless you have it in writing that your ambition is 50%, if another artistic director comes in who doesn’t agree with it, all that progress can quickly be lost.’
“So I talked again to Rufus and said we need to make it a target. I thought it would be an easy conversation because we all want equality, but practically you have to look at the repertory schedule and ask, how can we do it and make it an honest ambition? You have to look carefully at what plays you already have programmed. These targets are for 2021, and it sounds like a long way ahead, but it’s not really far in terms of programming we have left to fill between now and then.”
In the end, Bevan believes that organisations will only change and diversity will become embedded if there is strong leadership at the top. “Rufus wants to make things happen, and that’s where change starts,” she says. “If we are going to meet the targets we have set ourselves, then directors coming into the building must be told about those targets at first point of contact. We need to say: ‘If you want to work with us, this is how we want to work and this is what we aspire to’.”
CV: Charlotte Bevan
Born: 1985, London
Training: Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, studying social and political sciences and majoring in psychology
Landmark productions as casting director: Henry V, Shakespeare’s Globe (2012), Home, NT (2013), The James Plays, NT (2014), Dara, National Theatre (2015), Barbarians, Young Vic (2015), Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State, NT (2016)