Tobi Kyeremateng: ‘It feels like I’m the honorary diversity officer for an industry’
The producer who launched the Black Ticket Project, an initiative providing free or discounted theatre tickets for young black people in London, is about to embark on new ventures at the Ovalhouse Theatre and Tate Modern. She tells JN Benjamin why she wants to be known as a creative force as well as for fighting for social justice in the arts
If Barber Shop Chronicles had been the first theatre show Black Ticket Project founder Tobi Kyeremateng ever saw, her concept of what theatre is and could be would have been totally different. Instead, Kyeremateng – pronounced ‘cherreh-mah-teng’ – went on a school trip to see an “uninspiring” production of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe – and though she occasionally went to the theatre after that introduction, it was almost a decade before she discovered there was more to theatre than the words of dead white men, being performed by predominantly white casts, for the pleasure of almost exclusively white people.
That discovery is part of the reason she created the scheme that offers free theatre tickets to young black people in London, and occasionally beyond the capital, to encourage them to go to the theatre more often. Inua Ellams’ hit play was the “unofficial catalyst” that sparked the beginning of Black Ticket Project in 2017, she says. Kyeremateng spent £300 of her own money to buy 30 tickets for young black men to see the show during its first run at the Dorfman in 2017.
When Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night was announced for the same space the following year, she approached the National for the first time – the theatre was previously unaware of what she’d done with Barber Shop Chronicles – and said: “This is what I did, I want to do it again but I need your help to make the process more structured.”
Kyeremateng explains: “With Barber Shop Chronicles, it was literally just me on the phone with youth workers while looking at my laptop and saying: ‘These are the dates available, I need to book them now, otherwise it’ll sell out.’ It was just chaotic.”
For Nine Night, the operation was more organised, and the goal was to secure 50 tickets for 50 black people to see this play about an everyday part of black culture. The National agreed to subsidise the good seats in the stalls to £10, and confirmed it would also pay for a total of 25 tickets.
The fundraising target of £250 to match the contribution from the National was met with overwhelming enthusiasm. “I had to keep going back to the National and saying: ‘We’ve raised £500, can we push the number of tickets up? …we’ve raised £1000, can we push that number up? At that point they said: ‘Okay, we didn’t expect that it would blow up like this so the maximum number [of subsidised tickets] we can provide is 250 tickets. Once it reached that number we closed the crowdfunder – we raised more than £2,500 in three days.”
Black Ticket Project celebrated its first birthday in March this year. Since its inception, the project has raised more than £14,000 and counting – more than 50 individuals give a monthly donation via crowdfunding membership platform Patreon. To date it has distributed approximately 7,000 tickets – an average of almost 400 trips to the theatre each month. Partner shows have included Misty, Dreamgirls, Caroline, Or Change and many more.
Kyeremateng isn’t interested in measuring impact, at least not in a traditional way. For her, the main objective is to get more black people seeing theatre: “If I’ve given someone a ticket and they’ve gone to see that show, I have achieved what I have set out to do.” It’s one of the reasons she hasn’t sought public funding for Black Ticket Project. In that arena, impact is measured in terms of ‘how did it change their lives?’ and, ‘what happened next?’ Well, they could have gone to their mates and said: ‘Let’s see this show.’ Or they could have said: ‘I didn’t really like that.’ One of those responses is a good outcome to justify the existence of the project and the other is not good enough.”
She continues: “It’s in line with that saviour-ey way the industry has – particularly in relation to working with young people. There’s an attitude that everything young people see, touch and do with the arts we have to introduce to their lives, and it has to change their lives or they have to change themselves to be a part of the arts industry. I just find that so jarring – the way that it’s measured.”
Kyeremateng isn’t fussy about the kinds of productions the project distributes tickets for. “People who are not presenting black-led work often ask this question. There are so many things in this project I am not precious about, and that is one of them. The first show people see through the project has to be reflective of that group, but it doesn’t always have to be black-led work. It means they can then go to see Macbeth and be like: ‘Okay cool, this is a different version of theatre but it isn’t the only thing that is out there.’ The first time somebody gave me a Debbie Tucker Green play, I was like: ‘What? This is a play?’ Because it looks like a poem to me.
“I hate the fact that everything starts with Shakespeare or something like that and then [as black theatregoers] you gradually get to see different aspects of yourself on stage.”
There has been a lot of fuss about the scheme centring on blackness, and among the most frequently asked questions on Twitter is: why is there no White Ticket Project? Kyeremateng’s response is always the same: “You’re free to set one up if you want to.”
Some people have been inspired to set up their own projects for other under-represented groups in the theatre landscape: Moi Tran, Jane Chan and Lan Le founded the East Asian Ticket Club and freelance videographer Ben Hewis ran a crowdfunder to take young women to see Emilia in the West End.
Q&A Tobi Kyeremateng
What was your first non-theatre job?
Sales assistant at Fortnum and Mason.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Young associate at Ovalhouse Theatre when I was 16.
What’s your next job?
Project manager at Tate Modern and creative civic producer at Ovalhouse Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Figuring out what you don’t like is also a valuable part of the process and should be considered as important as learning any practical producing skills.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Debbie Tucker Green, for her play being the first I read from a black woman. Stella Kanu, as an example of what a brilliant producer looks like. David Jubb, for being a leading example of the many different forms a leader comes in. Toby Clarke, who has been an advocate for many of us in this industry. Daniel Bailey, for his consistent generosity.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
Youth worker or teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
The second show always feels like the worst one due to a loss of adrenaline from the opening show.
Outside London, Jess Brough set up Fringe of Colour for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Kyeremateng thinks it’s cool to see these offshoots popping up: “It’s nice that some of them have referenced Black Ticket Project as their inspiration – the more people that can see stuff the better.”
Kyeremateng spends the equivalent of two weeks per month on Black Ticket Project, but it isn’t what she does for a living – in fact, she doesn’t get paid for it at all. “People often forget that I am also a young person with no money”, she says before confessing that there is consistently more money in the Black Ticket Project bank account than there is in her personal account.
“As much as I love Black Ticket Project, it’s not my whole life. I am a producer, that’s my job.”
Her work in this field includes the Theatre503 production of Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert, and Babylon Festival at Bush Theatre earlier this year. Until recently she was a producer at Apples and Snakes; and later this year she will join the team at Ovalhouse as creative civic producer. She’s also about to start work as a project manager at Tate Modern, working with Tate Collective Producers to create a takeover of the gallery in response to Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition In Real Life.
She’s aware, though, that her work to help create a more equitable arts industry often eclipses her work as a producer. “At the moment I am the diversity person – who’s not being paid to do diversity work. Most black people and people of colour will be the honorary diversity person for whichever organisation they’re working for, but this feels like I am the honorary diversity officer of an entire industry. And that’s huge.
“I don’t think Ben Hewis is going to be seen as the diversity person who champions young women because he did that Emilia thing. He will still exist as an artist in his own right, that did a good thing that one time.
“I want be known for being innovative with the way I use space; or for the artists I work with; or for the different stories I am trying to bring to different spaces – as well as Black Ticket Project.
“I want to be known for being a creative person as well as pushing for racial justice in the arts. There are many different elements to the work I do and I want to be known for all of those elements and not necessarily just as the black Robin Hood.”
CV Tobi Kyeremateng
Born: 1995, London
Training: Community Arts Administration Level 2 and 3 National Diploma, Lewisham Community College; Performing Arts BTEC, Richmond Upon Thames College
• Babylon Festival, Bush Theatre, London (2019)
• J’Ouvert at Theatre503, London (2019)
• Inspiration of the Year, Stylist Magazine’s Remarkable Women Awards (2019)
For more information on Black Ticket Project: @BTProject_
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