‘It’s about standing up for your fellow humans’
Over the past few weeks, theatres have used their platforms to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
I applaud the sentiment, but like many, I have questions about how these public declarations of allyship will translate into concrete action. So I put this question to anyone expressing support on social media: how will you reflect this in the work you do now and in the future?
Some of the most moving footage I’ve seen recently showed police putting down their riot gear to march with Black protestors, and white allies creating physical barriers to protect Black protestors from less sympathetic officers.
True allyship is not about being seen to do the right thing; it’s about standing up for your fellow human beings, even when that involves some risk to yourself.
I can’t compare theatrical productions to those actions, but I can say that both my own company, Strictly Arts, and the Belgrade Theatre, where I am co-artistic director, have long been ready to take risks in platforming stories that might not otherwise get heard.
In 2017, the Belgrade supported Strictly Arts – an unknown company – to create and perform Freeman, a show dealing directly with the deaths of Black British people in police custody. In 2021, SeaView, our pioneering digital TV series, will use science-fiction to explore questions of choice and circumstance for Britain’s Black, urban, working-class communities.
These are commercially ‘risky’ projects, but they represent our commitment to championing traditionally ignored or undervalued communities and stories. Still, we acknowledge there’s more work to be done, and encourage people to ask us questions or even call us out.
Sadly, at a time when the entire industry is at risk, the battle for diversity in theatre is more fraught than ever. After lockdown, financially crippled venues will likely prioritise staging ‘safer’ work – that is, shows appealing to traditional, white, middle-class audiences.
The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue isn’t about dwelling on past injustices: it’s about liberating ourselves from that past so we can concentrate on the future
More worrying is the threat of redundancies sweeping our sector. We’re all facing this fear, but community and outreach roles – among those more likely to be filled by people of colour – will undoubtedly be hit hard. Not only will this drastically reduce representation in theatres, it will also damage already fragile relationships with marginalised communities.
There’s no easy solution, but as well as unprecedented challenges, the pandemic offers an opportunity to take stock and emerge better than we were.
For me, the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue isn’t about dwelling on past injustices: it’s about liberating ourselves from that past so we can concentrate on the future – perhaps the best antidote to our collective anxiety about the present.
Our place in the industry should not be so precarious that a crisis like this effectively erases us altogether. Where are the Black and minority tech teams, operational staff and executives? We are more than just community liaisons and sometimes artists.
Right now, we are working with partners across the West Midlands to shape a pledge for action with specific and publicly available targets. For now, I’d like to see organisations engage in a process of radical listening – a commitment to create space for Black and diverse voices to be heard at senior leadership level, so we can foster human connections and begin to address the challenges identified by those who have experienced them directly.
Theatres were quick to get on board with Black History Month. Our task now is how we reframe the discussion to focus instead on Black futures. Hopefully we all agree that Black lives matter; let’s ensure Black contributions to our industry matter, too.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.