‘Future of drama schools depends on radical transformation of culture’
There are no words to describe the last three weeks. But it is infuriating that drama schools are only now beginning to acknowledge their systematic and overt racism. Meanwhile, so many of us have sat on countless panels, curated events and formed organisations to tackle diversity in some way (Diversity School Initiative, Open Door, and more).
Although we have seen similar admissions of guilt and promises made before, we hope this moment will be different from the past. As Black drama school graduates who have been doing this work, we are here to offer suggestions based on our experiences of campaigning for real, long-lasting and tangible change.
We will broadly touch on subjects of action for change and improving the student experience. We can no longer ignore the history of free labour in our industry when it comes to issues of race and diversity. For more details please contact us where we will offer a consultation fee.
Transparency and accountability
Many drama schools have already released, or are in the process of creating, an action plan to improve equality and diversity in their institutions. While this is great, these are often things that students have already been demanding, or that schools have outlined in their equality and diversity policies. How can we best set up these plans for success?
It is essential that students are part of the core teams shaping these action plans. There is no point making the changes without consulting the people who have asked for it.
In the past, schools have been hesitant to commit to a timeline for fear of potential backlash if they are not met. However, for real change to occur it is essential drama schools become more committed to change than public appearance. They must continuously share progress reports with students and alumni. Having student representation on equality and diversity committees – this should include a clear way for students to feed back to these committees easily and their suggestions should be taken as a core part of these meetings.
Clear reporting systems for complaints
This should include the option to report anonymously, and involving multiple staff members, to give students options. However, it is important that this is not the only way to record offences. Too often we have heard: “It wasn’t reported so there’s nothing we can do.” Understandably, students have a history of distrusting the services that have repeatedly let them down. Therefore, keep tackling the racism within your institution in whatever form it comes to your attention and keep finding ways to make student reporting more accessible.
Records of staff misconduct
Often we hear about the same staff making racially inappropriate comments or decisions in class. Keeping a record of offences would allow staff to be disciplined with warnings and more serious actions based on the number of times incidents occur.
Diversify your board
Many have called for drama schools to do this, but often we’ve seen that just because a board member is from an under-represented community, it doesn’t guarantee they have an interest in diversity and inclusion. Therefore, it is important to purposefully appoint people who have an active interest and passion for diversity and inclusion and that student representatives are a part of the hiring process. Appoint a current student on the board as an honest representative of the student experience.
Offer counselling/mental-health support to Black students
Conversations about race and prejudice are tiring and triggering to those who have experienced race-related trauma. Many studies have shown offering mental-health support to Black students from Black therapists is hugely beneficial for their well-being.
The word ‘ally’ has been thrown around a lot the past few weeks. ‘How to be an ally in drama school’ is a workshop Diversity School will be offering to drama schools. It recognises the importance of being vocal and calling out racism in the classroom or rehearsal space and holding staff and students accountable for their actions while supporting those who are marginalised.
Transform the curriculum
Another phrase that has been flippantly used is ‘decolonise the curriculum’. But what does it mean and how long will it take? While we recognise these conversations are important, this can give drama schools a pass to prolong this process that needs more urgency and action.
Look at the way Julie Spencer has transformed ArtsEd since being the director of its school of acting. In this short time she has recruited exciting Black and ethnically diverse artists from the industry, changed the meaning behind contemporary and classical text and diversified the core staff team as well as the student body. Spencer has only been in post since January 2019.
Change two things in your curriculum
We challenge each member of staff to change two things this year to make their courses racially diverse. This can include a play by a Black playwright, inviting different visiting lecturers or changing the focus of a research project.
It’s important to note these suggestions are pointless if drama schools are not ready to radically change the disgusting culture of oppression that is embedded in how they train. A lot of this begins from the first interaction a student has, such as: “You should be grateful to be here” or “We’re here to break you down and build you back up”. All the way to their last interaction, possibly on their graduation (if they’re not too traumatised to attend): “You only got an agent because you’re Black.”
These statements perpetuate a gross imbalance of power that leaves students feeling vulnerable. Drama school should be a place for learning and growth, where students feel safe to speak up about the training they are paying for.
In March 2020, The Stage published an article on the problems of the culture of oppression, and one drama school student said: “Every single student will tell you there is a feeling that, if you were to raise a concern, it could count against you, as these people control our careers.” This can no longer be acceptable.
We cannot believe that in 2020 we are asking drama schools to start normalising students speaking out. Questioning training and teachers is still a revolutionary act. But the future of drama schools depends on the radical transformation of culture.
Only then can we be hopeful that we won’t be back here, writing this again.
Maame Atuah is co-founder of the Diversity School Initiative. Kaleya Baxe is a writer, director, Paines Plough trainee director and was the black and ethnic minorities officer at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Steven Kavuma is a writer and director and co-founder of the Diversity School Initiative: diverseschool.com
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.