‘All this codifying, these words no one quite knows or likes – they’re an act of exclusion’
In her Nobel Prize for literature lecture, the incredible, missed, needed Toni Morrison – on whom I wrote my dissertation, longer ago than I care to remember, at Cambridge – said: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”
When I was invited to share some thoughts about what needs to change in theatre, I immediately thought of ‘language’ and of ‘codes’. I thought about how much of our sector – which remains the bastion of the unpaid internship, the unadvertised job, the closed ‘profit-share’ books – is shrouded in mystery to both emerging artists and new audiences.
We talk to audiences about important new ‘work’ (which, to a layperson, probably sounds like the thing they’ve just been doing from 8am to 5pm, so no thanks, I won’t be doing that this evening too), and, Lord knows I’ve lost count of the independent artists who have found Grantium (Arts Council England’s system for applying for independent funding) bafflingly cryptic to access.
I was going to write about the need for shedding some of that, and my hopes that a reopened and re-activated theatre sector might remind itself of the importance of plain-speaking.
And then George Floyd was murdered. In the time since, a number of movements have arisen within the theatre community. One that especially strikes me is Inc Arts’ simple question and survey: do people of colour like the acronym BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic)?
And this opened a further door in my mind. Of course, all this codifying, these words no one quite knows or likes, these phrases that are generated or insisted upon without ever asking audiences if they understand them, or artists if they represent them – they’re an act of exclusion. An act of violence. And there comes a point where one wonders how deliberate that is.
Our sector is shrouded in mystery to both emerging artists and new audiences
I look at the anger of freelancers, who feel shut out of the conversation about the survival of the sector. I look again at the 2015 Warwick Commission report, which tells us plainly that while the economic value of our cultural sector has soared, access to those riches by diverse artists and audiences has declined, and I wonder how deliberate that is.
Having begun with one incredible black woman, I’ll close with another – our associate artist Chinonyerem Odimba, who said to me in the midst of all this: “Theatre is one of the few businesses where people truly believe that simply because they do it, they must be good.”
Are we? Ask yourself how plain your language is, how interpretable you are to the most vulnerable audience member or artist in the community you seek to represent, and you may have your answer.
Suba Das is artistic director of HighTide
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.