Include more BME writers, academics urge drama schools

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Drama school courses should feature more works by black and minority ethnic playwrights to prevent students from those backgrounds feeling isolated during studies, leading academics have said.

Speaking at a forum held by London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama to discuss the experiences of its BME students, the academics recommended the school instil in its teaching a “very strong” element of black, Asian and other ethnic approaches to broaden its theatre training and ensure students do not feel excluded.

However, Hajaz Akram, principal of the Academy of Asian and Ethnic Dramatic Arts, said this problem was not exclusive to Central, but that “all arts institutions and organisations” should review their polices.

He told The Stage: “This is a debate that everyone has to have. I think it’s shocking [that so little BME work is being studied] but the solution is easy. It is down to the institution to take responsibility and change it right at the top. You need to change the syllabus and include more black and ethnic writing so that students from BME backgrounds can experience it and so can everyone else.”

Meanwhile, Lynette Goddard, a senior lecturer in theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, said subjects about race and ethnicity should be “embedded” across the curriculum and be taught by both white and non-white tutors.

“I think students would feel more comfortable in a class talking about a play like Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads with a white tutor than perhaps they do with me, as a black person,” she said.

The comments come in response to research conducted by Central, which involved interviews with 15 BME students currently studying at the school. Central claims that on average around 15% of its 640-strong undergraduate student body are from BME backgrounds.

The report found that BME students felt they were playing “only” white characters in performances, at the same time studying plays written by white people and being taught by white lecturers, which “increased and intensified” the feeling of isolation while studying.

The report also said that increasing the number of classes focusing on BME artists would help to normalise issues of race being discussed both “inside and outside the classroom”.

Amit Sharma, associate director at Graeae Theatre Company, said educational institutions must change the “sense of loneliness” non-white students experience, because this feeling then continues into professional organisations as well.

Catherine McNamara, who conducted the research and co-wrote the report, said: “Institutional racism is a part of society and is embedded in our education systems in the UK. At Central, we are committed to creating a working environment that is respectful of the creativity, ambitions and cultural differences of all our students, and that includes students from black, Asian, Arabic, Chinese and other non-white backgrounds. The research and report are part of a series of actions we have been taking to reflect and to listen, to analyse and to set about making changes to what we do.”

She added: “Other institutions and their students are experiencing very similar things, and I would be very pleased to work with colleagues across the sector to join forces and share good practice and new ideas to improve the experiences of BME students in our subject disciplines.”

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