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Theatre leaders ‘reluctant to diversify due to fear they’ll be replaced’

Jan Sharkey-Dodds receiving a Jack Petchey Foundation award with some of the young people she has worked with at Theatre Royal Stratford East
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Theatres are reluctant to diversify their workforces because staff fear they may lose their jobs to minority talent, Theatre Royal Stratford East’s youth work chief has claimed.

Jan Sharkey-Dodds, the venue’s strategic consultant for work with young people, made the suggestion as part of a passionate plea for better ethnic diversity in theatres at a London conference on cultural education.

She claimed the work theatres do to reach out to minority communities has not been impacting the make-up of the UK theatre workforce, particularly at executive level.

In a fiery speech at the Ensuring Cultural Education in England conference, Sharkey-Dodds said she often attended “high-end meetings” along with the people who have the power to “change the British theatre landscape” – and had noted a total lack of diversity.

“I’m sitting there, [looking around and] thinking… white, white, white,” she said.

“It’s not feeding through,” she told the audience, which consisted largely of representatives from arts organisations. “The beautiful work that you are doing in those schools is not feeding through.”

She added that the representation of black, Asian and ethnic minorities should extend further than the stage, and claimed: “Just putting a black play on ain’t doing it. You’ve got to have people in positions of power.”

Sharkey-Dodds, who has worked at TRSE for just over 11 years, went on: “It’s not easy. There are reasons why people don’t invest in that [talent] pipeline. One: because its really, really hard, and two: what happens if you’re really, really successful? You might lose your job.”

She continued: “Someone with a different kind of spirit, a different kind of experience, might actually come and sit in your place. That’s success, though. Success for me means that in two or three years’ time I’m gone, and one of my beautiful young people are sitting in my chair – having the power to make decisions and shape and influence the British theatre landscape.”

Reflecting on her work at Stratford East, she conceded that only a “tiny percentage” of the young people she works with every year went on to work in theatre.

Theatres needed to continue to reach out and building continuing relationships with young people, she said, before adding: “If we don’t shake it up we’re going to have quite a tedious, dreary artistic landscape.”

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