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Cush Jumbo: acting world faces ‘big black hole’ of diverse talent

Cush Jumbo. Photo: Johan Persson
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Actor and writer Cush Jumbo has warned of a “big black hole” in the acting profession in the next 10 years unless drama schools improve their diversity.

She was speaking as part of Acting Up, a Labour Party inquiry into access and diversity in the performing arts, which heard evidence from industry practitioners including Jumbo, director David Mercatali and Deborah Williams, executive director at the Creative Diversity Network.

“I talk to a ton of students who are uncomfortable and are leaving drama school because of how they’re being treated,” Jumbo said.

“One particular student was psychologically bullied out of a drama school because he complained about another actor being blacked up as an Aborigine in one of their school shows.”

Jumbo explained that working-class and black, Asian and minority ethnic students are discouraged from raising their concerns. “They’re told, ‘Don’t moan, don’t be annoying and don’t create a problem.’ I am worried.”

The lack of financial support, she added, means that “you’re going to see a black hole. In the next 10 years we’re going to see a big black hole”.

Jumbo, who stars in US television series The Good Fight, also warned that black British acting talent is moving to America because there is no work in the UK.

“I didn’t run to America, I just took a play there and someone said, ‘You’re talented, would you like 52 jobs?’”

“You can’t say that I’m not good enough if you won’t let me into the room. There’s only so many years I can stay here before I say, ‘actually I’d like to play a role and you’re not going to give me one, so I’m just going to go over to Amazon, because they will and they’ll pay me for it’. And then they’ll give me another one, and another one.

“People talk about ‘brain drain’. There’s no drain. If there was work here, I would be working here. I would love nothing more than to be working on television and films here. It becomes less and less attractive to come back, because you’re coming back to nothing,” she explained.

Her comments were backed up by Williams, who said: “There is no reason I can’t perform Shakespeare apart from you thinking I can’t perform Shakespeare. That is the biggest barrier. People assume they know what I can and can’t do. If the people at the top do that, you have a real issue.”

Mercatali added that the lack of diversity in acting stems, in part, from a lack of diversity among directors.

“We don’t have a diverse range of theatre directors. If we don’t have diverse theatre directors we won’t have diverse casting,” he said.

According to Mercatali, assistant directors are often hired through contacts and family connections. “The positions are not advertised and there is no transparent process. If I went to many of the big theatres and asked them their process for getting assistant directors, there would probably be a long pause.”

A report based on the inquiry and offering policy recommendations will be published later this year.

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