Huge drop in Asian theatre audiences ‘extremely worrying’

Clockwise from top left: Jatinder Verma, Madani Younis, Kumiko Mendl and Clarissa Widya. Photos: David Monteith-Hodge; Hugo Glendinning; Suki Mok
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Asian theatremakers have warned that a “severe lack of representation” on stage is resulting in Asian audiences abandoning the arts.

The warning follows the release of a Department for Culture, Media, and Sport report that found Asian audience engagement to be lower than that for both black and white communities, and that it had decreased by seven percentage points over the past 10 years.

Leading theatremakers including Tara Arts artistic director Jatinder Verma have branded the results “extremely worrying”.

Verma said: “This points to the effects of decades of a lack of equitable representation on the stage and media, as much as a disparaging perception of Asians generally in the ‘age of terror’. It presents some real challenges for venues, producers, funders, schools and philanthropists to make a concerted effort to draw attention to the centrality of arts in national life for everyone, not least Asians.”

Verma added that theatre companies such as Tara can respond by creating more work that ensures Asian audiences see themselves represented on stage.

He added: “But in the increasingly strained funding climate, placing this burden exclusively on Asian arts organisations will not change the grim national picture. We all need to appreciate that your story is also mine.”

Bush Theatre artistic director Madani Younis said: “The DCMS report is yet another reminder of just how far we haven’t come and just how much more there is left to do.”

Helena Bell, artistic director of Kali Theatre, said Asian audiences “don’t see themselves reflected in mainstream theatre either through Asian characters or through the stories that are being told, which predominantly reflect white culture and concerns”.

Clarissa Widya of Papergang Theatre, which specialises in producing work by British East Asian writers, agreed: “These facts are not new, but the acknowledgement of the problem is.

“In my experience of working with the British East Asian community, something that is often discussed as the reason for the East Asian audience reluctance is the severe lack of representation on screens and on stages.”

She added: “Why would [East] Asian audiences go to the theatre? They didn’t go 10 years ago, so what has changed for this group to suddenly feel invited? If you cannot see yourself or your story, how can you imagine that the arts is an activity for you?”

Widya and Kumiko Mendl, artistic director of Yellow Earth Theatre, also criticised the classification of “Asian” as covering the whole continent in the report as “problematic”.

“The cultural differences across a continent are big enough as it is, let alone qualifying the experiences of its diaspora in the UK through a sample group,” Widya said.

Mendl argued that people identify in a range of ways that often cannot be expressed through options on survey forms.

She added: “[Increasing participation] is a bit of everything – it is about working with gatekeepers, putting on work that people are interested in.”

Samir Bhamra, a British-Indian playwright, producer and theatre director at Phizzical Productions, described the figures as “disheartening” in a column for The Stage, blaming a lack of artistic opportunities for Asian people and a lack of relevance for audiences.

He added: “In 2015/16, only 12% of Arts Council England’s strategic funding was awarded to black, Asian and minority ethnic-led organisations, when 15% of the working-age population in England are BAME. We must address this imbalance and make more work that is relevant to Asian communities.”

The warnings from theatremakers were echoed by Anne Torreggiani, chief executive of arts research organisation Audience Agency. She called for further investigation into the DCMS results and added: “These findings do not come as a surprise and are reflected in our own Audience Finder survey findings. Asian audiences are also less likely to recommend their arts experiences than other ethnic groups.

“However, there are significant variations across location, venue, art form and so on – and indeed between different communities – so we shouldn’t speculate on the underlying reasons, or solutions for these headlines.”