‘Racial prejudice is institutionalised at drama schools’ – recent graduates

Photo: Stockobaza/Shutterstock Photo: Stockobaza/Shutterstock
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Following our research into representation among drama school teaching staff, The Stage spoke to former students of some of the UK’s leading drama schools about their experiences of diversity at their institutions.

They highlighted concerns including a lack of diversity among teaching staff, difficulty raising issues around race and experiences of snobbishness towards class and background.

Here we look at the stories of three individuals. The students’ names have been anonymised at their request, and The Stage has also made the details of the schools they attended anonymous.

Student A recently graduated from a three-year acting course

I don’t come from an acting background. My nan came to the theatre for the first time when she saw me, so I didn’t have any connections.

I remember thinking on the first day, ‘There’s one other black girl, one other black boy, out of about 28 of us.’ I immediately didn’t feel I was up to scratch with the others; they came from private schools, and I didn’t even know how to spell properly. I’ve never been an ethnic minority until I entered this industry.

At first, I didn’t want to speak up about it because I was scared, there was so much at stake and I thought I might lose my scholarship.

Eventually I brought it up with a staff member, and asked about getting people in to do workshops and talks on diversity. Straight away I felt a wall go up. He told me we didn’t need it and that it would be preaching to the converted, that the school was already diverse. I was so hurt, so upset. We had no black teachers and I was being told that the school is diverse.

I would go home every night and just cry to my mum. It felt like they just ticked the box with me. That hurts.

Everyone’s trying to cover their backs and it’s really hard. I think [racial prejudice] is institutionalised at drama schools, it’s ingrained. If you try to change it you’re told to back off.

Student B moved from Asia to study acting at a UK drama school

I was really excited to come to the UK. I had been a big fan of certain innovative British companies such as Frantic Assembly and Complicite, but I found my classmates – who were more or less all UK-based – were more closed-minded and conservative than I had expected.

It feels like drama schools in the UK are built on the white, middle-class gaze, and the white middle-class taste. The institution managed to level out everyone’s ethnicity, culture, background into something that is palatable for the white middle classes.

I think drama schools have a tendency to inadvertently promote a certain sense of institutionalised racism. This is not by any means a conscious choice, but I became very aware that I didn’t come into contact with a single permanent member of staff who was of colour.

If you go up the ladder and look at the governing bodies, they’re all white too. Any action just gets mediated down to nothing. There was an attitude that ticking the right boxes protected the school from addressing the diversity question.

Student C studied a three-year applied theatre course and is now a playwright

I come from the North West and have a working-class background.

I deliberately took a gap year because the move to London wasn’t immediately financially viable. That year I had two jobs to make sure I could afford to travel to auditions.

Then, in my first year at drama school, I needed to do three part-time jobs just to make living in London viable. I was getting as little as three hours’ sleep a night trying to hold down those jobs to make sure I could stay there.

Schools expect you to be able to afford £100-£200 of reading list materials. There were many other hidden expenses too, such as the fact you’re expected to pay to go and see West End theatre whether you’re on an acting course or not.

I realised while I was there that I was losing part of my identity because my regional accent meant I was always seen as inferior. The proper way to speak was defined as being southern. I was losing the voice of my home and had a bit of an identity crisis.

It felt like you either lost the voice of where you came from or you did not do well.