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UK theatres unite to tackle lack of diversity offstage

Sadiq Khan, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Adrian Lester gave speeches at the launch of BECTU's Theatre Diversity Action Plan. Photos: GLA/Richard Anderson/Alex Brenner
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More than 90 theatres across the UK have vowed to tackle black, Asian and minority ethnic under-representation in their offstage workforce as part of a major new initiative led by union BECTU.

The Theatre Diversity Action Plan also has backing from figures including the mayor of London Sadiq Khan, actor and director Adrian Lester and Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah.

It was developed in response to equalities monitoring data published by Arts Council England in December 2015. This revealed that people from BAME backgrounds are significantly under-represented in theatres, with figures as low as 5% at some venues in London, where 41% of the population is minority ethnic.

The action plan is a 10-step practical guide for theatres to increase the diversity of their workforce, including front of house and backstage, with additional information on recruitment law and discrimination in employment.

Backers include commercial theatre operators Nimax, Delfont Mackintosh and Ambassador Theatre Group, as well as subsidised venues the National Theatre, the English National Opera, the Young Vic, Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and Sheffield’s Crucible. In Scotland, 13 organisations including Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet and Edinburgh Playhouse have also signed up to the plan.

National Theatre executive director Lisa Burger welcomed BECTU’s charter, saying: “It is collectively, as an industry, that we will generate the creativity and commitment to ensure that our workforce is made up of the widest range of talents.”

English National Opera chief executive Stuart Murphy added: “English National Opera is committed to reflecting the diversity of our society in our workforce, whether on stage, in the pit or behind the scenes, and at all tiers of our organisation.”

The plan recommends that each theatre set up a joint working group between its management and BECTU, before evaluating its equality policy and assessing its workforce.

BECTU suggests each theatre then sets itself a realistic target to be reached, and rethinks its application and recruitment processes to attract more BAME applicants and ensure a more level playing field.

BECTU diversity officer Janice Turner said the union would continue to advise theatres as they put the plan into action.

She said: “Rather than putting the onus on employers to address this issue alone, we decided to assist them by using the best knowledge we had available – our members’ experiences. We asked reps about the reality of theatre recruitment to establish how it really works.”

Backing the plan, Lester called it a “giant leap forward for theatre” and argued it should be applied to the wider creative industries.

Khan added: “It is absolutely vital that people from all backgrounds are able to access the wide array of creative careers available in our theatres.”

He urged the creative sector to follow BECTU’s lead and “increase access to these rewarding careers”.

The diversity plan is also backed by Arts Council England and UK Theatre.

BECTU’s step-by-step guide to addressing diversity in the workplace

  1. Set up a joint working group between the theatre’s management and the union
  2. Review the theatre’s existing equality policy
  3. Accurately assess the makeup of the theatre’s workforce if the venue has not already done so
  4. See how the results compare to the makeup of the general population
  5. Decide a realistic target to achieve for BAME representation and a timeframe to achieve this within
  6. Study how each role is usually recruited
  7. Establish whether the issue is a lack of BAME applicants, or that BAME candidates are applying but are not successful
  8. Consult with BECTU on how to attract more BAME applicants
  9. Make contact with new recruitment sources
  10. Ensure that your recruitment procedure follows good practice and does not inadvertently indirectly discriminate according to BECTU’s guidelines
  11. Review progress of the plan once it has been put into action
  12. Communicate regularly with the union to check in about the action plan
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