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The Editor’s View: What is the real root of theatre’s diversity issue?

East 15 students Hsin-Huei Hung, Kanyaluk Vera Hirunvanichakorn, Carl Bentley and David Lamar Johnson in performance. Photo: Andrew H Williams East 15 students in performance: the school has been revealed as top of the league for diversity. Photo: Andrew H Williams
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Drama schools are an easy target for complaints about the lack of diversity in the performing arts. If the actors on our stages and screens don’t reflect society, it makes sense to look at the supply chain.

Drama schools are a key part of that chain, but they do not operate in a vacuum and cannot shoulder all the blame for lack of representation in the performing arts.

In fact, the figures supplied by the schools for our research this week would appear to indicate that, on average, the percentage of black, Asian and minority ethnic students at the UK’s principal drama schools is roughly in line with national averages.

Certainly, some schools fare better than others and in many cases there is room for improvement. But it is worth noting that some – such as East 15 – have a high proportion of BAME students. You would struggle to find many theatre companies or TV casts in the country with more than a third of the group coming from BAME backgrounds.

If there are still some challenges for the drama school sector, there are are even greater problems before and after drama school.

How will the diminution of arts education at primary and secondary level affect the number of kids from diverse backgrounds applying to drama school in future years?

And for those who do manage to develop a love of theatre (presumably through extra-curricular activities), then find the motivation to take on significant student debt and fund their way through a drama school education, what are those actors going to do when they graduate? When they find themselves needing to live and work in London with its spiralling cost of living? When they are expected to take low paid or even unpaid work on the fringe to ‘get noticed’? When they don’t have access to the bank of mum and dad, or networks to get them on to the first rung of the ladder?

And here’s another question: how much of the increase we have seen in ethnic diversity at drama schools over the years is the result of a growing middle and upper middle class from BAME backgrounds?

It might be less straightforward to monitor and measure, but it strikes me that, increasingly, class diversity is at least as big a challenge for the industry: many people are priced out of a career in theatre. That applies just as much to working-class white kids as to those from BAME backgrounds.

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

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