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Jami Rogers: Recent reporting on diversity is bad, but the reality is even worse

Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Tristram Kenton Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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To get a true picture of diversity in the live and recorded arts, it is crucial that future studies strive to uncover the types of jobs people are doing – not simply note that they are being employed, Jami Rogers argues

There have been a number of studies in the last few years investigating inequality in the live and recorded arts. Perhaps the most wide-ranging was commissioned by the British Film Institute and released in October 2016. It looked at representation in British films from the previous 10 years. The statistics were stark: 59% of films had no black actors in any role; only 13% of UK films had a black actor in a leading role; only four black actors feature in the list of the 100 most prolific actors; only 15 black actors have played two or more lead roles in UK films since 2006.

The BFI’s study also dug into the numerical data and parsed the types of jobs black actors were actually getting on screen in the film industry. It discovered that the genres least likely to feature black actors in what the study defines as ‘lead’ and ‘named’ roles are horror, drama, comedy and thrillers. Conversely, black actors are more likely to be featured in the genres of crime, science fiction, fantasy and musicals.

Perhaps the most shocking finding to come out of the  BFI’s study is – to quote the press release – “The subjects that recur most frequently where a film has a cast with more black actors are slavery, racism, colonialism, crime and  gangs. This suggests a pattern in which black actors are  being cast in mainly stereotypical stories, limiting the  range and depth of possible representation.”

My own research into another segment of the entertainment industry (the staging of Shakespeare productions) has a data set of more than 1,200 productions since 1930 in the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database. It shows a similar glass ceiling for BAME performers. Very few BAME actors have played a Shakespearean lead since 1930: to date, only eight performers of black or Asian heritage have played Hamlet, for example; six BAME actresses have played Cleopatra; four actors have played Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, and Sope Dirisu will become the first black actor to have played the title character in Coriolanus when he opens at the Royal Shakespeare Company in less than two weeks’ time.

‘If you are a BAME actor, you are still more likely to play the friend to the protagonist than the lead and more likely to appear as a supernatural figure’

The numerical statistics are perhaps starkest when you look at the overall casting of Macbeth since 1930, with BAME performers most likely to be cast as one of the Witches. If you are a BAME actor, you are still more likely to play the friend to the protagonist (a phenomenon that Nathaniel Martello-White crafted into a play, Blackta, in 2012) than the lead (think Laertes to Hamlet) and more likely to appear as supernatural figures (Witch, Soothsayer, Oberon, Titania).

Other studies also reveal clear gender biases in casting, such as one from the Geena Davis Institute that studied the presence of female characters in popular films from 11 countries, finding that in the UK female characters made up 37.9% of the casts. Data analyst Purple Seven’s research has found a similar gender bias in theatre – its findings show that although 65% of theatre audiences are female, only 39% of actors across 6,000 productions were female and 36% of directors and 28% of playwrights from the same data set were women.

At an RSC forum in August 2011 celebrating the role of women in theatre, playwright Tanika Gupta noted that 23% of characters in Shakespeare are female and this female-to-male character ratio has continued to replicate itself in drama since Shakespeare. The gender bias is centuries deep and has not gone away.

The point of this lengthy preamble about recent industry monitoring into gender and race bias in the live and recorded arts is to compare this cumulative research against the  preliminary statistics that were released by Project Diamond a few weeks ago.

Project Diamond’s findings appear to contradict some of the research that has been undertaken in the studies mentioned above, and starkly so in terms of its reporting of gender representation. While Project Diamond is still in its infancy, this is alarming because the statistics have been reported in the mainstream media without reference to other research that collectively paints a much bleaker picture for diversity within the industry. Those outlets – including The Stage – that have reported the story have also used the same phrasing, indicating that the language comes directly from Project Diamond.

What is also unusual about Project Diamond’s release is that it is based on information gathered from industry personnel, but the response rate has been low. This has been pointed out by Act for Change’s Ayesha Casely-Hayford and TriForce Promotions’ Fraser Ayres as an area in need of crucial improvement if Project Diamond is to be useful in mapping out the true picture of diversity.

‘Project Diamond’s reporting of gender representation is alarming – other research collectively paints a much bleaker picture for diversity in the industry’

However, it is also worth questioning whether the gap in the findings of Project Diamond and other studies lies partially within this methodology of this solely self-monitoring framework. The other studies undertaken have not – as far as I am aware – been in the form of a survey like Project Diamond’s, but have monitored segments of the industry independently using primary source material of films, television and theatre records to investigate the levels of diversity within a proscribed scope.

There is a further question mark regarding the lack of transparency in Project Diamond’s data set, which includes both the decision not to reveal programme-by-programme or network-by-network diversity statistics as well as the release of compound data that encompasses both “contributions” and “contributors”.

As we have seen from the BFI’s study alone, it is crucial to delve into the precise nature of casting to uncover the types  of jobs people are doing, not simply noting that they are  being employed.

Future releases of data by Project Diamond should, therefore, also include a more nuanced engagement with what those who have what the Equalities Act 2010 defines as “protected characteristics” – women, ethnic minority, disabled, et al – are employed to do within the context of “contributing” to a television programme. Onscreen talent also needs to be monitored separately to off-air representation. Each segment of the industry is likely to have varying levels of representation and, as we have seen with black actors in film, it is the stereotypes that need uncovering as much as the (lack of) work itself.

Jami Rogers is Honorary Fellow in Multicultural Shakespeare at the University of Warwick and the creator of the British Black and Asian Shakespeare Performance Database. She is a member of the Act for Change project committee and is on the advisory board of the Diversity School

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