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Lyn Gardner: White van man has a story to tell too

National Theatre Wales and Common Wealth's We're Still Here allowed working class voices to be heard. Photo: Dimitris Legakis
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Barely a week goes by without a theatre company announcing they are participating in a project with refugees or people from migrant backgrounds. I applaud them; the arts should respond to the great crises of our times, and the world refugee crisis is one of the greatest challenges we face.

Companies like Good Chance have shown the way in embracing the subject matter with extraordinary commitment despite limited resources.

This work, and the generosity that accompanies it, is as crucial and important as great shows on flagship stages. It makes the arts matter not just to the few but to the many, even those who normally have little access to it.

But are we overlooking others with whom the arts should be engaging in the rush to work with refugees or migrant communities? Is there a danger that some projects are more fashionable or more sexy than others?

Earlier this year during the Holland Festival I interviewed artistic director Ruth Mackenzie in a piece that appeared on the Culture After Brexit strand on the British Council website.

In the interview, Mackenzie looked back at her long career, for many years making and enabling socially engaged work with communities in the UK, and asked herself a brutally honest question.

“I’ve worked with some of the most disadvantaged communities but often they were also communities who, because they were very diverse, I found culturally interesting,” she said. “Maybe because I found them culturally interesting was a factor in working with them, something I didn’t always admit to myself. Now when I look at what happened with Brexit and how divided the country is, I think: what have I done for white van man?”

It is a question that the arts needs to confront. Are we just too picky about who we want to work with for artistic reasons, and in the rush for diversity is the funding system skewed to creating projects with some needy communities more than others?

Maybe it is more satisfying to work with groups of people whose culture really interests us than with those whose culture we view as more familiar and less rich than that of a migrant community?

It’s not that British theatre shouldn’t work with the latter, but perhaps it should face up to the fact it has neglected to really respond to those who largely go unheard and remain unseen until a moment – such as the referendum – comes along and they get the chance to make their voices heard.

Brexit made visible the tensions – political, cultural and social – that were brewing anyway, and if the theatre industry was surprised by the result and become out of touch, as many have admitted, maybe it was because too little attention was being paid to white van man.

There is something clearly skewed about an arts funding system where lottery players in deprived areas of the North East effectively fund the culture enjoyed by those in wealthy London and the South East. Particularly when the North East has low levels of arts engagement.

There are many different kinds of deprivation and that includes cultural deprivation. As Richard Eyre has long warned, we are moving towards cultural apartheid in which those growing up in privileged, affluent households have access to the arts in the way that many of their contemporaries increasingly do not.

Yes, ACE has started to address issues of imbalance in cultural funding and access in its new portfolio, but artists must engage with these issues too and that means engaging with communities whose voices are marginalised and unheard.

Diversity isn’t just about race or gender, it is also about class.

One of the really refreshing things about National Theatre Wales and Common Wealth’s We’re Still Here – about the fight of the people of Port Talbot to keep the steel works open – is that it allows us to hear the working class voices and tell the stories that British theatre has often failed to.

They are not alone: companies such as Middle Child are telling us stories about ordinary people and their hopes and aspirations in a form – gig theatre – which is accessible to all.

As Daniel Evans recently observed in The Stage, responding to an acquaintance who had suggested that theatre directors should stick to directing and not make public pronouncements about politics and Brexit, “one of the functions of art is to encourage us to reflect on how we live our lives and to make us better understand our own world and each other through telling stories. As theatremakers, therefore, our jobs are inextricably linked to politics and power”.

That means engaging with all communities and not just picking the ones that we find richer and more rewarding artistically.

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