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Karl Rouse: Arts institutions need to diversify – here’s how to start

Karl Rouse: many institutions are taking steps to improve diversity, but others need to do more
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Sometimes, to create our best work we have to be brave enough to take a risk. We have to think differently. This isn’t easy.

Without question, opportunities have not historically been distributed fairly, and certain cultural values have long been overlooked in our drama schools, theatres and arts organisations.

Many organisations have started excellent work to address this imbalance of opportunities within the industries and to correct it. Others need to do more.

I am currently working with Carol Lingwood at the National Theatre to generate more costume designers and specialists in hair, make-up and prosthetics from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. We want to open this up as a viable career choice and ensure access to training by approaching the issues in a different way.

The stories we tell, the way we tell them and who is doing the telling must evolve. To do so, we don’t need to push anyone out; this is rather about inviting more people in. All of us in a position of power and influence within arts and performance education need to get involved.

The problem is this: our arts institutions, including drama schools and colleges, are not diverse enough. The issue has been discussed for years, but that has not led to enough action or enough change.

Often, we will hear the argument that around 8% of the UK is Asian, and 3% is black, therefore this should be represented in our drama schools. But that misses the point. London, where the majority of these schools are located, is 40% non-white for example. So anyone choosing to use this argument should be calling for at least 40% non-white representation in our London-based drama schools.

It is not the tutors’ place to create clones of themselves, but rather to generate innovators and risk takers to change and challenge our industries. I’m not interested in more of the same. I want to see something different.

Not only do I believe that quotas for BAME students and working-class students could be a helpful tool to make quick and significant change to the life of our learning environment, but at London College of Fashion we are even looking at guaranteed places for students from partner schools and colleges in the future as we move to our new building as part of the East Bank in Stratford. It could prove transformative.

I would encourage all senior academics, deans, deputy vice-chancellors and principals to take note of the student voice and to think differently. There are a few things they could all do to start heading in the right direction.

This could include diversifying institutions’ reading lists. Students need to know more about the world than the words of dead white men. And take those students to more diverse work in the theatre. Let students be exposed to as many voices as possible. Teachers should stop using the same old texts year after year when new plays are written every day.

It goes back to before the students even arrive. The cost of audition fees should be reduced and institutions should offer workshops in audition technique to widen participation.

Auditions should be held in more socially diverse areas and all colleges need to take steps to address unconscious bias in selecting their students. There should also always be at least one BAME panel member at every audition.

The institutions should also engage in programmes such as Diversifying Leadership with the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and sponsor BAME academics, collaborating with them to become future leaders in our universities

These are small steps towards opening up our schools, colleges and institutions to a wider audience, whoever they may be.

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