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Javaad Alipoor: We need change at the top for theatres to achieve true diversity

Sheffield Theatres’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: the production engaged diverse local communities alongside career development workshops for artists and technicians of colour. Photo: Mark Douet Sheffield Theatres’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: the production engaged diverse local communities alongside career development workshops for artists and technicians of colour. Photo: Mark Douet
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As part of the Arts Council’s Change Makers programme, Javaad Alipoor brought sidelined local communities into Sheffield Theatres. He argues that the UK’s venues need diverse leaders to engage with all levels of society


This year has been pretty good for representation in the theatre. From Hamilton’s rapturous reception in London to shows such as Misty and Nine Night transferring to the West End and Touretteshero’s Jess Thom wowing audiences with Not I in Edinburgh and London.

Touretteshero’s Jess Thom: ‘Disabled people need to be written in, not written out’

Yet during the year, black, Asian and minority ethnic theatremakers have regularly raised the question: what about diverse cultural leaders? The answer has not been so rosy, and it’s just as important that steps are made behind the scenes as well as on stage.

I have seen first-hand the start of attempts to tackle the issue of the lack of diversity among arts chiefs. I was one of 14 artists and other cultural leaders on Arts Council England’s Change Makers programme, established in 2016. It was backed by a £2.6 million fund and aimed at “increasing the diversity of senior leadership in art and culture by helping to develop a cohort of leaders who are black, minority ethnic and/or disabled by means of a targeted senior leadership training and development programme”.

We were placed at organisations across the arts, from museums to orchestras, theatres and galleries, which were national portfolio organisations or major partner museums. The idea was to diversify the pool of people with the experience to lead the UK’s historic cultural institutions, while helping those institutions to diversify their audiences, staff, work and artists.

For five years, I had been a theatremaker in Bradford running the small theatre company Northern Lines and working at Theatre in the Mill – an 80-seat contemporary practice and development space. This ACE-backed programme took me to an institution on a very different scale: Sheffield Theatres.

Like many producing theatres, the ethnic diversity of our creative teams was almost non-existent. And like the rest of our industry, the plays produced on its stages – the theatre’s beating heart – were disproportionately written by white men. I would estimate that 2% of the building’s staff was non-white British in a working-class city where the proportion of non-white British people was closer to 15%. This is a problem across the country.

Through the programme, we set out a plan that had similarities with a lot of ‘change-making’ projects. They tend to set a direction of travel, show what is possible for the institution and point a way to a better future. Also key was to deliver one large-scale project that celebrated and framed the other work.

For Sheffield, this meant engaging with communities that never really stepped through the doors. Many city theatres experience the ‘doughnut’ effect; their audiences come from the richer, whiter suburbs rather than the areas closest to them. The visiting programmes often don’t represent where the theatre is based, and, as is so prevalent around the UK, the work does not represent those nearest, nor does the make-up of those working in the institution.

We met these challenges head on. I spent time devising work and reaching out to young people in the areas closest to the theatre, those that we had failed to forge a connection with, including young refugee groups and schools in working-class areas.

Looking at our artistic policy for visiting work, we talked about how, as a programming and artist development team, we could talk confidently about the ‘whiteness’ of a show or a project, and what this meant for finding balance over a season.

We did a whole bunch of career development workshops for artists and technicians of colour. For me, the moment that really brought all of this work together was during previews of my production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. All through that week, I was bumping into groups of young people, artists of colour and other folk who hadn’t been around the building before chatting, arguing and really taking ownership of the space.

Our first preview was one of the youngest, most diverse and busiest public dress rehearsals the building has seen. As the first director of colour to direct an in-house production on that stage for nearly 30 years, I was privileged to share that moment with what felt like a new creative community taking their place confidently in one of our great theatre institutions.

We still face an industry that has a primarily white, middle-aged and upper-middle-class audience. It doesn’t seem to want to consistently programme the work necessary to cultivate more diverse audiences, or consistently support the work of more artists of colour at scale. For me, a lot of this centres on how we think about risk. Artists from non-traditional backgrounds are perceived as a risk, as is work aimed at a more diverse audience.

As artists and an industry, we take risks every day in the rehearsal room. Now is the moment we take those risks that back up what we say about diversity and representation

But as artists and an industry, we take risks every day in the rehearsal room: every time we take a chance on trying to land a piece of casting, or programming a lesser-known show – every time we give a big job to an artist or a leader for the first time. Now is the moment we take those risks that back up what we say about diversity and representation.

Ultimately, the Change Makers project has been successful on two counts: helping institutions change, while also broadening and deepening the diverse talent that can lead them. I think it is really important for work like this to continue – it will only have been a complete success when it’s not necessary anymore.

With regard to future iterations of the project, it is crucial that the autonomy and independence of Change Makers is strengthened. Funding should increasingly sit, for instance, with individuals rather than institutions for these kinds of projects, so it can help alleviate power imbalances during difficult moments of change.

Mentoring from previous Change Makers participants and other leaders of colour or disabled leaders can be crucial here too. An interesting counter example is to look at how the Clore Leadership Programme helped – and continues to help – to shape a generation of leaders. And crucially, Clore has been just as successful at building a brand, and the development of long-term networks of support, patronage and influence, as it has as delivering transformative training and mentoring.

Ultimately, the next steps have to be about bringing this kind of work, and these artists, into the mainstream. NPOs should be pledging to use their core funding to continue the programme, organisations should be thinking about specific BAME and disabled leaders as part of succession planning. There has to come a point where the people running our theatres look a lot more like the people in the streets outside them.

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