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Lyn Gardner: Theatre’s dinosaur leaders need to be dragged into the 21st century over diversity

Royal Central School of Speech and Drama principal Gavin Henderson. Photo: Eliza Power Royal Central School of Speech and Drama principal Gavin Henderson. Photo: Eliza Power
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On Friday, The Stage published two news stories reporting on different events, but I believe they are connected.

One reported Madani Younis, artistic director of the Bush Theatre, telling a panel on the future of the arts: “To see change in our sector, we have to ask an uncomfortable question, which is if you really believe in change, then those men and women in positions of power need to give up space in order to allow others to come in.”

The other story was about Gavin Henderson, principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, who told a student-led event that: “Quotas would reduce the quality of our student intake.”

Apparently, he doesn’t want to be “held to account”.  Mind you, this is a man who in the same debate declared that the Royal Court code of conduct guidelines, issued in the wake of the sexual harassment scandal, have gone “too far” in “restricting quite a lot of movement and the creative process”.

Henderson clearly believes that diversity and quality cannot go hand in hand. It’s an astonishing statement from someone heading up a leading training institution when we all know that access to training is a significant factor in whether people enter the profession or not.

It’s the kind of argument that plays to Quentin Letts’ assertion in the Daily Mail that the Royal Shakespeare Company is only employing the very fine actor, Leo Wringer, because of Arts Council England’s diversity policies.  Or Christopher Hart’s assertion while reviewing Ella Hickson’s The Writer that women are doing just fine in theatre.

Or Nicholas Hytner telling the Daily Telegraph that while he wants to stage work by “as diverse an array of voices as possible” he won’t be implementing any specific targets at The Bridge. This is a man who has never directed a play by a living woman and who once told The Sunday Times that we should “free ourselves from the obsession with the perfectly formed, beautifully diverse audience”. But it doesn’t have to be an obsession, because if you programme work by women and artists of colour the audience will change. Build it and they will come.

The fact that the event at the drama school, called Dear White Central, took place is an acknowledgement from those studying there that they think Central has a diversity problem. But doing something about it will come down to leadership.

It is telling that so little progress was made under Hytner at the National and how it is currently being addressed under Rufus Norris, and does indeed involve targets in some areas now.  It’s all very well to talk about change but you have to actually implement it. Younis is right to suggest that artists of colour, women and D/deaf and disabled people working in all areas of theatre are tired of waiting for action to be taken.

Yes, in the past couple of years we have seen many more actors of colour on our stages, but we are still to see real progress in terms of the number of writers, designers and directors who work in theatre and who are not white and middle-class.

We are still at a situation when a theatre such as Hampstead has to be publicly shamed into programming more female playwrights.  Implementing greater diversity in theatre is not something that is going to happen overnight, it is something that, as the efforts of Tonic have proved, requires support, education and ongoing supervision to ensure that the gains aren’t lost. That has to come from every part of the organisation including – especially – those at the very top.

When somebody like Henderson, at the top of a prestigious organisation, is of the opinion that quality will be damaged by diversity, one can only assume that it reflects the culture of that organisation.

The absurd thing is that the quality argument is such a spurious one. Has Hampstead been damaged by programming Ella Road’s The Phlebotomist? No, quite the opposite. Has anyone other than Quentin Letts noticed a dip in the quality of acting at the RSC since it learned from the lessons of The Orphan of Zhao debacle? Has the Bush suffered from low audiences since the programme started reflecting the diverse make-up of London and Londoners?

Diversity was rewarded by ACE in its last funding round, which is only right, because if there is one thing we have seen and learned over the past few years is that when progress in implementing diversity is made and arts organisations open up access they are reinvigorated.

Those still under the impression that diversity is only about box ticking and not a genuine creative opportunity need to get out more and see how diversity at places such as the Bush and Derby Theatre and the Royal Exchange in Manchester is slowly – much too slowly – having an impact on British theatre and at last dragging it into the 21st century. I hate to use the word dinosaur, but when it comes to Henderson’s remarks it really does seem to be the only one that fits.

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