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Christopher Haydon: Quotas may be a blunt tool, but they are a necessity to improve diversity

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, produced at the Gate in 2015, was one of the venue’s most successful productions. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Following Gavin Henderson’s anti-quota backlash, Christopher Haydon argues that promoting under-represented groups not only helps make theatre representative of society, but is also an engine for creativity

There are few things more tiresome than listening to people in authority trotting out discredited arguments in an attempt to distract from their own intellectual laziness.

So my eyes rolled almost completely back into my head last week when Gavin Henderson, the principal of my alma mater, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama [1], opened his mouth and did just that.

Central School principal: ‘Quotas would reduce the quality of our student intake’ [2]

Students at the school had organised an event called Dear White Central, the aim of which was to address racial inequalities within the institution.

In response to a question about whether quotas would be a good way of solving this problem, Henderson is reported to have argued against the introduction of any formal recruitment structures saying: “We have a school to maintain and a reputation to maintain in terms of the standards of who we are engaging.” (Since then, he has sought to clarify his comments [3] by saying he prefers ‘targets’ to ‘quotas’. But this kind of semantic wrangling does little more than try to disguise a vague intention as a concrete commitment).

The underlying implication of his resistance to having quotas for the number of students of colour that they take would undermine the quality of its student body as a whole. Unsurprisingly many people took to social media to make it clear how unimpressed they were with this kind of archaic view. The playwright Bola Agbaje tweeted: “Quotas won’t reduce quality. Diversity matters. Everyone deserves a fair and equal chance. I’m really over people being so against equality and fairness.” And the producer Tobi Kyere put it even more forcefully, arguing: “This ideology that diversity and talent cannot coexist happily is fucking jarring.”

Henderson ignores real evidence that suggests quotas do not harm quality

It’s also demonstrably wrong. Henderson provides no evidence for the claim that quotas could harm quality. In fact, he ignores the real evidence that exists to suggest the contrary. Since taking over at the National Theatre, Rufus Norris has set very clear quotas and targets for the organisation – including ensuring that at least 20% of its writers and directors, and 25% of its actors, are people of colour. This year, the theatre garnered 22 Olivier nominations and five wins.

The other big winner at the Oliviers was the musical Hamilton [4], whose diverse company essentially makes having quotas an intrinsic part of the casting process.

I know from experience that quotas can be an engine for creativity. When I was artistic director of London’s Gate Theatre [5], we made a commitment internally that the demographic of our staff and artists should closely reflect that of London as a whole – this meant ensuring, for instance, that at least 40% of the actors we employed were people of colour.

Having an ambitious target like that forces you to think creatively about how to achieve it. We had to challenge the notion that ‘whiteness’ should be the default when it came to casting in general, and we also had to ask ourselves: ‘What other stories should we be telling?’ This led to my programming some of our most successful productions: Eclipsed [6] and The Convert [7] by Danai Gurira and Assata Taught Me by Kalungi Ssebandeke. These shows received many excellent reviews between them and all of them ended up completely selling out.

This shouldn’t be surprising. As any artist or creative person can tell you, necessity is often the mother of invention. At the Gate we would make hugely ambitious work on very tight budgets and in a tiny and frustratingly asymmetrical performance space. Time and again, however, these constraints forced us to make our work better rather than just allow it to be compromised. In this respect, a quota is just another kind of constraint that, with a little imagination, can be turned into an advantage.

But Henderson’s arguments are worse than just being wrong. They are disingenuous. It seems highly likely that each course at Central has a target for the number of students it must recruit every year. How else could it guarantee having enough income to fund the school? And what are these targets but another kind of quota – albeit one driven by financial rather than political or ethical considerations?

In fact, a budget is an excellent way to re-conceive what a quota is. No one denies that adhering to predetermined budgets is a vital part of the sound financial management of any business. So really, what’s the difference between saying: ‘You can’t spend more than X thousand pounds on a course’ and ‘You can’t have fewer than X% people of colour taking that course’?

But perhaps Henderson has a deeper worry about what having a quota system would imply for his organisation. Given that people of colour tend to have disproportionately less money than white people, he may fear that having to offer more places will impact on the school’s income.

If so, he’s going to need to suck it up. Central’s fundraising department will just have to find sources of income to provide more bursaries and to subsidise the extortionate audition fees that it and many other drama schools charge.

At the Gate, quotas led to us making better work, which meant that people were more excited about giving us money

Yes, that is a challenge. But it is not an insurmountable one. In my years at the Gate, we successfully hit our inclusion quotas as well as more than doubling our fundraised income from just under £100,000 a year when I started to more than £200,000 a year when I left. We didn’t have anything like the resources that a massive organisation like Central has. But our quotas led to us making better work, which, in turn, meant that people were more excited about giving us money.

The industry is taking the issues of diversity and inclusion ever more seriously. This can be seen on the stages of major venues such as the Royal Court, Kiln Theatre and the National and in the success of blockbuster movies like Black Panther. So mainstream drama schools are going to have to make substantial changes if they want to remain in any way relevant.

Quotas are a clear, unambiguous and measurable way of doing this and of demonstrating an institution’s values. If Central’s outreach program really is as ‘dynamic’ as Henderson says it is, then it should have no difficulty finding plenty of talented students to fill them. And while quotas might well feel like a sledgehammer solution to the problem, when the barriers to access are as big as they are, I can’t think of a more useful tool with which to smash them down.