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Stephanie Street: Gatekeepers need educating on diversity – believe it, state it, do it

David Oyelowo, the first black actor to play an English king at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2000. Street asks: are we not past those days? Photo: Tristram Kenton

Having just finished a long job, I am catching up on life and admin. I recently refreshed my Twitter profile so it now reads: “Actress, mama, writer, sleep chaser, feminist.” The “feminist” is new. This wasn’t a coming out of the closet, I just realised that, in the same way as the other words describe my purpose in a fundamental way, my core ideology as a feminist is key to who I am.

The most significant task I have as a feminist right now is choosing how to raise my children. When my daughter rocked up I thought, okay, here she is, the future of feminism. But then my son entered the picture and I realised the future of feminism is (almost more significantly) also in his hands.

My time campaigning with Act for Change has taught me two key things: it is vital to empower those who hold the minority share of power; and it is – almost more significantly – vital to educate the historical holders of power so they understand that the system as it is (patriarchal, able-bodied, white) is not fit
for purpose.

We’ve had two recent notable examples of gatekeepers – the people who decide who gets to work in this business and who doesn’t – challenging the need for better representation on stage and screen and in our drama schools.

There I was, getting complacent, thinking: “Here we are in the game of make-believe. We’re all liberal. The theatre community believes in art that looks like the world we live in and not some Etonian alternative reality.”

Then along came #vavavoomgate and the principal of a leading drama school (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) taking the conversation backwards. Being diverse isn’t a strategic objective, it isn’t a marketing gimmick or point scoring. It is how things must be – theatre and all arts included.

I just finished a show that was as diverse as could be hoped for. Whatever terminology you use, whether colour-blind or colour-conscious, the bodies the play puts on stage reflected bodies in the real world, with a range of ethnicities and visible disabilities.

Even better, we were playing ‘real’ figures from history. And audiences couldn’t care less that the skin colours didn’t match, or the body shapes were different. It was never remarked upon. Because people are smart – they understand it is make-believe.

The gatekeepers who made Quiz made a commitment to cast it in such a way that reflected the world we live in. They were rewarded with some of the most diverse audiences I’ve ever played to.

In the 21st century this is how art should be. We’re past the days of Royal Shakespeare Company audiences getting in a huff about a black actor playing an English monarch. It is simple and can be boiled down for a Twitter profile: believe in it, state it, do it. Gatekeepers need to up their game and do all three.

Stephanie Street is an actor and playwright