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Steven Atkinson: We can’t allow class to fall off theatre’s diversity agenda

Posh at London's Royal Court in 2010. Photo: Tristram Kenton Production of Laura Wade's Posh at London's Royal Court in 2010. Class must not be overlooked as a category of diversity by arts funding bodies, says Steven Atkinson. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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HighTide Theatre started life in a London private members’ club. It was the summer of 2007, and I had been invited there to be interviewed by one of the producers of the inaugural HighTide Festival of new short plays.

I travelled to London from Hull, having been made redundant from my job as Hull Truck’s literary manager. I was 23 years old and tied to a flat rental contract in Hull. I had no savings, needed to earn a living and had nothing to lose.

Steven Atkinson, artistic director of HighTide
Steven Atkinson, artistic director of HighTide

The person I met was as alien to me as the club we met in, and they sounded as posh as they looked. It takes a special confidence to advertise a job in the Guardian with no salary in a company that doesn’t exist, but the producer had what I later recognised as the preternatural confidence of someone who had learned how to succeed.

This was the first time I’d consciously met a young Oxbridge graduate and, through then working together, I observed up close how the privileged operate. They knew how to doggedly pursue influential people, to control conversations and enlist others; to flatter, flirt and charm.

I’ve since met many actors, directors, writers, producers and administrators who graduated from other elite universities, including Newcastle and Edinburgh, who also have these abilities. They come in all the forms of diversity that employers now rightly monitor. Many are also talented artists. But privilege cuts like a knife right through the differences we’re currently alert to.

There remains a strong correlation between positions of prominence and connections to elite schools and universities. I see this regularly in the similarities shared by all the directors who email me asking to meet for “a cup of tea” and then confidentially pitch shows they would like to direct. This confident self-promotion is cultivated in the elite university hot-house environment, which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin memorably satirised in The Social Network with: “Harvard undergraduates believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job.”

On occasion, a young white male has confided to me that their generation is on the sharp end of a quick change, and this is unfair. But fears of this being a hard time to be white and male just aren’t being borne out – crucially, there remain variations of all-white males in public life. It’s just now, finally, that more space is being made alongside them for others.

A strong correlation persists in theatre between positions of prominence and connections to elite schools and universities’

Representation really matters to me because I want theatre to be part of as many people’s lives as possible. Recently, after a performance of Nine Night at the National Theatre, the audience member beside me turned and thanked me for coming. She wasn’t working on the show, but, as dual-heritage British Jamaican, she thanked me for sharing in aspects of her story. The producer that starts a West End theatre dedicated to staging Bollywood musicals will be as successful as Cameron Mackintosh. The growing diversity in Britain’s population should be seen as an opportunity to renew and widen the audiences for theatre.

HighTide became strongly supported very quickly, and in this respect resembled a privileged company. I believe that support was harnessed effectively and put to good use, championing new, diverse artists and increasingly working with communities without access to professional theatre.

But my feelings about my own class and privilege trouble me. I’m now irrefutably part of the theatre establishment, having run HighTide for 11 years. I’ve learnt a lot through observing those who experienced independent schools and the elite universities, and I’ve adopted their tactics that I recognised as positive and effective.

I continue to expect to meet emerging artists and administrators from a similar background to my own, but this isn’t happening in anywhere near as demonstrable a way as those with the diversities that employers and funders are recording and prioritising. I don’t believe that we can’t categorise class. We can self-categorise. The issue is that we choose to turn a blind eye because it’s convenient to hide how many artists benefited from privilege. Instead we’re choosing to highlight our other diversities. But only when people from all backgrounds can afford to become, and sustain themselves as, artists can the industry be representative.

I’ve shared what I’ve called #MyStory on my Twitter account. The contents of the tweet are: #BornLiverpool1984 #FatherMilkman #MotherCareworker #ComprehensiveSchool #UniversityReading.

I, like many others, bristle at the suggestion that my life is defined by my past. But it’s irrefutable that the opportunities we have growing up shape our world view. And if we’re to understand the prisms through which artists reflect their worlds, then we need artists to share their stories. A birthplace, date, parents’ professions, school and universities don’t give a full picture, but they’re still illuminating.

I won’t advocate any #MyStory as being more or less virtuous than another. I hope that people will take up the hashtag and do it themselves, engage and be forthcoming, and then we will start to see some looming gaps if enough people care to look.

Surely the primary function of investing public funds in culture is to enable positive change. If Arts Council England and the other UK funding bodies devised categories to record privilege and class, and made it a condition of national portfolio organisation and project funding that this information be submitted on all artists and participants involved in funded projects, we would have the beginnings of a comprehensive picture of those who engage in culture. Then funding could be targeted at the gaps. This is how diversity is currently recorded, but class and privilege is currently not part of the reporting.

For this to work requires self-assessment and transparency. We must not be afraid of revealing what we know or suspect to be privileges. Excellent art will continue to be made by elite, university-educated sons of investment bankers. What we as a sector, and Arts Council England as the financier of change, need to be able to spot is where the gaps are and take the barrier of affordability away.

It’s astonishing to think that money, which is such a universal concern, has fallen off the diversity agenda. It can’t be allowed to again, because not having access to money is the biggest single barrier to being an artist.

Steven Atkinson is the outgoing artistic director of HighTide Theatre, hightide.org.uk

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