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Lyn Gardner: The fight is far from over – too many are paying lip service to diversity

Adrian Lester will star as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Photo: The Masons Adrian Lester spoke alongside Gardner at Driving Change – a debate and discussion forum. Photo: The Masons
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“Let this conversation stop with our generation. Let young people come into this industry and let them talk about something different,” said Adrian Lester towards the end of the first session of Driving Change, an afternoon of debate and discussion that took place at London’s Roundhouse last week.

But what became clear from the event is that while the young, and those entering the profession, are way more clued up about equality and inclusiveness, there is still a long way to go in embedding it throughout the industry and in every organisation. That includes at board level because boards are still predominantly older, white and middle class.

As several of the speakers pointed out, if boards are made up of people who look and sound the same and come from similar educational and professional backgrounds then there will be very little different thinking during meetings. Start changing the make-up of your board and it will influence the make-up of your organisation, how it operates, programmes and delivers.

Ayesha Charles, a young creative on the Roundhouse’s youth advisory board, pointed out that organisations keen to engage with young people don’t need to speculate on what young people want and need if they have young people on the board who can tell them.

How can an arts organisation really claim it’s working with the community if the community is not represented on the board and at decision-making levels throughout the organisation? How will the culture of an arts organisation change if it keeps valuing one part of what it does (the bits that get it four or five-star reviews in a national newspaper) over other parts (the quiet, unsung work being done with communities) and have completely separate departments responsible?

Get rid of the silos and you change the mindset of an organisation and how it engages. It is only long-term institutional change that will bring about a rebalancing of power.

‘Start changing the make-up of your board and it will influence the make-up of your organisation’

Driving Change demonstrated that while there are examples of good practice in many organisations, there is a substantial difference in wanting things in the industry to look different and taking action to ensure they actually are different. The former is merely cosmetic.

But it is necessary because, as actor Jade Anouka observed when discussing the challenges she has faced throughout her career: “The glass ceilings keep moving.” Of course they do, because moving the ceilings is a way of ensuring that the people who have always had a place at the table continue to have their place at the table. For an insight into the way too many interview panels operate, read what new Actors Touring Company artistic director Matthew Xia has to say (here).

One of the things I love about an emerging generation of new theatremakers is the way many see opening doors for other people, those who come after, as an integral part of their practice – such as Travis Alabanza, who talked about it at Driving Change. There are too many who still want to draw the ladder up behind them and who pay lip service to increased diversity but only as long as it doesn’t directly affect their own opportunities.

I have lost count of the times I’ve heard companies bemoaning that funding is being redirected away from them and towards those who are creating art that has diversity, inclusiveness and social engagement at its heart. This disgruntlement reflects the fact that National Lottery Project Grants are hugely over-subscribed, but surely when the subsidy available is limited it must be directed towards the work that is most needed and benefits everyone, not just the artists?

Of course, nobody ever comes out and directly says they think too many actors or creatives of colour are getting too many opportunities, but it is often implied in the very same breath with which people signal they are checking their own privilege. Yes, it’s frustrating for anyone, particularly in a profession where there are too few jobs to go around, to suddenly discover that your education, gender, socio-economic advantage, lack of disability and skin colour no longer offer the advantages you have so long taken for granted. But the real unfairness is the way we have accepted this situation for so long without questioning why so much of theatre works in that way.

For me, Lester summed it up when he said last week: “When so many areas are out of balance and have been for so long, then you have to swing the ballast to the other side in order to get people through the door. It is not an act of charity but of necessity. Our industry has been doing the wrong thing for so long. We were told that theatre was a meritocracy and it’s not. Reflecting the country as it is, is the right thing to do and it’s long overdue.” It is. Time to stop talking and start doing with renewed energy.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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