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Mark Shenton: Theatre needs to be inclusive – not exclude certain people from creating or playing certain roles

Jack Hunter and Emily Barber in The Cost of Living at London's Hampstead Theatre, which features an actor with cerebral palsy and a quadriplegic actor – as specified by its playwright. Photo: Manuel Harlan Jack Hunter and Emily Barber in The Cost of Living at London's Hampstead Theatre, which features an actor with cerebral palsy and a woman who is a double amputee. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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There’s a lot of muddle in the debates around identity politics in theatre, whether of gender, sexuality, race or disability. This can lead to seemingly contradictory positions on who can or can’t, should or shouldn’t, participate in offering representations of each, whether as writer, actor or in another creative role.

The latest such issue to blow up is around the announcement that David Mamet is premiering his play Bitter Wheat – inspired by allegations against Harvey Weinstein – in the West End. Some commentators – including my colleague Lyn Gardner – have suggested this was only a woman’s story to tell.

Lyn Gardner: Back off, Berkoff (and Mamet) – women own the #MeToo story

Mamet is one of the few playwrights of either gender that any producer would trust with the budget to open a play cold in the commercial West End. That may be part of the problem, but as I observed last week, there is currently a welcome spate of plays by female playwrights making waves in Theatreland. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t always be more – nor that there shouldn’t be room for one to offer their take on Weinstein or #MeToo – but it doesn’t mean we should be actively looking to exclude male writers from the conversation.

The objections are about more than numbers or money – they are about content or what that content is imagined to be, with people pointing to Mamet’s past form of underwritten female characters. Some of those expressing outrage were critics, who should be waiting to see the play before passing judgement.

Perhaps Mamet could have avoided the controversy by averting the topic and respecting the feelings around it. But we don’t know his stand, so it’s too soon to say he’s in the wrong.

Similarly, there’s something muddled in the publicity for Waitress, which celebrates its “all-female creative team”, as it arrives in the West End. While it should be celebrating its female-led creative team, it has done this by ignoring the fact that the design department includes set designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Ken Billington, sound designer Jonathan Deans and wig and make-up designer Richard Mawbey. Their contributions should not be ignored in the rush to mark the landmark that it is the first Broadway or West End show to be entirely written, composed, directed and choreographed by women.

It’s notable that the approach taken by the show’s director Diane Paulus was inclusive rather than exclusionary. As she told the Sunday Times: “It wasn’t a casting agenda of ‘Oh, this has to be all women’. It was ‘Who is the best person for this job?’ And guess what? Going into the 21st century, there are women at the top of their field in this category.”

Waitress director Diane Paulus: ‘Theatre is transformative and the world needs it now more than ever’

While these issues focus on the creative team, there are similar challenges when it comes to performers, most recently around disability. On film, able-bodied actor Eddie Redmayne won multiple awards for playing the disabled Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and Bryan Cranston has played a wheelchair user in The Upside. The latter, in particular, has come in for criticism.

As Frances Ryan wrote in the Guardian: “While ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage, ‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards. Is there much difference between the two? In both cases, actors use prosthetics or props to alter their appearance in order to look like someone from a minority group, and often manipulate their voice or body to mimic them. They take a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic, and, in doing so, perpetuate that group’s under-representation.”

Disabled actor-writer Mat Fraser, who played Richard III in Hull in 2017, said in another piece in The Guardian: “Ideally, anybody should be able to play any body, but only when there is a truly level playing field of opportunity.”

Seeing a genuinely disabled performer in a role creates a different sort of realism – and identification for the audience. Just last week the UK premiere of Martyna Majok’s The Cost of Living at Hampstead featured a man with cerebral palsy and a woman who is a double amputee. It makes the play both more resonant and immediate – there’s no suspension of disbelief necessary, but an automatic recognition of their conditions from which the play’s drama can arise naturally.

There can be a similar verisimilitude to actors playing their own sexuality: of course, LGBT+ actors can play straight characters, too, and so the reverse is also true; but (like people with disabilities) LGBT+ characters are still under-represented in films and on stage, so perhaps some positive discrimination is required to redress the balance.

Andrew Miller: Disability can no longer exist at the bottom of the list of arts’ priorities

As actor Andy Mientus has said: “When the pool of available roles is so small, it can be frustrating to see a role described as ‘camp’ go to an actor who is going to have to affect that rather than to an actor whose camp-ness keeps them from getting other work.”

Darren Criss, who played Blaine in TV’s Glee and is straight, recently committed himself to no longer playing gay characters. He said: “I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role.”

Theatre, as in all walks of life, is founded on mutual respect. It’s refreshing to see a new kind of respect from actors to their peers. Some are even making personal decisions to forgo roles to ensure others have greater opportunities.

This is an inclusive act and should be celebrated, but it is a different approach to excluding certain people from creating or playing a role in certain types of art.

Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton

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