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Steven Atkinson: After theatre’s diversity watershed in 2018, it’s time for local focus

Live Theatre in Newcastle, run by Joe Douglas, has committed to developing local talent. Photo: Cait Read Live Theatre in Newcastle, run by Joe Douglas, has committed to developing local talent. Photo: Cait Read
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Director Steven Atkinson praises the industry’s focus on, and increasing progress towards, diversity and equality, but, he asks: is Arts Council England’s strategy and its implementation helping or hindering change?

Last year marked a watershed for theatre in Britain. The major story was not that so many artistic directors stepped down, but that their successors were almost exclusively female or people from non-white backgrounds.

This progress has been widely celebrated, even in the end-of-year round-ups normally reserved for what’s happened on stage rather than the goings on behind the scenes. I’ve heard lots of comments such as: “Finally, the theatre is looking like the world I know.”

Change as widespread as this is part organic, part legislated. Nevertheless, Arts Council England is justifiably proud that the policies it has enforced around diversifying arts organisations is having such a major effect.

However, the problem is that for the gains made in gender and cultural diversity, there is yet to be equality. Moreover, the very term ‘diversity’ has become synonymous for many with ethnicity and gender, when in fact there’s much more to it.

Perhaps cultural and gender diversity are the most prominent today, but what’s lacking in our sector’s conversations about diversity is an understanding of how changes are happening and why.

Communities are seeking greater representation in the arts. In London, this is embodied by theatres becoming as culturally diverse as the communities they serve. In Wales, it has been embodied by Welsh playwrights seeking representation in their national theatre. In Scotland, it’s embodied by the new funding streams created to tour work. On a larger scale, identity and representation are the forces shaping Brexit.

It’s extraordinary that London is only now developing a generation of artistic leaders who represent the diversity of London’s communities. When Madani Younis was appointed as artistic director of the Bush Theatre in 2012, his winning pitch was simple but radical; that the programme and the audience should articulate the diversity of the theatre’s local community. I imagine the same will be true for the Southbank Centre, where this month Madani starts in the new position of creative director.

Geographically, the move is tiny. But what it represents is huge. The Southbank Centre, along with the Royal Opera House, National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, receives the largest ACE grant. However, all four organisations are now creatively led by men. Clearly, there’s still a long way for diversity to go.

Is one kind of diversity more important than another to funders, or to communities? And as individuals, don’t we all fit in to multiple brackets? I’m a non-disabled white male. But I’m also among the 10% of UK stage directors defined as working class in Stage Directors UK’s report earlier this month. And I’m gay. Is one of my attributes more defining than the other, and do I get to choose which?

Just 10% of theatre directors ‘are working class’ – report

Money is the all-pervasive barrier to culture. It transcends gender and ethnicity, it can be invisible, and it is very difficult to define. But what’s being done to tackle hidden disadvantages?

Most stage actors and technicians must learn their craft and that costs money. Increasingly directors and writers also pay to train. And now Ofsted’s chief is unhelpfully saying arts training engenders unrealistic career options.

My position is simple. If a person demonstrates exceptional artistic promise, the organisations that develop their craft, whether drama schools or theatres, should cover that person’s costs. This training period, which could be the best part of a life’s work, should be a living wage. And should that artist become commercially viable, then good.

What was expressed so clearly in the recent National Theatre Wales row is that artists not only want to communicate with their own community, but also they see the purpose of subsidised art to facilitate this.

The media often overlooks successful regional theatre, unless it has a connection to London. Rachel O’Riordan has put Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre on the industry map and transferred Welsh theatre to London. Adam Penford has revived the profile of Nottingham Playhouse, partly by bringing London artists to Nottingham. But, except in The Stage, Joe Douglas has so far received very little recognition since he became artistic director of Live Theatre in Newcastle, despite being hugely successful locally.

Read our interview with Joe Douglas

It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture of cultural strategy that underpins change, but with regards to ACE, since 2010 its investments have been made to deliver their first ever 10-year strategy, dubbed Great Art and Culture for Everyone. Is the current focus on diversity and equality the result of strategy or something organic? It’s likely both.

In November, I attended a conference arranged by the Arts Council for chief executives of core-funded organisations and local authority leaders to discuss its 10-year strategy for the period 2020 to 2030. In summary, ACE wants to get more of England’s population participating in culture. It’s a good mission. It’s one we’re already engaged in.

Strategies become problematic when they start to legislate for every eventuality because they fear leaving a priority out. This is the current state of Great Art and Culture for Everyone – a powerful central idea that is qualified by sub-clauses and sub-clauses to those sub-clauses and has arts organisations chasing multiple priorities. For example, do arts organisations really need targets around the use of digital technology?

It makes for a rigid template, and inevitably as London has proportionally so many of England’s core-funded cultural organisations, it’s a template shaped by London. Arts organisations are part of their community and serve them. The priorities they address must primarily come from within, not be superimposed by a London-centric checklist.

The feedback from chief executives to ACE at the conference was clear; prescribe less and give us room to manoeuvre. ACE’s role is to enable artists and audiences to engage in culture when otherwise they couldn’t on a commercial basis. Tackling class is fundamental to this.

If the next ACE strategy allowed the arts organisations to define the disadvantage they want to alleviate in their own communities, not only would there be a wider definition of diversity engaged in the sector but arts organisations would generally be more connected to their local communities.

Instead of prescribing a national strategy in detail, the next ACE strategy should be defined by the priorities of the organisations they’ve chosen to support.

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