Last week, we ran some discouraging research into representation among senior leadership teams at theatres in England. It found that between 2009 and 2019 there was little increase in the proportion of people from ethnic minorities running the most-funded theatres and that, while women outnumber men in executive director roles, they are still under-represented in artistic leadership roles.
We talk a lot about diversity in theatre: many initiatives over several decades have sought to improve representation, to reflect the general population in terms of gender, ethnicity and disability. The latest aspect to be measured by Arts Council England is class.
The anonymous writer on this week’s letters page who complains that these metrics oversimplify complex and multifaceted human beings is right, but also misses the point. Arts Council data and research such as this are blunt tools, but also useful ones. They tell a story about the theatre industry and how it is changing – or not. Collecting data focuses the mind and publishing research tells us whether initiatives are working. It can also help make people who otherwise think they are being overlooked feel visible.
After we ran a report looking at the breakdown of casts in West End musicals by gender and ethnicity, a black British actor thanked us for doing the work: they had left the UK to pursue a career in the US because they had felt invisible. The research made them feel seen. Visible representation is important at all levels – whether in leadership positions, backstage, on stage or in audiences.
One of my most memorable theatregoing moments of 2019 came while watching Jellyfish at the National Theatre. Ben Weatherill’s play is about the struggles of a young woman with Down’s syndrome and her relationship with a boyfriend who does not have DS. In the Dorfman, I sat behind a teenage girl with DS, watching the play with her parents.
From the moment Sarah Gordy came on stage, she was rapt – excited to see an actor with Down’s syndrome portraying a character to whom she could clearly relate. The play was, she told her parents, “the best thing ever”. At the curtain call, she whooped and cheered, before asking if she could come back to see more theatre.
It was the strongest argument for representation I have seen. But it was made more powerful by the knowledge that disabled artists are seriously under-represented in theatre – on and off stage. Metrics and measurement might not make as visceral a case as personal experience, but they play a crucial supporting role.