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Diversity row is not so clear-cut (your views, February 16)

Scene from Half A Sixpence. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Having read both Matthew Hemley (‘Camp cliches and all-white casts? Welcome to musical theatre in 2016’, thestage.co.uk, November 18) and Mark Shenton (column, February 7) on the matter of the all-white casting of Half a Sixpence, and seeing that they lay the responsibility at my door, I feel I should offer some clarification.

As with all Cameron Mackintosh productions, casting was open to all regardless of racial background. Both black and Asian artists were auditioned for the show. It’s a particularly complex medium-sized musical to cast (22 actors), given the large number of named roles and the need to cover all of them internally. There are few people without a dual responsibility. As Shenton points out, there is an unusually large number of shows with ethnic casts running in London at present and many artists we would love to have seen simply weren’t available. Many others were not interested in signing up for a long commitment, holding out for shows that they knew were coming up.

Rachel Kavanaugh and her team were naturally concerned that we were unable to deliver a multiracial cast and worked repeatedly with some of the artists we saw to try to prevent it. After a protracted audition period, we reluctantly accepted that we were unable to deliver anyone who was both a good fit for the roles available and at the skill level necessary.

For several decades, we have strictly and happily adhered to an equal opportunities policy. Indeed on our longer-running shows there is an active policy of pursuing colour-blind casting as we work to keep these shows relevant and inclusive and we have a long and respectable record of casting ethnic performers not just in the ensemble but in the major leading roles.

A career in today’s musical theatre requires a high level of skill across all three disciplines of singing, dancing and acting. For most, acquiring those skills requires training. When I began working in the business, finding triple-threat performers with ethnic backgrounds was incredibly difficult, simply because so few had the opportunity to train. Over the past two decades that has progressively been changing. More and more students from ethnic backgrounds are applying to arts training establishments and, consequently, more talented and highly skilled graduates of diverse ethnicity are being produced.

My recent work on the casting of Hamilton has confirmed my belief that the pool of quite exceptional ethnic talent in the UK is growing year on year and picking up speed. What is also apparent is that the appetite to address diversity issues in the non-musical theatre, in film and in television is offering ethnic artists emerging from musical theatre courses opportunities for mixed careers that have rarely been available to their Caucasian alumni. Many now weigh several job offers at any given time and are less and less inclined to sign up to long contracts in theatre shows that can tie them up for a year or more. This is frustrating for those of us who employ actors in musicals, but I think we all look forward to the benefits that will accrue when such increased visibility across the business inspires even more young black and Asian people to consider training.

There is no room for complacency in this area. We have a long way to go to improve opportunities for East Asian artists, for instance. Though I do not disagree with the essential sentiments expressed by Hemley and Shenton, I would wish to persuade them that there is a momentum now in musical theatre and other sectors of the business, moving us beyond the stage where we need to cynically stick a couple of ethnic faces in the chorus to tick a box.

It’s time to give thanks for the range of startling ethnic talent that is emerging in this country and celebrate the fact that there is more diversity on the West End stage than at any other time in history. With musical theatre now overwhelmingly the dominant theatrical form and the competition for the best talent frighteningly intense, the issue of diversity in casting has moved beyond the moral or political sphere. The question of whether we are offering equal opportunities to everyone has been superseded by the simple reality that we’d be fools not to.

Trevor Jackson
Head of casting
Cameron Mackintosh Ltd

Neglecting UK theatre history

I recently bought London’s West End Actresses and the Origins of Celebrity Charity 1880-1920 by Catherine Hindson of Bristol University, published in the US. Why not in the UK? As an important history of British theatre, it should be expanded with photographs of the performers.

Timothy Warner

Quotes of the week

Ella Hickson. Photo: Peter Hickson

“The past five years in TV and stage have been totally joyous – there’s a really open-armed will for female protagonists. People want them. It’s not being led by taste anymore – it’s being led by an industry that is increasingly run by women at the highest points of power.”
Playwright Ella Hickson (i)

“We have to remind people that musicals cover such a range of styles. Those musicals with 42 tap-dancing ladies do exist. They’re brilliant and I love them. But there’s also another side of the musical-theatre scene which is more experimental and ambitious. We need to educate people about the range of musicals that are on their doorstep in London.”
Producer Paul Taylor-Mills (Evening Standard)

“I have no preconceptions of what the National should be. What I love about Rufus [Norris] is how many female writers he is bringing in. As a woman, I am more concerned with that than with classic plays. Great parts for women are few and far between.”
Actor Phoebe Fox (Sunday Times)

“If we’re really worrying about hurting other people’s feelings when we go to the theatre, then we have a problem, because then we cannot tell stories… The basis of democracy is that you accept opinions that you might find appalling.”
Writer and director Carly Wijs (Exeunt)

“There are days I go and watch a cosy musical. But the majority of the time I want to feel profoundly different and changed and most of the time upset by the end of it. That’s the cathartic experience you go to the theatre for.”

Playwright Liam Borrett (Independent)

“The big stories at the moment are so big and affect so many people that it’s hard to think which art form could encompass them. Take Brexit: there are so many things begging to be thought and written about, and I’m not even sure that’s a healthy way to approach the matter.”
Playwright Tom Stoppard (Guardian)

“Actors are never the best judges of what they are doing on stage. All you can hear is how an audience is responding, which is why a good audience makes you feel a million dollars.”
Actor Tom Hollander (Observer)

“The actors pretending to be interested/wowed by Cirque [du Soleil] are doing some of the best work of their careers.”
Arts editor of i Alice Jones (Twitter)

What you said on Facebook

About the government overruling exam boards that had said GCSE and A-level drama students would no longer be required to see live theatre…

Thank goodness. Otherwise, it would be like studying science without doing experiments or IT without a computer. Common sense prevails.
Lucy Curtis

Not everyone can get to a theatre.
Heather Williams

If there is a local drama school or performing arts college there may be opportunities to see the students perform at a small price. It’s a win-win situation: the students get an audience and the school pupils see live performances.
Jenny Etches

About the National Theatre’s duty to stage classic plays…

Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean everyone has seen it. A ‘new’ play is one you have never seen or read before, whether the play is two weeks old or from ancient Athens. Surely the National’s obligation is to balance, promote new work and restage works that are relevant to today’s issues.
Helen Joy Kirk

I believe the NT should focus on British plays, but I think they’ve got the balance right.
Chris Murray

Wouldn’t you class Angels in America or Amadeus as classic plays? They are both in the National’s latest season. The term ‘classic play’ can mean so many things – it does not just apply to works by Shakespeare or Ben Jonson. The NT should be about presenting work from all eras – including new work.
Paul Wallis

What you said on Twitter

In response to #TheatrePickUpLines

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