More to be done for diversity (your views, May 31)
I have a feeling that arguments about diversity will be with us for some time to come, but perhaps all of this needs to be considered from a broader viewpoint.
Social tensions around class, race and gender are now at a greater height than at any time I can remember – and I’m pushing 70.
Theatrical under-representation on grounds of race, sex and background is only a small part of a much bigger problem. In the grand scheme of things, who plays Hamlet is fairly unimportant. In this post-Brexit society, Grenfell Tower and the Windrush scandal tell you all you need to know about life in Britain.
I was at Central School of Speech and Drama in the 1980s and while my year’s intake was predominantly white and male, there was more social diversity than I suspect is the case now. The reasoning was then, I think, that this reflected the chances of employment on leaving. I also seem to recall a lack of auditions by people from ethnic minorities. That said, I can understand the attraction of quotas, I just have an uneasy feeling that they won’t be a solution.
I agree that things must change, but maybe that change needs to happen a little further up the food chain. More black and Asian playwrights, agents, casting directors and managements. Quotas seem to be a fairly blunt instrument and I’m afraid that there will always be a suspicion of “tokenism” about the exercise.
Consider this: with quotas in place, suppose that year group fails to reach the required number of students from ethnic minorities and, to satisfy the needs of the quota, that leads to the exclusion of a talented white auditionee from a working-class background.
While race, class and gender must never be used as reasons for exclusion, I still feel that talent should be the final arbiter.
In Los Angeles recently, I attended an adaptation of Richard Wright’s groundbreaking novel Native Son, by the Antaeus Theatre Company. After the performance, there was a Q&A session with the cast and something struck me: I simply could not imagine any theatre in England staging a similar production, let alone one that had a black writer, director, assistant director and a largely black cast.
Black British political theatre has all but disappeared, with artistic directors preferring to commission American works (Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes from the Field at London’s Royal Court is just the latest example of this).
As a black journalist and playwright who has tried unsuccessfully to stage political work, the announcement of Theatre Uncut’s first major playwriting prize in partnership with the Young Vic is more than welcome.
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No more grades for first-years?
I read that the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama is dropping marks for first-year students (May 24). What utter nonsense. Anyone entering the world of theatre is going to have to suffer many rejections as they audition for work. Trying to cushion students from the real world will definitely not help them.
This wouldn’t necessarily work for all subjects but it’s a good idea for the arts. Interesting to see how it goes.
Autism is not a literary device
The staging of Mike Heath’s The Big Things at London’s Barons Court Theatre led to concern within the autistic community. Portraying a late-diagnosed autistic mother who struggles to love her child, the play raised the spectre of some enduring, pernicious and inaccurate stereotypes. Kibo Productions said it was researched with reference to autism charities, but with no direct contact with autistic mothers.
Autism has long been misunderstood. Lack of feeling and emotion are not diagnostic criteria of autism. However, it crops up regularly in texts written by non-autistic people and it’s vital to challenge this misapprehension.
Autistic mothers are loving, affectionate and deeply engaged. That is not to deny that we face multiple challenges, but autism is a very broad spectrum, representing millions of unique experiences. The blanket assumption that we struggle to love is a lazy, outdated cliché.
We are not challenging the author’s right to portray anyone – fiction would be very flat if we only wrote about ourselves. We are, however, suggesting that, when you represent a minority community, you have a responsibility to properly research it through first-hand contact. There is an opportunity to turn the tables on received ideas; to elevate the vulnerable; to punch up, instead of punching down.
This also applies to the producers, actors and theatre. We urge you to be more critical when considering whether to stage these pieces, to evaluate the power dynamics and ask where the insights come from. Put better critical processes in place and you will get more meaningful, potent and socially active theatre.
A feedback opportunity was offered in the form of a Q&A one evening. This was inaccessible to many autistic mothers, and not just because it was likely to be a charged and confrontational environment. Most of us would have been doing the same as other mothers do on a Friday night: treating cut knees, chatting about our children’s days, babysitting grandchildren and kissing our kids goodnight. It may be too mundane to excite the drama critics, but we wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Jax Blunt, Sonia Boue, Fiona Clarke, Jenni Cook, Shona Davison, Cheryl Grange, EL Hetherington, Susan Hodgkinson, Kathy Isaacs, Rachael Lucas, Katherine May, Eve Reiland, Paula Sanchez, Tracy Turner, Rhi Williams
Autistic mothers and creative artists
Quotes of the week
“It’s not enough that you now have black actors playing parts not necessarily written for them. There is a culture and history that should be told and seen on stage. I used to think we needed change to progress. Now I think we need a revolution.” – Playwright Winsome Pinnock (Guardian)
“We are very much owned by the opera companies and we have no power because we are expendable – we can be chucked away. There’s always somebody who’ll do it [instead] and so we have no confidence to be able to stand up for ourselves.” – Opera singer Kitty Whately (Times)
“People are taking risks. There’s a war against mediocrity right now. Our director Ian Rickson said the other day: ‘What we’re doing is good — but we’re aiming for the sublime.’ I think that’s a good motto for life.” – Actor Colin Morgan (Evening Standard)
“I love it when upon entering the auditorium and shouting my first line a man in the audience shouts: ‘Shut up’… I think you’ll find I’m the show babes…” – Actor Sam Kipling on performing in Iolanthe (Twitter)
“Awful things will happen, life is not a bowl of cherries, but the great thing is, it’s up to you how or if you deal with them. Maybe you won’t, and that’s your choice. But it’s up to you.” – Sheila Hancock (Guardian)
“To have to go out there night after night to resurrect what I saw as a complete washout was my version of hell.” – Anthony Hopkins on playing King Lear at the National Theatre in 1987 (Telegraph)
“They want me to rewrite one of my plays with the pretext of giving it a more balanced view. In reality they want me to rewrite history to something more palatable to Western Eurocentric ‘sensibilities’.” – Lucy Sheen, actor and playwright (Twitter)
“Our male icons in theatre are all really complex and gnarly and often not heroes. They are full of violence and darkness and sadism. So it’s where I get a bit unstuck with this idea of strong female leads – it’s exciting when it doesn’t all add up.” – Director Carrie Cracknell (Evening Standard)
“Write. Just write. Then edit it. Then try to have it performed and learn from how it fails. Then repeat. Then, hopefully, continue to do this your whole life.” – Mike Bartlett’s advice to writers (Evening Standard)
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