Just before Christmas, Arts Council England announced that from next year regularly funded organisations will be required to report not just on the gender, ethnicity, age and disability representation of workforces but also on the socio-economic backgrounds of employees.
This is excellent news, because the class ceiling is still very much in place in British theatre. Even to contemplate a career in the industry often requires exposure to it, and at a time when arts education and school trips to the theatre are disappearing, that means coming from a family that can afford theatre tickets.
Watching the National Theatre’s revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey at Trafalgar Studios, I was struck not just by what an extraordinary play it is, but also by how it was written in 1958 by a teenager from Salford who was familiar enough with the theatre to know that she could do better than the Coward and Rattigan plays she had seen and that dominated theatre at the time. Would a teenager from a low socio-economic background today have seen enough David Hare plays to know they could do better?
Six decades on from A Taste of Honey, working-class artists are still fighting to be heard. Last month I interviewed Jimmy Fairhurst, founder of Not Too Tame, a company based in Warrington that tours pubs and clubs telling stories that reflect its audience. He told me that of the 13 working-class actors involved in the company’s first devised show, Early Doors, in 2014, only five of them were still in the profession. This was not for want of talent, but because it was so hard to sustain a career in theatre if you don’t look and sound as if you could be cast in Downton Abbey.
Director of RADA Edward Kemp said recently in an interview with The Times: “There are serious questions about how you survive, as an actor, in the early years without that level of support that you might have if you come from a prosperous background.” Only about one in 50 actors earn more than £20,000 a year according to research from Equity.
But the issues and barriers facing those from less comfortable backgrounds begin long before they enter the profession. Fairhurst almost dropped out of drama school because of the difficulties of supporting himself by working and also doing the course. Only a bursary allowed him to finish his training.
It is a reminder that, while initiatives like that announced by the newly appointed LAMDA director Sarah Frankcom to make audition fees more affordable are very welcome, we also need to look at how training can be adapted to support those who will not be able to complete the courses if they cannot support themselves throughout a conservatoire-style training.
If we don’t reinvent drama training to reflect the different needs of students from much more diverse backgrounds – and that includes those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds – it’s like holding the door open so that they can get in the room, then blaming them when they leave quickly because they feel uncomfortable or can’t afford to stay.
When you change the intake of an institution – whether a training school or a theatre – if you don’t also change the culture, then it is not real change. Just as more diverse casting on our theatres’ stages is only virtue-signalling if it doesn’t extend beyond the wings into the entire building.
There are strong imperatives to hold the doors wide open, not least because if you widen the creative pool you immediately boost the creative possibilities. A huge advantage of bringing people from diverse backgrounds into theatre and training establishments is that they bring a new perspective, questioning rather than accepting the way things are done.
One of the things the #MeToo movement has taught us is that the traditional hierarchies of theatre that allow abuse to flourish often start at training level. If we are going to make art that challenges the status quo then it requires us to train young people who will constantly question the status quo of the industry.
Photographs of first-year students may tell something about the changing make-up of drama school intakes – as do The Stage Debut Awards every year. But it is not the whole story. Socio-economic disadvantage remains one of the more under-addressed areas of diversity, not least because it is harder to track. But, as Fairhurst’s story tells us, the challenge for those from working-class backgrounds of getting into the profession and staying in it remains daunting.
If we don’t find ways to help and support, theatre will ultimately be the loser. Because as Lee Hall, the writer of Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters – two great plays about working-class people knocking at the door of the arts – says: “Culture is something we all share and we are all the poorer for anyone excluded from it.”
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner