Drama schools have made positive changes to improve the diversity of the young people who audition, but more should be done to keep up with an ever-changing industry, says ArtsEd director Julie Spencer
I cannot speak for every black person in actor training or education, but as a black woman, my own experiences of drama school and academia have often been traumatic.
Over the past 15 years, black and ethnic minority students I’ve worked with, heard from, and more recently interviewed as part of my current doctorate research into actor training, have spoken about their own isolation, fear and anger.
The Diversity School Initiative sprang up in 2016 out of this frustration and despair. At the lack of equity and representation in senior drama school management and teaching staff. At a colonised curriculum that has excluded the stories and voices of ‘others’ for too long. And at a ‘guru’ mentality that favours long-established points of reference rather than embracing a continuous, shifting dynamic between tutor and student. A back and forth creative collaboration that nurtures individual creativity at the same time as fostering independent thinking and resilience.
Founders of the Diversity School Initiative, Mumba Dodwell, Steve Kavuma and Maame Atuah are collaborating with Arts Educational Schools London, Guildhall, Mountview, Bristol Old Vic, LAMDA and Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts to create an inclusivity charter.
The charter will enable drama schools properly to understand the issues around under-representation, to take steps to address the problems raised and to examine the results of the changes that they make. Alongside other grassroots organisations, Diversity School Initiative has worked tirelessly to champion these much-needed shifts in drama school training.
Now is the time for drama schools to follow up on this hard work. Change requires action and ticking a box isn’t action enough.
A pioneer of black British stage and screen performance Malcolm Frederick once warned: “Don’t be fooled by the illusion of inclusion.” Inclusivity and diversity in drama school, conservatoire or university actor training still appears to be tolerated rather than embraced. I am not here to be tolerated.
The response to my appointment as the first black female to lead a BA acting conservatoire training course was a truly humbling experience. It left no doubt that, for black and ethnic minority drama students and actors, this was a huge deal.
ArtsEd principal Chris Hocking, a key instigator of the drive for change for a number of years, recognised that a person of colour in a key position was a crucial development, and ensured that a different voice is heard at a level that makes an impact beyond just lip service.
At ArtsEd, as at other drama schools, we offer audition fee waivers, free recalls, regional auditions and fee support, all of which have a positive impact on the diversity of the young people that audition.
However, I believe that two changes unique to ArtsEd have made the real difference, and have led to an exceptionally diverse intake on our 2019 BA Acting course, with nearly 60% of students identifying as black and ethnic minority.
ArtsEd’s 2019 BA Acting intake was exceptionally diverse, with nearly 60% of students identifying as black and ethnic minority
Firstly, we have restructured our auditions so that candidates spend a whole day at ArtsEd. Acting, movement and voice sessions in the morning have helped to improve audition performances, and time in the building allows candidates to get a real sense of our offer.
Secondly, and crucially, our audition panel is diverse and made up of permanent teaching staff – the people that students will see everyday.
This increased accessibility comes with a responsibility to provide inclusive and contemporary training that supports all students to explore their cultural creativity, giving them opportunities to interrogate their own stories.
To do this we need wholeheartedly to embrace in the curriculum works that sit beyond the canon, to the extent that they become part of the everyday and are not trumpeted as unusual. How can a young actor fully participate in intensive learning if they are forced to view everything through the lens of someone else? They can’t. Nor should any student be expected to.
An equally essential shift is required in our use of language, particularly in how we teach. A student from Manchester or Halifax doesn’t have an accent that positions them as ‘other’ – they have a voice, as valid and potentially compelling as any other. Finding that authentic voice in classical works such as Shakespeare is crucial. A line of verse is often referred to as having the rhythm of a heartbeat. Who doesn’t have a heartbeat? The training then becomes about students finding their own cultural heartbeat in the work.
Our approach at ArtsEd is guided by these tenets and by the fact that our teaching practices need to evolve constantly, and consistently respond directly to the creative uniqueness of the students we teach and to the ever-changing industry in which they will work.
The appointments of Orla O’Loughlin at Guildhall and Sarah Frankcom at LAMDA are further examples of the change that is needed. Initial conversations with them indicate the beginnings of a truly collaborative approach, one that will enhance the cultural vitality of drama schools, re-engaging, re-igniting and re-imagining what a contemporary, industry-focused actor training programme can be. This will be a truly exciting opportunity to ensure all voices are given an authentic opportunity to be included.
Expertise in our craft is not the privilege of the majority – it comes in a variety of colours, classes, genders, sexualities and disabilities. The permanent teaching staff at drama schools should reflect this.
Viola Davis once said: “Ultimately acting is not rocket science, but it is an art form. What you are doing is illuminating humanity. You can only shine if you’re included in the narrative. You don’t put any boundaries on it. It’s infinite and the only way we can do what we do is if people use their imaginations so that all can be included in it.”
Julie Spencer is director of the school of acting at ArtsEd