It is easy to say that you stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and protest the death of George Floyd. But if those words are to have real meaning then they must be the harbinger of change – for all of us individually, and within theatre and its institutions.
Genuine change is really hard, and it is a process that never ends. Racism is not solved by an expensive management consultancy report commissioned when you are called out for bad behaviour.
In an industry where most who work within it are white, where the majority of those in senior management and at board level are white, and where the drama schools and training establishments that feed the industry are dominated by white teachers and white audition panels, it is no surprise that privilege and ignorance have come together for so long to prevent access and to keep the dominant structures in place.
We can and must do better. Lives depend upon it. So does the relevance of theatre as an art form in a changing society. Theatre can’t talk on its stages about equality and social justice if it’s not practising that in its own corridors, audition rooms, interview panels, rehearsal rooms and boardrooms.
Over the past week, a number of theatres and drama schools have expressed solidarity through their posts on social media. But, as testimonies collected by The Stage detailing students’ experiences of racism show – in many cases, at some of the very same drama schools that posted those messages – it’s not an institution’s words that tell a truth, but its actions and behaviours. These testimonies make for painful, shaming reading for the industry we love. So too do the testimonies on social media from black artists whose treatment at the hands of theatres and productions has been appalling.
Those who have spoken out in the past, such as director of the school of acting at ArtsEd Julie Spencer, the students behind Dear White Central and those adding their voices this week must all be listened to, and action taken. Too often the words of those who have spoken out have been quickly forgotten; the status quo re-established. As Natalie Ibu said on Twitter, it is crucial to stand with “all those digging deep to speak their truth about what it is to be a black artist in the sector right now”.
There is a price that often comes with speaking out. In an industry where everyone knows everyone, where it is easy to get a reputation for being ‘difficult’, where there are few opportunities and many seeking them, and where power is concentrated in the hands of a few who have the ability to choose who they will and will not work with, it takes real courage to speak truth to power.
There is a price that often comes with speaking out
At the protest in London’s Hyde Park last Wednesday, Star Wars actor John Boyega spoke for many working in the arts, film and TV who are far less famous than him when he declared: “Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that.” Fellow actor Jade Anouka is right to point out on Twitter that if “John Boyega, an actor who is excelling at the game, extremely successful (rightly so) is worried he may never work again by calling out racism just imagine how the rest of us feel when we need to speak the truth.”
The majority of us working in theatre, in whatever capacity, do not know this fear because we are protected by our white privilege, one that often comes with other privileges attached, including socio-economic privilege, the privilege to occupy space (including this space), to have our voices heard. We do not, and cannot, know what it feels like to be black, but we can listen and educate ourselves.
Most of all we must stand side-by-side with black artists and all theatre workers of colour and genuinely commit to putting in place the radical new structures that they tell us are needed to address the bias and racism that clearly remains present in drama schools, and the sector they feed. And we can’t, as we so often do, expect black practitioners to do all the heavy lifting necessary to make that change happen.
Now is not the time to cheer some of the tiny progresses that have been made – often driven entirely by black-led initiatives such as Diversity School and Black Ticket Project – but rather interrogate why there is still so far to go and why theatre organisations still too often view black artists and black audiences only through the lens of how useful they are to fulfilling their own diversity strategies.
For genuine support and equality of opportunity, the structures must shift to give black artists the space, resources and assistance they need (not what theatres think they need) to fulfil their creative potential and make the work they want to make and tell the stories they want to tell. Without these things, without a willingness to step aside and hand over power, there will be no real diversity, no real solidarity, no real and lasting change.