This column follows on exactly from one I wrote a month ago. When flagging that Act for Change would be holding an event, our fifth, on October 6 at Shakespeare’s Globe, I did so in the hope something interesting enough would emerge from it, worthy of reporting back on. I wasn’t disappointed; I did not, however, expect that thing to be so profound, so fundamental.
First, a little context. Five years into AFC’s existence, we realised we needed to ring the changes with our events – the pursuit of proper, diverse representation on our stages and screens calls for more than just a talking shop. So this year we were honoured to partner with the Globe, whose work is some of the most boundary-defining in terms of how it looks and represents, and whose spaces are probably some of the most democratic of any London theatre’s.
The panel debate threw up some key provocations: that the establishment-coined acronym BAME is reductive and unfit for purpose; that when an individual relinquishes concern for their personal power, they can lead an organisation courageously – exemplified by panellists Michelle Terry and Matthew Xia, who have made bold statements through the work made at the organisations they head.
That we need strategies that will impact and influence the top levels of power within arts organisations who, even if they state their commitment to diverse representation, are not doing enough to make it a reality. Meera Syal wondered whether, after plenty of time being the nice, collaborative minorities in the room, the time had come to start putting in place legal imperatives.
We then separated into smaller groups to deepen the discussions, and that’s where the magic really happened. As participants shared personal and professional experiences, I saw the power of collective action. Looking around the Sam Wanamaker before the event began, I was happy (and relieved) to see a group of people who genuinely looked like the world beyond – multiracial, of diverse ages, differently abled.
The existing structures and systems need an overhaul: how we work, who leads and how they lead
Excuse me if this seems like I’m virtue-signalling. I’m not; I share this to indicate that what we achieved was a coming together of a diverse collective, who attended the event to find a solution together. And the key discovery came from that. Very simply, the existing structures and systems need an overhaul: how we work, who leads and how they lead – they all need to be re-evaluated.
If our stages and screens are to be truly representative, they cannot be led by boards, executives and directors who enact the same kind of patriarchal, overwhelmingly white leadership, doing things a certain way because that’s how it’s always been done. As long as that is the case, we will always be the ‘other’, lucky to be granted a seat at their table.
There is systemic change on the horizon: Act for Change is heartened by the imminent launch of SOLT and UK Theatre’s Theatre Casting Toolkit and the clear support it will provide to put diverse casting into practice. But we need to go even further to look at how power is shared (or not) by artistic leadership. And then I really believe change will truly come about.
Stephanie Street is an actor, writer and co-founder of Act for Change. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/stephanie-street/