Next month, Act for Change will be holding another public event, our fifth. As I’ve been speaking to people about it and what our aims are, the same questions come back to me: “Do we really need to keep discussing diversity? Don’t we get it by now?”
I meet that with a question. “Think about the last couple of plays or TV dramas you saw. Did they fairly represent the Britain you love and live in? In their reflection of how the bodies on stage looked, the socio-economic realities they depicted, the nuanced complexities of gender, sexuality and religion?”
Chances are, the balance falls more in favour of ‘no’ than ‘yes’. What is clear, as we keep talking and circling around improving representation, is that things are getting more, not less, complex.
BAME no longer cuts it as the go-to acronym for racial diversity. While ‘black, Asian and minority ethnicity’ may trip off the tongue, it does a reductive disservice to people’s intricate sense of heritage and identity.
As our understanding of each other deepens and grows, so must our approach. It’s great to have in place proactive measures such as quotas; these really strengthen our accountability as storytellers. But the way we conduct our professional work needs to be complex to reflect how complex we are as individuals.
While it’s true that some of the numbers are up – more plays are being produced by female writers, there’s good representation of some (but not all) of Britain’s minority ethnicity groups on our main stages, our artistic leadership looks more representative than it did when Act for Change set up in 2014 – there are still many barriers to getting unseen stories and unheard voices on our stages and screens.
We need to address why people of colour, who are differently able, from deprived regions, with poor socio-economic standing, still feel overwhelmingly that (most) theatres are not places for them. We need to re-imagine the way we find and train practitioners, to make the entry points accessible and open. We need to be much more sophisticated in how we plan and execute the processes of making work and running theatres so that the way we work doesn’t just favour the people who can afford to work. Just because ‘things have always been like this’ doesn’t mean they should continue as such.
Yes, we’ve been talking about this stuff for years and yes it’s great that it’s no longer a peripheral issue to the creative process but, as we know well, there is a big gulf between knowledge and behaviour. And in that gulf in this particular context, prejudice and exclusion happens.
So, on October 6 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London we’ll be gathering to share best practice from across theatre, as well as discussing challenges we face in making diverse representation a reality. We need to keep things moving forwards and we need to keep the conversation growing. And we hope you can be a part of it.
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/