As artistic director of Strictly Arts, a Midlands-based devised theatre company, I’ve made friends in senior positions in London theatres. They’ve been really helpful to me in my role as 2021 co-artistic director of the Belgrade Theatre Coventry and in preparing the programme in time for Coventry becoming UK City of Culture.
When Balisha Karra, Justine Themen and I were first offered our positions, I hadn’t seen a young ethnic minority leader of a regional theatre for a long time so it felt like an exciting opportunity, particularly alongside similar changes happening at other theatres – Roy Alexander Weise has since become co-artistic director at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. But something I’ve learned is that theatre culture in the regions is very different to that in London.
Partly it’s about perception. When Strictly Arts’ show Freeman received five-star reviews and awards, the first question people asked us was where in London we were from. When they learnt we were from the Midlands, their eyes almost popped out of their skulls. There was just an assumption that something of quality couldn’t emerge from this region.
Equally, I know that for most opportunities in this industry I will need to travel to London. Even regional theatres usually hold auditions in London first, because they have to. London is seen as the land of opportunity, so as soon as people graduate from drama school, they move there, leaving the regions depleted.
To me, the whole concept of ‘regional theatre’ – as though it’s all one thing that’s somehow different to London theatre – seems strange: every city has its own energy and culture. Unfortunately, when you label things as ‘regional’ in opposition to London, it creates a separation and a hierarchy – when really the arts should be about bringing people together.
That leads me to another key difference: getting audiences engaged and excited about theatre is a different task when you don’t have the same number of people as you do in London.
It’s not just about racial diversity: Midlands cities like Coventry and Birmingham are very diverse, and less segregated than many places. However, where I grew up in a working-class, urban community in Birmingham, theatre wasn’t something anybody considered going to or taking part in. And for a regional theatre to survive, all of the communities in that region need to be part of its story.
I see it as my responsibility in this job to make people who don’t see theatre as their home feel comfortable at the Belgrade, because that’s what happened to me.
Financially and creatively it was risky, but the Belgrade’s artistic director, Hamish Glen, has given Justine, Balisha and me an incredible opportunity to redefine what it means to be an artistic director outside London. Together, we’re not only diversifying the creative vision at the top of this organisation, but also finding more time to get out into communities, to listen to people and work with them.
With my upcoming (locally cast) show Club 2B, I’m also asking questions about what theatre itself looks like. This immersive, club-style experience is something that I hope will speak to people who don’t see themselves as theatregoers, as well as those who do.
Go out there and find me one person that doesn’t like to be entertained. Because the way I see it, in the right circumstances, everybody is a theatregoer.