Touring means months away from home and living out of a suitcase, but for actors of colour there are other difficulties to consider, as Waleed Akhtar, who is currently on the road with A Thousand Splendid Suns, explains
As an actor you either love touring or you don’t. For some it’s the chance to go on an adventure around the country, for others, it’s the drudgery of leaving your life behind and living out of a suitcase. I’m largely in the first camp – I love rocking up, rocking on and then rocking out of town – which is lucky as I’m touring right now. But being an actor of colour means touring also comes with an extra set of unique challenges.
It starts with digs. All actors gleefully share their tales of dodgy digs like war stories. It proves they’ve been in the trenches. In no other profession are employees expected to sort their own travel and accommodation on a stipend so small a Travelodge would be the height of decadence. So instead, most actors end up living in a room in someone’s house that, usually, they’ve never seen before arrival.
No actor enjoys booking their digs, but try booking them when your name is Waleed Akhtar. It all becomes that much more tricky to find somewhere in the first place and then somewhere that is going to be the right fit.
On a tour early on in my career, a cast mate was chucked out of his digs because the landlord complained about the smell of the curries he was cooking. So now when finding digs, I make it explicit that I’m the kind of ethnic that will be cooking Dhal in the kitchen, send a link with a headshot at the end of any email and use my best telephone voice on any call. I want to make it extra clear who they’re going to be getting.
But just being in someone else’s space is tough – someone you don’t know and whose house you’re in. I’m a relaxed Muslim, so a house with pork and alcohol isn’t such an issue, but for other Muslims it’s a massive headache. But even simple stuff such as washing the dishes can be a point of cultural difference, I do it the Asian way (each dish individually under the tap). And don’t get me started on pets – in the kitchen, really? Even food can be a real grind, halal meat can be hard to come by, as are the ingredients I take for granted in my local shop. Even if I do find them, I tend to pay a premium.
I recently also made the mistake of bringing up Brexit, forgetting I was no longer in my London bubble. So when I got the reply: “I don’t mind the ones that are already here, but we’re a small country”, I knew it was time to abort conversation. I hastily complimented the beige of the landlady’s carpet, knowing I had another six weeks in this place. Maybe I should have just been thankful that she wasn’t accosting me about “that time I went on holiday to Goa”, as has happened more than once. Informing my hosts that I’m not Indian doesn’t ever seem to dampen their enthusiasm.
One of the things I really enjoy about touring is that it takes me out of my home in the big city, but it is also a reminder of just how white the rest of the country really is. I have no real problem with that, it just means I become much more visible. Micro, and not so micro, aggressions happen the whole time.
On the lower end of the scale is the family I stayed with who were unable to get my name right for the whole time I was there, or after a performance having a white audience member ask if I was related to her doctor. On the other end, there is the time I was heading to a place so parochial that one carriage split from the train to take its passengers there and the man opposite made a joke about burning ethnic people. And this was after polite chit-chat had already led me to inform him where and when I was to be performing that evening.
When something like that happens it leads to a pretty consistent sense of paranoia. A group of blokes with a dog looks like an EDL march and it feels like everyone on the morning bus is staring – and not in a good way.
There is something about all this happening away from my home turf that throws me off kilter even more, making an unfamiliar place seem that much stranger and more hostile. Back home in London I know where my stomping ground is, but on tour even something as innocuous as going for a cast drink can install fear in case we all end up in the wrong sort of pub.
Speaking to other actors of colour, the majority have experienced similar situations. For the most part we end up minimising these experiences, because we just want to get on with it and don’t want to make a fuss. But with statistics suggesting racism is on the rise, it’s becoming harder to ignore.
What can be done to make the situation better? Some companies are better than others, but looking at the whole system of how tours are organised would be a start. Actors and their needs are pretty low down on the priorities when it comes to touring, and that needs to change.
More money for actors’ touring allowances would help. Some sort of certification for those on digs lists or, better still, theatres taking charge of housing their actors in decent, self-contained accommodation close to the venue. This would benefit all actors, not just actors of colour.
We must also report when incidents happen and not let them slide. Meanwhile, theatres need to act faster in removing people from the digs list or have conversations about what is appropriate, so actors don’t feel like it’s left to them to act.
While, at this point, with budgets in the arts as they are, that all seems like wishful thinking, steps could be taken to demand more information about the digs. Maybe even ask to be taken on a video tour of the place so at least there is an idea of what it looks like and who actors will be living with.
It’s also important to talk to each other. I routinely speak to my creative friends of colour, to get the lowdown on a place I’ve never been to before, recommendations of where to go and where to avoid, and the best places to eat. As for the challenging views and opinions I’ve come across, I’m hoping to change those with the work I present.
Waleed Akhtar is on tour with Birmingham Rep’s production of A Thousand Splendid Suns