Lyn Gardner hits the proverbial nail on the acting profession’s head. Sadly, all too often, the aspiring but under-represented performer or technician crashes through the glass ceiling of gender or ethnicity only to be faced with the concrete ceiling of class.
The experience of 25-year-old, hugely talented actor Emmanuel Kojo, who benefited from an Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation scholarship, tells a typical story. ArtsEd, which he holds in high regard, had eight actors of colour in a year of 63 students. Working-class students were an even smaller minority.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation commissioned an in-depth study, Centre Stage, with theatre professionals from drama students and teachers to actors and directors. As part of a wider set of recommendations, we called for drama schools to adopt a self-imposed target of providing finance so that 50% of their places are accessible to students from low-income backgrounds. This would have a dramatic impact on the diversity of their intakes.
Coming back to Emmanuel, he told us: “The big problem with drama schools is that everyone is similar. You don’t get that many working-class people, which is such a shame as there is a large pool of talent that just doesn’t get seen”.
To date, the debate has focused on increasing diversity on stage and of course this is important. Yet, for me, the lack of trained diverse talent coming through is equally, or even more, critical.
Bursaries, scholarships and grants would help remove the financial barriers. I call on everyone – foundations, trusts and individuals – to include diversity, as well as talent, as a key criterion in awarding funding.
I passionately believe theatre is at serious risk of being sidelined and becoming irrelevant if it fails to reflect the diversity of the UK population. And that must include class.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Could drama schools be the issue in the first place? They train actors with little consideration for preparing them for the real world and industry. Additionally, these institutions promote conflicting ideologies and teachings. No wonder graduates turn to another career: drama school might set them off on the wrong path immediately.
If you look at the 2% who do earn more than £20,000, haven’t most of them trained at drama school?
Drama schools can do better, but may not be a cause for leaving the profession. Surely the oversupply of actors is the main reason.
Actors from wealthy backgrounds have an advantage because they can afford to stick at it for longer to establish themselves.
It would be helpful if, when an audit like The Stage’s diversity in leadership study is published, alongside the familiar wringing of hands, potential workable and pragmatic solutions were aired as well.
Lyn Gardner says “progress is glacial”, but cultural change always is. She writes that change needs to be “addressed urgently through access and training schemes”. Fine, but how exactly?
Founder, Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts Learning Group
In the poll ‘What are you most worried about for theatre in 2020?’, fewer than one in 10 of respondents said diversity was the most concerning issue in theatre. Will The Stage stop banging on about it and devote space to more diverse (pun intended) topics ?
Two associated themes from the past year appear to be ill-conceived in hindsight.
The first is the Royal Shakespeare Company ending its sponsorship from BP to appease well-meaning critics of the scheme.
If the sponsor came by its fortune legally and does not seek to interfere with the workings of the good cause it supports, what’s the problem? Until a few years ago, BP’s business model had wide appeal. Only now have its technological advances failed to keep pace with the accelerating eco-aspirations of the modern world. So how can the RSC forgoing valuable financial input influence BP’s business?
If the company’s scientists finally devise the means by which the world need not rely on fossil fuel, will the RSC welcome back its sponsor? In the meantime, if RSC audiences and partners choose not to buy BP products, won’t they simply obtain fuel from another brand?
The second topic is royal patronage. The British royals are near-universally known, but names of people in UK theatre do not carry the same recognition. At an event at our local community theatre for people who do not regularly attend the theatre, I promoted our festive production of an Alan Ayckbourn play. It quickly became apparent that no one I spoke to knew who Ayckbourn was – one of Britain’s most successful playwrights had passed them by. That should not be overly surprising. Theatre names are familiar to those of us who are already interested in theatre, but the royals transcend all divisions – in culture and in commerce.
When it comes to both these issues, shouldn’t theatre aim to reflect the real world and accept that it operates in the real world too?
North Elmham, Norfolk
“For the last few years I’ve started a new habit, particularly when I’m on stage but if I’ve got a big challenging scene on camera I also do the same thing. I say out loud, but sometimes very softly, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ Because I used to give too much of a fuck. And that held me back.” – actor Patrick Stewart (Times)
“Every piece of art I’ve ever made has been a protest. If it’s not in the story on stage, it’s in the story off stage. It’s conscious and unconscious. I look at my more privileged counterparts and wonder how might it feel: to make art for art’s sake and not as a means to survive. Wild.” – Manchester Royal Exchange co-artistic director Roy Alexander Weise (Twitter)
“I would so like our next thing to be a massive flop just to take some of the edge off. The pressure of following a flop is so much nicer than the pressure of following a hit.” – Six writer Toby Marlow (Vogue)
“Something enormous happens, and in the modern world there hasn’t been anything more enormous than the Holocaust, but there have been other events, like 9/11. I mean in the aftermath, in the terrible silence after 9/11, before the noise came back in a different form. And writers start thinking, ‘Well, what is the point of writing stuff any more? What possible relevance could one’s next play or television drama or sitcom or movie have? What the hell difference does it make to anything now?’ Of course, the feeling doesn’t last.” – playwright Tom Stoppard (Sunday Times)
“I genuinely feel that ballerinas become more interesting when they become older. When you watch them, it’s not just a body doing incredible stunts, it’s something in their eyes, how they move their hands. There is so much depth there.” – ballet dancer Marianela Núñez (Observer)
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