If Arts Council England wants to attract more working-class folk towards theatre careers, what better way than to support professional children’s theatre properly and make it possible for all children to experience live theatre, at no or little cost?
Most theatre workers are inspired to enter the profession after having seen theatre performances as children. Give all children the chance to see theatre, debunk the myth of elitism and more will aspire to a theatre career.
Support for the Action for Children’s Arts proposed Arts Backpack would be a good start. This initiative would ensure that all primary school children in the UK can access a minimum of five quality arts encounters per year, including theatre experiences.
President, Action for Children’s Arts
I worked for 20 years in Arts Council England national portfolio organisations before going freelance. The child of immigrant parents, I was the first in my family to go to university. My father had no formal secondary education and my mother, who left school at 14, brought me up on her own after my father died. My grandparents were factory workers and my mother came from a religious minority persecuted by the state for centuries. So according to the Arts Council, I’d tick all the right boxes for its social class metric.
But there’s a problem: I happened to grow up in one of the UK’s wealthiest postcodes. Thanks to a charity, I went to a major public school and I graduated from one of Britain’s top universities. So that makes me properly middle-class, doesn’t it?
People are complex: they might be identified by any or all of their ethnicity, religion, ancestry, educational attainment, family or geographical location. But none of those metrics alone defines who they are. ACE’s proposed snapshot based on parental attainment is just as inaccurate as either interpretation of my background is in isolation.
For decades, arts organisations have tried to compensate for failures in the UK’s social and education systems, often through highly targeted access, outreach and education initiatives, many of which also help mask an overstretched and underfunded education system.
Getting more working-class people into the arts starts with giving everyone equality of opportunity and access by enabling them to develop the skills, confidence and approach they need, irrespective of whether they go to a private or state school, and not what their parents do when they’re 14.
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At last, ACE has shown some concern that perhaps the educated elite has too tight a hold on theatre. And not before time.
Pop groups can leap over this cynically created body to get to the public with their work. Playwrights from the wrong side of the tracks can’t. Few succeed. There is no means test of talent for writers in our theatre.
At least a third of the elite are privately educated. They did not leave school at 13, as I did, and have to educate themselves.
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Your coverage of diversity in theatre leadership is interesting. As a senior manager at a regional producing theatre, I think the elephant in the room – not specifically addressed in Lyn Gardner’s column – is about background, in particular the educational background of senior leaders in the sector. It is not so much a question of the university or conservatoire trained at, but that the top echelon of senior leaders in the sector very often benefited from a private education.
In my experience, the vast majority of staff in the arts are state-school educated, but artistic directors and executive directors are much more likely to have been privately educated. The self-belief and ‘right to rule’ psyche instilled through private education seems to be a very significant factor, because certain ‘faces fit’ the standard expectation of what an AD or ED should look and sound like.
Diversity in The Stage’s study seems primarily about colour/race and secondarily about gender.
Theatre has long been a haven for those on the fringes of society and probably has been for many years. However, it also tends to be dominated by people from white, upper or middle-class backgrounds – and support from ACE and elsewhere seems to subsidise some of the most privileged within our communities.
The most diverse theatres in terms of audience are those of West End producers, companies such as Ambassador Theatre Group and the theatres to which they tour. Most of these productions are unsubsidised and attract ordinary people looking for what Hull Truck describes as a “good night out”.
The problem of how to encourage working-class actors and writers of every hue and nuance of diversity is another key to unlocking the arts including theatre in all its forms for future generations. As in the classroom, if you are not represented by what is delivered, you are most likely to turn elsewhere.
“Actors, please celebrate your successes (it’s not gloating) and mourn your losses (it’s not moaning). Talk about when the job is amazing but also talk about when it’s f***ing gruelling. Be honest, people will love you for it.” – Actor Carrie Hope Fletcher (Twitter)
“In all the different characters I play, they’re all leaves and branches from my core. And I don’t know if my core is vulnerable, but my through line is, oftentimes. And maybe that’s not a good thing, but I can never stretch too far from that.” – Actor George MacKay (Sunday Times)
“Everything we did last year at the Bunker was excellent, but it was also about a social conscience. Everything I do will strive for excellence, but it will always also strive to be a social project in some way.” – Bunker artistic director Chris Sonnex (Twitter)
“Dear blonde b***h with glasses, thanks for distracting the cast and several people around you as you filmed all of act one with your phone in your hand. This is the theatre. Respect it.” – Performer Bianca Del Rio (Twitter)
“I always said I would never do theatre. For me, it was for bourgeois adults. I was making cinema, the art of rascals.” – Director Arnaud Desplechin (Guardian)
“I might need to dip my toe into directing, to see if it’s either for me or not. Because at 50, will the phone stop ringing?” – Actor Richard Armitage (Telegraph)
“The reviews were true. The film is distressingly horny, but no one told me Judi Dench cat would be horny for Ian McKellen cat and I may never recover.” – Author S Jae-Jones (Twitter)
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