Act for Change 2015: Theatre and Diversity @ The National Theatre. A TBB Overview…

Danny Lee Wynter leading the Act For Change Theatre & diversity discussion @ The National Theatre, June 2015 Photography by Helen Murray
Danny Lee Wynter leading the Act For Change Theatre & diversity discussion @
The National Theatre, June 2015
Photography by Helen Murray

Actor, campaigner and founder Danny Lee Wynter booked the Oliver Theatre at the National, confident that creatives would lend their voices to the desperate need for change within the live and recorded arts. The Olivier seats 1160 people. On June 2nd, there was a close to capacity audience anxious to shine a light on the subject of theatre and diversity.

Madame TBB and I took our places, as Wynter welcomed us and gave an outline of the agenda. Four actors then gave verbatim readings of testimonials written by present-day creatives outlining, in visceral first-person accounts, some of the reasons Act for Change was born…There was the actress who was accused of being overly sensitive, without humour and rewarded with a bad reputation on an acting job, when she suggested to a German actress that the characterisation of her ancestral tongue, given without invitation, wasn’t funny. “Your language… it’s like stones in a can chucked down a hill – ting, ting, tong, ting…” She was not expected to take it ‘personally’ and could not expect any sackings over the incident [Actually, she should!]

“It’s not for the white person to decide where the line is… what’s offensive…” she said.

There was the actor, up for a soldier’s role in a Shakespeare production, told to, “drop the camp…” that they were looking for, “… real people who had been through war… who had to fight for what they have…”
There was the actor who, though still experiencing seizures, chose to manage them without meds. Working life was made impossible as employers insisted on a carer being present at all times – at the actor’s expense. There was the director who was invited to lots of meetings, having written to various artistic directors on the headed notepaper of the prestigious theatre he was training at. Where he miraculously became invisible whilst waiting to go into a meeting with an Associate Director, “… he came out, looked around and went back into his office,” though he was the only person waiting the AD’s eyes had passed over him, he was not ‘seen’. The meeting did not go well – not surprising, when it started with the words, “You’re a black director…”

Packed Auditorium @ The National Theatre, Act for Change debate. Photography by Helen Murray
Packed Auditorium @ The National Theatre, Act for Change debate.
Photography by Helen Murray

Then, there was the agent who was constantly threatened with exclusion and from whom an apology was indignantly demanded for constantly putting diverse actors up for… ‘roles’. Thus, with a collective breath, the transfixed audience understood what the next two hours were going to be about.

Wynter introduced actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith who was tasked with interviewing new National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris. An intensely uncomfortable quarter hour ensued. Holdbrook-Smith was quietly confident, graciously assertive, but he was a man on a mission, taking absolutely no prisoners and determined to have answers to his questions like, where is the accountability and transparency in institutions like the National when initiatives like the 2014 push for disabled actors seems just to have fizzled out?

Now herein, maybe, possibly, just sayin’, is where discussions like this stall. Norris’ immediate rebuttal was that that particular initiative had not, in fact, ‘fizzled out’ – in my mind, a basic and fundamental disagreement of what is or is not happening. So, who do we believe? The creative who makes an observation based on visibility/experience, or the insider who should have the inside track? Well….
Norris passionately stated that the NT’s policy was to reflect the UK. In terms of gender, that means 50:50 BAME, 15% disability… although he had no figures, except to say they were interesting and qualified it with saying that all figures would be published on the website come the autumn, or available to anyone who wished to inquire. He would also later admit that his personal track record in disability casting was terrible, but, it was being addressed.
Holdbrook-Smith maintained a line of questioning wholly in keeping with the event: BAME percentage of onstage talent, backstage talent, the NT board; anyone of diverse background with the power to green light a project or be positioned to have the ear of those with the power; what action might be taken if a director refuses to see diverse talent for their persistent ‘Northern European’ vision of certain characters; the role of quotas.

Unfortunately, Norris came across with supreme discomfort and sub-par preparation. 2014, he said, had 33% BAME

Actress Dona Croll reading a verbatim account on experiencaes of prejudice in the Theatre @ Act For Change Theatre & diversity discussion @ The National Theatre, June 2015 Photography by Helen Murray
Actress Dona Croll reading a verbatim account on experiencaes of prejudice in the Theatre
@ Act For Change Theatre & diversity discussion @
The National Theatre, June 2015
Photography by Helen Murray

onstage (but a more realistic target would be 20%); backstage tech and stage management was ‘harder’, but they had managed 15%; 2 of 16 board members were BAME and one is in the process of leaving; only he could green light a project; and basically, no, there were no people from diverse backgrounds with his ear. Norris asked Holdbrook-Smith what he, himself, thought of quotas, to which HB-S answered, without hesitation, that he was for them. Norris stammered that there were legal issues of which he was not personally informed affecting the imposition of quotas. And, besides, should he? He also raised the question of ‘quality’ and maintenance of ‘excellence’, which ALWAYS seem to creep into any discussion about the quota system.

Can I just say once, and with feeling, that when WE talk of imposing quotas, WE assume they will be implemented with intelligence, based on the quality of the diverse talent that should be in the room. Lazy, uninformed execution of any process kills the goal, maims the people it’s suppose to benefit and sows distrust between advocators and opponents. So, let’s please not have to qualify that again.

With that, the interview ended amicably and Wynton introduced Shami Chakrabarty of Liberty, reprising her chairing role for the discussion. She introduced the panel: actor Adrian Lester, director Phyllida Lloyd, writer-actor Cush Jumbo, journalist-broadcaster- author Mark Lawson, director Jenny Sealey of Graeae Theatre Company and later, Shadow Culture Secretary Chris Bryant MP. The questions put to them and the audience were;

“Is theatre being led by a wealthy elite?” and “Do audiences really care about diversity?”

Lloyd said that there was no conspiracy to keep people off the stage, “It’s just that the middle-aged white men don’t miss us if we’re not there.” Later, in acknowledging the dominance of the classical repertoire, she advocated approaching old plays in new ways as she had done at the Donmar.

Lawson stressed that theatre is far ahead of TV and told the story of actor Michael Gambon looking forward to playing Othello in the NTs 2013 production but pulled out after having a conversation about ‘blacking up’ subsequently Adrian Lester took on the role giving an award-nominated, universally acclaimed performance. Lawson said that British audiences like seeing costume dramas, making it difficult to push through anything with more diverse content. He, of course, forgot (as later pointed out by Lester), that Elizabeth I commented on the number of Blackamoors in the UK, that the diverse had been populating Britain for centuries and, as such, will have been around during the era’s popular costume dramas are set.

Lawson then expressed his opposition to blind casting; that directors should retain the artistic freedom to decide that a play about a power struggle between 3 white men should be cast as such. This he said after hearing the earlier verbatim testimonial of the agent and after hearing Holdbrook-Smith categorically say earlier that he knew of a director whose personal work ethic in casting for, say, Checkov, was simply NOT to see actors unless of (presumably able-bodied) Northern European appearance. Jumbo interjected that if what Lawson said was the case, different stories needed to be made, because there are lots of stories to be told. My thoughts immediately turned to the recorded history of black achievers, as outlined in part 2 of the TBB series Optical Illusions [read here]

Actor, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith & Director of National Theatre, Rufus Norris Theatre & diversity discussion @ The National Theatre, June 2015 Photography by Helen Murray
Actor, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith & Director of National Theatre, Rufus Norris
Theatre & diversity discussion
@ The National Theatre, June 2015
Photography by Helen Murray

“There are so many overlooked achievements that cannot fit into a stereotyped role. Still, black characterisations seem firmly fixed and fairly negative in the dramedy genres and reinforced by mainstream measures of excellence.
This is despite at least 100 indispensible inventions attributed to black ingenuity (including the elevator, air conditioning unit, gas mask, cell phone, typewriter, refrigerator and fountain pen from as early as the 1830s. [See]. 

“Despite recognised doctors since 1800, pioneers of scientific and medical techniques in the last two centuries and recognised nurses since the American Civil War (first registered nurse in 1879) this is in addition to achievements in non-boxing sport (including tennis, baseball, football, winter sport, swimming and coaching), the Law, Government administration and literature… and I really can’t bear yet another ‘black soldier with attitude’, which utterly belies the historical military honours and distinctions earned by many men and women in all military arenas since the US Civil War.

“It is, therefore, not unreasonable to expect to see a black family doctor in an 1800s town, a black hospital doctor in a 1900s city, a mad, black inventor (à la Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) or a bohemian poet seeking a patron. It is also not unreasonable to look to other film making genres and make comparisons. Considering the rich contributions that black scientists, inventors and writers have made to science, it seems only fitting to look to the fantasy and science fiction genres. For there, surely, progress has been made…?”

Jumbo also recalled sitting proudly in the audience at the Olivier Awards and suddenly realising that she was one of a very small number of non-white guests. It occurred to her that, despite this NOT reflecting the industry, this is what was being broadcast to the country, to the world, as ‘the truth’.
Lester qualified this by saying that the less you show people what the world is like, the more they grow up in a fantasy of what they believe the world is like and they work within the boundaries of that fantasy. He was educated by his 14 year old daughter who insisted that Hobbits were, in fact, largely black. She proved it by showing him in a copy of Lord of The Rings that by far the most common had darker skin and curly hair, including possibly Sam Gamgee… Yet this was never reflected in any of the LoTR or Hobbit movies – a fantasy series! Whilst Lester felt that the wealthy elitism was improving here (as opposed to on Broadway, NYC), he advised caution in the face of the coming funding restrictions.

Sealey was a little tired of the same conversation across 18 years and 37 similar panels, when in 2015, it is still incredibly hard for a deaf creative to gain admission to drama school. She then drew a collective gasp of disbelief on relating one unforgettable comment made to her, “Darling, people don’t come to the theatre to be reminded of the tragedy of being disabled!” Chakrabarty couldn’t help but interject with, “Because, of course, tragedy has no place in the theatre..!” Sealey later enthused that the theatre is the most glorious way to smash boundaries and perceptions and be a bit naughty, not boring.

panel_act_for_changeI didn’t particularly feel this was a place for politicians and their contribution did nothing to change my mind. Bryant had nothing of relevance to say at this point, except to say, incredibly, that maybe he could now audition for Othello or other Shakespeare plays! Maybe he hadn’t heard the story of Gambon and Lester… Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey was in the audience and later made the astonishing admission of only becoming aware of the diversity debate after seeing Lenny Henry in the NT’s A Comedy of Errors and learning of his campaign. In 2012! Yes, the Minister of Culture for Britain, representing the party just voted into government by everyone except London, N. Ireland, Scotland and Wales, may be of the impression that these issues are less than 3 years old…

Chakrabarty then opened up the discussion to the audience and the rest of the programme was a mixture of good points admirably made, and ranting. I suppose that speaks to the still-smarting experiences of many creatives. The main thrust was that it is not just a top-down change that is needed, but one of general re-education and of drama school admissions and teaching ethos. Again, I was reminded of the TBB interview with actor Cathy Tyson who was appearing in the play Stand“… Tyson really isn’t complacent. She is interested in BAME theatre and roles for women. She recently completed a degree in English and Drama, and the night we met her at the BAC, she had a little post-performance salon with six young artists from East 15 Acting School (Essex). They were just under 50% of the Culture Collective – a fledgling company with the aims of exploring so-called ‘minority’ theatre in response to the ethnic students still scoring only the roles of maids and servants and the fact that African, Caribbean, Asian, Latin theatre are simply ignored in their acting school. They have also managed to conduct some highly relevant research which Tyson was incredibly interested to get into the right hands. They are a bunch of bright, bold women (and a lovely Brazilian man), who took inspiration from the play…” [Read full interview].

Still, it was a stimulating event which I am glad I, for one, did not miss. The best moment for us was when, in conclusion, Adrian Lester felt it was important to leave the discussion with some positives, despite there still being a long way to go and a lot of work to do. ‘There is much evidence of change right here in London’, he said, and then named The British Blacklist as an example. We couldn’t help but raise our hands and give that a ‘whoop, whoop’. We hope you agree and that you feel moved to get involved.

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