TBB Reflects on ‘The Diversity Debate’ Part of the Alfred Fagon Awards Series @ Bush Theatre

The Bush Theatre is an example of good things coming in small packages. More accurately, determined things…

Because this is a theatre that is proud to champion new plays and playwrights from a wide range of backgrounds. It was no surprise then, that in partnership with the Alfred Fagon Awards series, it played host to The Debate on June 23rd 2015.

Administrator & Creative Producer for the Alfred Fagon Award and freelance theatre/events producer, Pauline Walker introduced ex-BBC journalist, actor and playwright Martin Edwards, who chaired the night’s panel. Actor/playwright/teacher/ director/producer and writer Mojisola Adebayo and co-founder of Act For Change, actor/director/producer, and writer Kobna Holdbrook-Smith were joined by artistic director of Spare Tyre Theatre, Arti Prashar. The setting was the preserved part of the library building, which gave the intimate air of an artistic salon.

Edwards invited each participant to introduce themselves and then launched into the first of a series of questions. Perhaps inevitably, it was all about funding, ‘would the live performed arts wither and die through its lack?’
The general consensus was that the Arts would survive. Prashar felt that one of the biggest challenges would be balancing the risk-averse nature of austerity with nurturing trust in the operational creatives to choose worthy work to showcase. Holdbrook-Smith was confident that, as evidenced by the creative output of the 80s, when governments get heavy-handed, more art is produced. When cuts are mandated and the choice is, for example, the NHS vs the Arts, there’s not an awful lot to be done except to respond by using unconventional spaces like warehouses and front rooms. “It is a natural imperative to make and generate art,” he said.

Edwards wanted to know if a case of equal importance had been made for Arts against health. Was there a quantifiable value that could be placed on either, to make one appear as valuable as the other?
Prashar was proud to say that the Arts have accessed funding needs in the past by turning around and complying with government-supported services, working in partnership with, for example, education, health, and social services. Ultimately, it came down to how we choose to answer the question of what kind of society we want – is it one which invests in culture and art?

Adebayo felt that Conservative fundamentally means to conserve and defer change. Thus, the current government practices an ideological aversion to art being made or accessed by the masses, because art is about dialogue, relationships, and questioning. Questioning is change. She agreed with Prashar’s adaptive and Holdbrook-Smith’s responsive artist’s imperatives. Given that young teens won’t be studying drama, dance or music, she was still optimistic about the generated potential of finding creative ways to connect with other sectors, engaging movements such as homelessness, the NHS, and disability, reducing the insularity of some creatives. She told us of a recent theatre production This Might Hurt A Bit, which stirred deeply emotional responses as a play about the NHS, tapping into the audience’s socialist impulse and sense of nostalgia. She felt that revisiting the perception of the Arts, reconsidering the sense of privilege of the theatre, might indeed inspire people to fight for it if it is made relevant. Just like the Health Service.

Edwards declared that any government that came to power would have cut equally deep. Whilst Adebayo felt that an alternative government would not have cut quite so much, Prashar assured us that under Labour, Spare Tyre was made to follow a specific agenda in order to gain funding, which would otherwise have been unavailable – restricting funding to ‘approved’ projects only, ‘cuts’ by any other name.

The audience was invited to comment at this point, making such interesting points as what is the money used to express? Because justification for certain companies and conversations will simply disappear from the Arts Council portfolio and become invisible, irrelevant, unheard. Less, for less people, which is less inclusive*.
As ever, there was the audience member who has been attending similar debates for 30 years, but seeing little change. He felt that the case for the Arts already exists – the money generated and international reputation and acclaim of the national performance and production scene. He agreed that creatives will find a voice… if they have something to say.

“If a message is not communicated,” one audience member asked, “Is it the fault of the listener or the talker? Is a language/lens/frame change needed? Shouldn’t the listener dictate the language?”

Holdbrook-Smith rebutted, “What if they’ve heard it, but they just don’t agree? How many people here would demonstrate to save sport, for example?”

Edwards moved things on with the second question regarding the Home Office vs the Culture Secretary and the push for OffCom to have vetting powers for broadcast programming. Is it censorship and is there a place for it?
Prashar felt it was censorship and there was no place for it. Gagging – being told what to say and how to say it – meant that political and risky works would be ‘discouraged’. Freedom of expression is naturally accompanied by hearing things that are uncomfortable. Holdbrook-Smith agreed, saying that it always starts from a soft approach and concern for safety, but quickly progresses into control of the masses to suppress anti-government sentiment. Adebayo felt that the censors could become just as guilty of extremist behaviour as those they seek to suppress, and named the Daily Mail newspaper as an example. They all felt that defining the contextual meaning of labels was important – extremism in politics, extremism in anti-social behaviour.

Diversity Debate panelists (l-r) Artistic Director of Spare Tyre Theatre, Arti Prashar. Co-founder of Act For Change, actor/director/producer and writer Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Debate chair, former BBC journalist, actor and playwright Martin Edwards. Actor/playwright/teacher/ director/producer and writer Mojisola Adebayo. Host, former Talawa artistic director, writer and producer Pauline Walker.
Diversity Debate panelists (l-r) Artistic Director of Spare Tyre Theatre, Arti Prashar. Co-founder of Act For Change Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Debate chair, actor and playwright Martin Edwards, writer Mojisola Adebayo. Host, Pauline Walker.

Edwards then asked if freedom of expression was an absolute artistic imperative. Holdbrook-Smith felt that to protest censorship but deny freedom of expression was to eventually change places with the oppressor.
Edwards moved on after a brief discussion of Exhibit B, asking about the panel’s impressions of diversity in the sector. Everyone felt it was sub-optimal with a long way to go.

Holdbrook-Smith began by explaining that Act For Change was borne in outrage at ITV’s 2014 trailer in which, of a collection of films, a minute number of women and no people of colour or alternative ability featured. He declared that diversity is not a weird ‘alternative’ state of being. Its lack is abnormal. Making something up and deleting certain aspects to present as reality is simply unacceptable. Act For Change seeks to, “… interrupt the thinking that leads us down the non-diverse pathway,” because it is their belief that only policy can, “… inhibit the natural instinct to exclude certain human beings.”

Prashar felt that the need lay with seeing people of colour leading, then diverse thinking and practice would follow. She is convinced that there are enough numbers with more than enough experience for there to be a shift in that direction. Adebayo was pessimistic. She had attended Goldsmith’s drama as a student and now teaches there. She observed that the race and class distribution had not changed in 20 years – that, generally people in power have had greater access to education and the tools to become successful adults. She lamented the tragedy of seeing a decline in young people’s ability to read, write, speak, make and maintain eye contact, play, and that they seemed to have become more self-obsessed yet more self-hating. She quoted the label “BBC Brown” – mid-upper class black people who tend to occupy positions up the ladder of power. “What about everyone else?” she asked.

Prashar felt that class might be a direction to follow, since it encompasses race, wealth, gender and health (physical and mental) and unites them in poverty. Holdbrook-Smith disagreed, saying that the UK had always sought, “… to paint its class problem in darker shades,” anyway. That class was simply a case of knowing the right people to create opportunities, but the limitations of race are different and more complex.

With that, our time was up, so Edwards asked what parting sentiment each panelist wished to end on.
Adebayo suggested “Each one teach one” and mentorship – championing at least one person you will take with you on your journey through each job. Prashar wanted to lay down a challenge to larger institutions to hand over a season of programming to a BAME collective, sit back and watch the wonders that could result in terms of resourceful, innovative, engaging material. [I really liked this suggestion!]

Perhaps, predictably, Holdbrook-Smith felt that the strategic targeting adopted by Act For Change was the message, because, “Diversity should become normality and, eventually, invisible.”
Edwards then thanked everybody warmly brought the evening to a close, as Walker reappeared to thank everyone again for participating.

I enjoyed the evening, despite having attended (and enjoyed) the 2015 Act for Change Theatre and Diversity discussion event of only a few weeks ago [Read TBB’s Review Here]. Each panelist had spoken eloquently and passionately about their experiences and impressions on the current and future state of the Arts. I found it highly informative. The audience members were incredibly engaged and reflected the panelists in both knowledge and deliberation.
I surprised myself by coming away feeling two things. First: optimism.
Despite the recurring assertions of ’20, 30 years of fruitless debate’ argument I heard at both events, I believe that the time has never been better than now to push, to raise protesting voices above a whisper or a whimper and tell the establishment that the status quo just isn’t good enough. Lenny Henry might have quoted dwindling numbers of BAME creatives in the Arts, but that number, those who have chosen to stay in the UK and speak up, and BAME journalistic media are doing so with increasing confidence. The quality of work that creatives are winning in America and, even occasionally, in the UK, means that it is becoming harder to ignore them.

Consider television alone: Sense8 (Netflix), The Walking Dead (ethnicity overhaul), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Interceptor, Channel 4’s massive support of Empire. The status quo is partially a function of laziness and blinding. It is a basic human trait that until one hears the words that strike a note and resonate or one’s life is touched in some distressing way, the ordinary Joe may not be moved to act, and the plight of others simply doesn’t exist. The affected groups are as guilty as the non-affected due to the power of social conditioning and the basic human need to fit in, of community.

This brings me to my second feeling – that the status quo is, undoubtedly, also a function of enforced choice. That the lack of diversity is simply another face of the censorship question. Holdbrook-Smith referred us to last year’s ITV montage. This year BBC Film celebrated 25 years and, perhaps more distressingly, Film4 also celebrated 30 years of film-making with their own, similar montages of several minutes’ duration. The BBC’s had a single prominent black face – Olivier award-winning/nominated, Oscar-nominated, BAFTA Award-winning, multiple-black-awards-winning Chiwetel Ejiofor. Film4, with 5 extra years of production history, produced 4 prominent faces of colour – global superstar Will Smith and three brown faces who went by so quickly, I couldn’t really identify who they were, but they looked South Asian. They were all men.
I was, therefore, interested to note that it was only the audience member* who had spoken of funding and invisibility who made the connection I was hoping for, by saying that censorship speaks to, “… the wider question of who gets commissioned.” I sat behind him nodding wildly as I took notes.

We know the BAME talent exists in all artistic specialties. We know the BAME work exists in most genres. Yet they remain unseen, edited out, mothballed when the time comes to select what gets a place in the schedule and what doesn’t; pushed to the top of the list of programming broadcast at unsociable hours when ‘no-one’ is watching; subjected to unreliable scheduling to duck and dive any loyal viewers into giving up the chase; left exclusively to the pay channels to showcase. To me, this is the very definition of censorship. Still, though words and definitions were shown to have a place as the Arts fight for mainstream existence, it is the being heard and taking a stand which, I feel, will prove the most effective. I would ask you to join us in keeping the faith and joining the conversation.

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