On Tuesday 2nd June, many of London’s primary theatres and theatre companies – including the National Theatre, the Royal Court, and the Barbican Centre – took to Instagram posting a black square with the caption #blackouttuesday or #theshowmustbepaused.

The original initiators of these hashtags were music executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, Senior Director of Marketing at Atlantic Records. In response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Agyemang and Thomas started the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused to hold the music industry accountable for its treatment of black people while it profits from their art. More information about their mission can be found here.

However, as American writer Roxane Gay argued in a recent Guardian interview, ‘A little Instagram post doesn’t make up for racial disparities in everything else.’ Yes, I believe it is a good thing that British theatres and theatre companies are publicly standing in support of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, but by no means is posting a black square on your Instagram feed enough. Indeed, some theatres are doing more: the Royal Court has made debbie tucker green’s play ear for eye available to read for free until September 2020 (link here) and the Royal Exchange released a virtual reading of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop to support the legal costs of #BlackLivesMatter protestors incarcerated across the world (link here). But the problem is that these responses are only short-term solutions. Racial discrimination of black people within the theatre industry is a longstanding problem, and so, to effectively change things, I believe we need long-term solutions.

The fact is that BME people – a highly contested term that lumps together people that identify as ‘black or minority ethnic’ into an amorphous mass – are still severely underrepresented in the British theatre industry. Arts Council England’s annual diversity report, released in February this year, reveals that the only organisations whose BME staff exceeds 20% of the workforce are Battersea Arts Centre (29%), Lyric Hammersmith Theatre (24%) and Southbank Centre (21%). The only London theatre with an ‘outstanding’ rating is Rich Mix with 39% BME employees. While a number of theatres have publicly taken to social media expressing support for #BlackLivesMatter, then, these statistics show us that theatres have a long way to go before their apparently anti-racist stance is put into practice.

So where should theatres start? The #PullUpOrShutUp movement, a call to action originally initiated in the makeup industry by Sharon Chuter and supported by Theatre Call to Action, makes three suggestions:

  1. Theatres should disclose the percentage of the workforce that has been made up of black employees over the last ten years, including employment in positions of leadership.
  2. Theatres and drama schools should disclose how many black artists are currently on paid commission.
  3. Theatres should disclose information on how they are planning to make their companies safe for black employees.

 Roxane Gay Photograph: Jennifer Silverberg/The Guardian

Alongside these three primary initiatives, #PullUpOrShutUp suggests the establishment of an independent body that deals with complaints, a redistribution of wealth to grassroots community and youth-led organisations and, when ‘traumatic’ plays are programmed, the potential for a portion of ticket sales to be donated to community-led organisations. You can find more information on #PullUpOrShutUp here.

At the moment, however, the focus of #PullUpOrShutUp is in the short-term: it aims to put pressure on the theatre industry to disclose its treatment of black communities for the purpose of inciting them to action. After these short-term revelations that the theatre industry has failed to support black creatives and black communities, the long-term solutions I suggest are:

  1. To open up the conversation. If the theatre becomes a space in which creatives on and off stage are able to honestly discuss issues of race and racial discrimination, it can also become a space in which we are no longer complacent about microaggressions. If theatres only acknowledge race and racism insofar as saying that they are anti-racist institutions or support #BlackLivesMatter, they are not truly interrogating the perpetuation of racism within their companies. In order to extend current affairs beyond a hashtag or passing trend, theatres need to start having uncomfortable conversations and directly confronting the way in which racism operates within their institutions. These conversations need to happen at all levels of theatre – from actors to directors to casting managers.
  2. Sustainable educational funding. In order to make the theatre industry accessible to the next generation of black creatives, theatres need to channel funding into local communities. This involves working with local schools, offering free workshops or classes to black schoolchildren, and offering training to black creatives at the beginning of their careers. Theatres might also be inspired by the Black Ticket Project that offers free theatre tickets to young black people. Until a sustainable source of funding is established to give black creatives an entry point into the world of theatre, it will continue to be dominated by the white middle and upper classes.
  3. Commitment to employing black creatives behind the scenes. While, in recent years, theatres, such as the National Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse, have demonstrated a growing commitment to employing black actors on their stages, this commitment needs to be matched offstage. Only a tiny percentage of the theatre economy is represented by actors; behind the scenes, there is the production team, the creative team, venue staff, funding bodies, and more. Theatres need to ensure that they are not only committed to visibly employing black actors but in employing black creatives in every sector of the theatre economy, especially managerial roles.

These long-term projects will be harder to implement than posting a black square or hashtag on instagram – especially after the impact Covid-19 is having on the theatre industry as a whole. But if the British theatre industry is truly committed to an anti-racist stance, it needs to start interrogating how it has contributed to issues of racial discrimination and start setting in motion a long-term plan for change.


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