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Jo Caird: How Do We Make Theatre More Diverse?

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In my recent blog post on playwriting I made the point that efforts need to be made to increase social and ethnic diversity in new writing, particularly in the current climate of serious cuts to arts funding. Of course, this is equally the case when it comes to the theatre industry generally, which is still dominated by middle-class white people, from acting to lighting design to administration.

One of the sectors playing a fundamental role in broadening theatre’s social and ethnic makeup is youth theatre, which is unique in its capacity to bring the performing arts to excluded and self-excluded young people. By working at grassroots level, engaging with local community and support services and operating at locations other than traditional theatre spaces, youth theatre has the power to reach those from minority ethnic or socially disadvantaged backgrounds who feel that theatre is not for them.

The trouble is that not enough is being done, even within a sector with the very best of intentions in this area. Last year the National Association of Youth Theatres (NAYT) published a document called Inclusive Youth Theatre as part of a self-assessment toolkit for youth theatres. The report’s author found that while 69% of the youth theatres surveyed work with more than one ethnic group, 31% only had members from one ethnic group and only 39% of those surveyed had active strategies for widening participation for under-represented minorities. Moreover, although the general mood among the NAYT’s members was one of openness towards traditionally excluded groups, in many youth theatres, when it came to access, staff training for those working with particular individuals – those with previous involvement in the criminal justice system say – or recruitment policies, provision was often inadequate. As the report put it, “ensuring your doors are metaphorically open is not enough”.

That said, Jill Adamson, NAYT’s chief executive, is largely positive about the way things have been going in terms of inclusion in British youth theatre. Unfortunately, however, the hundreds of groups her organisation works with may soon have to address these issues without the NAYT’s support and advice, as it has sustained a 100% cut to its ACE funding which may see it shut down altogether after March 2012.

Once you’ve succeeded in getting young people from under-represented groups involved and interested in theatre, however, there are still plenty of challenges to overcome before you start seeing an effect on diversity in the industry. Routes into the various theatrical professions aren’t easily accessible by those with limited qualifications, and drama school may appear an impossible option for those of poor financial means, given not just the skyrocketing fees, but also the necessary expense of visits for auditions. Adamson would like to see an increase in vocational opportunities such as work experience placements, while Stuart Mullins, creative director of Theatre Is…, which works with young people in the East of England, believes that drama schools and universities need to take a more active role in reaching out to under-represented groups.

There’s much to be said for vocational training, but this is extremely tricky territory to navigate, given the pernicious effects that internship culture exerts on diversity in the creative industries. We have a situation at the moment where only a tiny minority of young people (those who can rely on support from their parents while they work for nothing) are able to take up the work placements offered by theatres and related organisations, while actors working in the fringe sector are paid little or nothing because fringe theatres are under no obligation to follow Equity’s minimum wage guidelines. It’s all well and good aiming to inspire young people from under-represented communities to get involved in theatre, but if they can’t afford to take up the sorts of opportunities available to better off, better supported individuals, all that effort early on will just go to waste.


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