17th July 2017 was sort of like A-Level results day for the Arts Community in the UK. Our Arts Council released it's latest batch of longer term funding for arts companies and venues and for the first time I can remember, people seemed, well, alright about it. There wasn’t the usual soap box responses and hushed conversations at the back of over priced conferences. Most people I know generally seeming pretty happy about the shift towards regional funding and support for more diverse companies at the (fairly tiny) expense of the bigger London based venues.
Done. We shall have a more diverse inclusve arts landscape from this day onwards.
Well, not quite.
Last month, I saw two very different plays – Barbershop Chronicles by Inua Ellams at the NT and Persuasion by James Jeff at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Each featured diversity on stage and contemporary techniques in playmaking. One ended in a standing ovation, the other with an audience shuffling silently towards the exits like a huddle of bemused penguins. It left me wondering – why does one piece work and another, not?
This is the bread and butter question of the arts sector, and the one which keeps theatre makers making theatre against high levels of competition and low levels of income. In this instance, the answer felt clear; the audience. Well, more specifically, who the playmakers were making their play for. Persuasion featured a multicultural cast, contemporary music and a new translation, offering something that should have been warmly applauded. The setup gave the opportunity to shine fresh light on our society through the prism of a well-known fable. And hey, isn’t that just the fashion these days – Simon Stone’s Wild Duck, Rob Icke’s Oresteia and Yael Farber’s Crucible all did it pretty damn well. Yet, up in Manchester at Jeff James’ production, this multicultural cast and a commission for a new script were channeled through a white, male director, playing to a largely white audience. So in truth, no change. No new diet for this reliable theatre crowd.
Rather than compare the artists or venues, it could be a matter of taste. Plays and stories are subjective; I like, you don’t….and so on. But this audience didn’t even seem to like it. Which then makes the whole thing feel like a bit of a waste, for a production which likely cost more than most projects I work on, in staging alone. A formula of ‘classic text + multicultural actors doesn’t always = good. What could have been a smart social commentary became a sort of Eastenders does Jane Austen. With the likes of Austentatious (improvised Austen-themed comedy by a largely, all white gang) already nailing that work really well, this retelling seemed to have nothing new to say. That, coupled with no significant or intrinsic relevance to the multicultural cast, meant most of us itched to get to the exits and un-mute our iPhones.
Barbershop Chronicles seemed fully connected to its audience. In fact, it’s two audiences – firstly, it spoke to those born of African heritage with ties to the UK, and secondly, to those of us who have never been on that journey, and who may just want to know a bit more. Inua Ellams took in-jokes, daily observations and ‘familiar faces’ to tell a story which leveled the playing field on complex conversations around slavery, what it means to be African, British and everything in between. No one in the play, or audience, owned his story. It was bigger than Inua, any central character and any of us.
Why am I interested in exploring this distinction? It’s genuinely not to punish theatres – all commissioning theatres have hits and flops. Just like football teams (so im told…). In co-running MUJU, a Muslim Jewish Theatre company, for more than 6 years, we made work which brought Muslims and Jews together. And most of the time, it worked. Audiences who would never normally share a space (or maybe even go to the theatre) laughed side by side. Participants embarked on devised theatre processes which involved creating a shared narrative of ideas. Yet, the work wasn’t always able to bridge the gap and engage audiences outside of those two cultural groups. For a host of possible reasons; maybe the marketing wasn’t right, maybe the quality of work wasn’t there. Figuring out how to do this well remains a challenge for work focused on identity or cultural narrative, and commissioners need to find the space for mistakes to happen, before pieces hit the main stages. From the MUJU gang, Josh Azouz and Alia Bano best achieved it with Mikvah Project at The Yard and Shades at the Royal Court. Well-crafted stories of faith in urban settings were made for audiences reflected both on the stage, and those beyond it. And that is what we need to see more of.
If theatre is to move beyond a constant homage to the white, well-spoken upper echelons, we can (and must) continue to cast colour blind. However, we can’t use casting to hide what is still colourlessly white thinking, under a pretense of offering something new. Persuasion is trying to update a classic work by injecting a ‘modern’ twist. And y’know, its intention may well have been to genuinely say something. But if so, I couldn’t hear it. Updating our cherished old works isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it just feels, sometimes, a little bit lazy. Barbershop Chronicles had purpose, it had style. It knew what it was trying to say and who it wanted in the room to say it to. If the Arts are to flourish and future generations are to buy their tickets, dynamic venues now have the mandate to commission work which is modern, diverse, relevant and of quality. With many central London theatres showing unwavering dedication to supporting white male auteurs, there will always be Austin’s.
What many of us want is more Inua’s.