Not Good Enough: Diversity and the Arts

The Huntington | "Boleros for the Disenchanted"
The Huntington | Boleros for the Disenchanted

By Alex Chisholm for Exeunt Magazine, cross-posted with permission

So I said I would write something about “diversity.” It is a topic I’m interested in, connected to in various ways. In particular, at the moment I am dramaturg on a production of Boi Boi is Dead by Zodwa Nyoni, produced by Tiata Fahodzi, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Watford Palace Theater. There has been a bit more public debate about diversity than usual, generated by the Creative Case conference, recent “white-out” at the BAFTAs, Benedict Cumberbatch’s small scandal, and awareness in the wider world of growing inequalities. It seemed like a good moment to look at what we mean by diversity and where we, as an arts sector, are at with it.

And being the good little nerd that I am, I went off to do some reading and research on the topic. Andrew Mowlah at the Arts Council sent me in the direction of the Consilium Research Review of Equality and Diversity within the arts and cultural sector in England. I urge you to get a copy and read it. It has things like this:

  • Of an arts workforce of 394,500 in England, 93% is white, 1% mixed, 3% Asian / British Asian, 1% Black / Black British, <1% Chinese, and 1% other. However, during the same period 70.4% of Black and Minority Ethnic people participated in the arts at least once per year. They were statistically more likely to use a public library or access arts online.
  • That across arts forms 1.6% of artistic staff are disabled. 15% of working-age adults have a disability.
  • And this gem on page 70, point 13.13: “Bennett et al (2009) highlight the rise of upper socio-economic groups ‘as chief beneficiaries of, and as main agents in, the reproduction and cultural dominance’ through a form of self-exclusion and self-interested consumption which, according to the author, has seen people from lower socio-economic groups marginalized in line with greater income inequality across society.”

There’s a lot, lot more where this came from.

This isn’t anything that we didn’t already know. But somehow seeing it laid out as cold, hard statistics, even given gaps in the research and evidence base, makes it hit harder.

OK, let’s track back a bit towards what I’m supposed to be talking about. Boi Boi is Dead started life in a writers’ attachment scheme I set up in 2010. I read it, liked it, gave Zodwa some notes on it. She continued to work on it while doing her MA in Writing for Performance at Leeds University. And it was sitting there not going anywhere fast.

Then, at the end of 2013, I submitted it and Zodwa for the Channel 4 Playwrights in Residence scheme. And we got invited to interview (for those who haven’t been through this, it is A BIG THING. Lots apply, few are chosen). The panel was full of VERY IMPORTANT THEATRE PEOPLE like Richard Eyre and Catherine Johnson. One of the panelists, Indhu Rubasingham, offered space at her theater, The Tricycle, to do a reading. Lucian Msamati, then-Artistic Director of Tiata Fahodzi, was invited to direct the reading. Many other people have played important roles in realising this production, most notably James Brining at West Yorkshire Playhouse and Brigid Larmour at Waterford Palace. But I believe that crucially it was Indhu and Lucian’s belief and desire to see this play happen that brought it into being, and that they were in positions of power to do so.

Let’s talk about the play itself. Boi Boi is Dead is a family drama. It is about what happens when the man at the centre of a complex, “blended” family dies and the grief, secrets, and lies that start to come out. It’s about being an adult and confronting the choices you’ve made in life. It’s about being a child becoming an adult and wondering about the mess the grown-ups have made. Though it is set in Zimbabwe, it is not about Zimbabwe; it is about being human.

Zodwa has written better and more movingly than I ever could about her background and identity. It is in her “Come to Where I’m From” piece for Paines Plough, which I hope will be available from their website one day. What she is not is a genre. She is a writer. She is not a “Black Female” writer any more than Simon Stephens or Mike Bartlett are “White Male” writers. Of course they are, but if they wrote nothing but white, male-centred plays from now unto the crack of doom (they don’t, I know), that would not be seen as “White” theater, just as “theatre.” This play happens to be centred on a Zimbabwean family, it happens to be female-led. But it is still just theatre.

Back to the outrage. Why? Why are there still such vanishingly small numbers of Black, Asian, East Asian people in our arts workforce? Why are only 1% of Arts Council NPOs disabled-led, and a greater proportion of disabled-led funding applications deemed ineligible? Why, when women make up the majority of the population, and a much larger majority of theatre audiences and participants, are we still the minority of actors, directors, writers being employed? What is the problem?

What isn’t the problem is the supply side. There is no shortage in supply of talented, intelligent, ambitious, capable people who are Black, Asian, Chinese, mixed, disabled, gay, lesbian, trans, and all manner of intersectionalities between these groups. There is certainly no shortage of capable women (have I mentioned they’re the majority?). The problem is with the demand, with the system, with the mainstream. With people like me.

OK, deep breath. I am a white, upper-middle-class, privately Oxbridge educated, non-disabled arts worker (female, but that doesn’t let me off the hook). There are a lot of people like me in the arts. Hell, there are a lot of people I went to university with currently running different bits of British theatre (and Britain, but that’s for another day). This kind of discussion tends to make people like me start feeling uncomfortable, but stick with me, please.

Yes, people like me aren’t necessarily responsible for the racism, disabilism, sexism, classism, homophobia, or Islamophobia of the world (though some are). But we are part of the problem. Or rather, it is our problem. If there aren’t numbers of “diverse” (for want of a better word — of course people aren’t diverse in the sense of “other,” they’re just people) artists making productions, taking leading roles, leading and working in companies, and engaged with the arts, then it is our failure. We are part of a system that keeps people out.

In my work, I have not infrequently been the only white person in the room. It happened during the workshops for Boi Boi is Dead. But the point is that I am never the only white person in the room. Because that room, that space, the whole context of the society and the production has been created and controlled by people like me. And it is incumbent on me to remember that and often just shut the eff up to leave the space for others. Not that we can’t get past that and just be people making work in the room together. But I do have to remember the context in which we operate and remember my perspective isn’t the only, nor necessarily the right, one.

As I am writing this, I am aware that things are in certain places, in certain ways, getting better. Fun Palaces, created by the inspirational Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings, has been a model of “radical engagement”; creating arts with and within communities that start from the creativity in everyone. There are radical projects such as Eclipse’s Revolution Mix, which will promote and produce a number of Black writers, creating a critical mass of talent and blowing apart the myths of Black British experience. Tara Arts and partners are producing Black Theatre Live for small- to mid-scale, taking it to places that usually Black-led work doesn’t reach. The BBC and Channel 4 have put out pledges to diversify their workforce. Following on from Tonic Theatre’s ground-breaking research into women in theatre, large-scale and forward-looking theatres such as Sheffield are aiming to have half of their acting company female. And I’m currently working with a consortium of large-scale producing theatres that are aiming to do for integrated and disabled-led theatre what Eclipse has done for Black-led. Demand enables supply.

But it isn’t good enough yet. This debate is often framed as us against them. But barring a revolution (where I’m one of the first up against the wall), then it has to be all of us working together to solve this. Yes, of course, it is people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds who should be leading and shaping change. Otherwise we will just get more of the same, with a few different faces who can be made to fit. But it is everyone’s responsibility to make real change happen, especially those of us who enjoy the privileges of being white, middle-class, non-disabled, straight, and so on. If we are not actively part of the solution, then we become actively part of the problem.

So it has to be all of us, not just the “diverse” communities, who say “This is not good enough.”

Not good enough when an able-bodied actor takes a disabled role. Not good enough when there are more Oxbridge-educated artistic directors than Black ones. Not good enough when anyone feels unable to participate in, enjoy, or work in the arts because they can’t afford it or feel it isn’t for them. That we all pledge to do whatever we can, whatever is in our power, to improve things.

What am I going to do? Well, carry on getting Zodwa’s work on, and other new artists’ from all backgrounds. Supporting routes into the profession for people who don’t necessarily have the money or the contacts or the opportunities. So that they are the people to run things in this country.

And if we achieve proportional parity — if 14.6% of the arts production and workforce is Black and Minority Ethnic, 10 million disabled people in this country recognise themselves in 16% of TV, film, radio, theatre production — is that good enough? No, because this should be about realising the fullest extent of human potential. That isn’t done through just getting to the right statistic, as important as that is. It isn’t enough till everyone is engaged in the arts, as fully as they want to be. It’s not enough until there are people of all forms of bodies, minds, cultures and backgrounds, taking leading roles in front of and behind stage and screen. So that we have all the stories, forms, crafts experiences created, celebrated, and valued equally. That Black, Asian, East Asian, deaf, disabled, female-led, whatever arts isn’t diverse. It is just the norm.

And if we fail? Well, we will fail, at least to begin with. That’s what we do in the arts. We fail all the time. The show isn’t as good as we want it to be. Not as many people came. It lost money. We get up, we try again, we do it better. But that isn’t failing, really. Only giving up is failing. And in any case, isn’t it better to “fail” in the pursuit of a better, more equal world than to “succeed” in propping up an unjust one?

Alex Chisholm is a freelance director in dramaturg. She was Literary Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse from December 2001 and Associate Director January 2006 to July 2014. She has written the children’s play The Magic Paintbrush for three- to seven-year-olds, produced at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2005, and translated two plays, Suckling (Zog) by Peer Wittenbols and Karaoke by Davor Spisic. She lives in Leeds with her husband and three children.