CRASHING THE GATES. 5 Provocations on Contemporary British Theatre

1. If Theatre is the Mirror of Society, Who is Being Reflected?

Theatre has proved a conservative medium, perhaps the most conservative when it comes to the representation of a shared reality within the fiction of a play. In Britain, theatre – and especially New Writing – is anchored to an extremely established tradition of realism. The representation of reality on the stage is a powerful instrument of social analysis, which allows communities and audiences to confront themselves almost without filters. Often, the quality of a new play, or production, is measured by how “true” and “believable” its characters are, and whether the plot and setting at the heart of the play are “plausible” and “truthful.”

There’s nothing wrong with this system of values, of course, or with naturalistic theatre itself. My point, however, is a political one.

The fictional representation of reality isn’t ever objective, and the perspective through which reality is observed and depicted is influenced by power dynamics that underlie the object of representation. Moreover, the perceived audience and perceived system of shared values determines a polarization between dominant and alternative narratives. We are awash with plays representing the working class, the migrant community, the asylum seekers, the outcasts, the ghettos, the marginalized. These plays are often written, directed, produced and reviewed by people who have had very little contact with these realities. This is not necessarily the problem. The real issue is that these plays are produced for the benefit and consumption of audiences that are perceived to share a similar system of values and frame of reference with its producers. Accordingly, these plays re-enforce dominant narratives that appeal to that community, rather than offering thought-provoking exceptions that question its beliefs.

And what’s worse? These plays are often lazy and superficial in asking questions and confronting complex realities, and instead, favour a self-fulfilling emotional catharsis, which begins and ends within the world of the play.

It is no wonder that these plays tend to attract a relatively mono-cultural audience, for they affirm an interpretation of the world that is most familiar to that audience. And this doesn’t only apply to white middle class audiences: years of targeted funding to boost and develop so-called “alternative” voices has produced many other spaces in which the same dynamic exists, only within a different context. In fact, the result is a sort of “divide et impera,” where diversity is celebrated, but is never truly embraced, and is never truly empowering.

As the Nobel Prize-winning playwright from the West Indies, Derek Walcott, said about the experiences of Carnival and traditional ethnic folklore being absorbed and celebrated by the dominant culture, “these popular artists are trapped in the state’s concept of the folk form, for they preserve the colonial demeanour and threaten nothing.” A few decades later, the same notion can sadly be applied to a number of productions and companies that specialize in portraying images of ethnic minorities that comply with the standards dictated by mainstream clichés and narratives.

As artists, programmers, and policy makers who carry complementary perspectives, our challenge is to find and to instigate work that is able to break that vicious circle of “audiences getting what they are told they want,” and instead to create spaces for more structural debate about how work is commissioned and who that work is really for. We need not serve a pre-conceived idea of existing audiences – which follows marketing categorization to the letter – but must diversify, create, nurture, and foster exchange between our audiences and communities. And we have to achieve this first of all by representing on our stages not only a snapshot – taken from afar – of what things look like outside our doorsteps, but by empowering artists and communities to experiment with different ideas through their art. In other words, we must imagine, provoke, debate, and incite change. We need to forge a generation of artists and audiences that escapes any imposed definition of insularity or alternative to the main stream, representing instead a wider and more fluid cultural experience, without ever apologizing for the spaces they reclaim.

2. Quality vs. Quantity

In order to make my next point, I need to offer some statistical figures. This data is open to everyone – it is public domain; yet rarely has it’s reading and interpretation sparked relevant debate from the perspective of cultural complementarities.

In the UK, subsidised theatre is funded by the Arts Council, which receives its budget directly from DCMS, in addition to a – growing – percentage from the National Lottery Trust Fund. British cultural organisations have learned, through the years, to thrive by adopting business models that aim at a balance between subsidy, generated income, and in-house fundraising. In the current climate and under the last government, we’ve seen cuts to public investment, which resulted in more pressure on organisations to fill the gap by being more conscious of spending and raising more money through alternative streams of income. While the decrease of public investment in culture is always something we should counter as a sector, the crisis has forced us all to look at each other and ask: Who should be cut? Who isn’t essential? And why?

It is clear that the current government has valued more organisations that are elite outlets for culture – the vast majority of which are concentrated in London – and left those on the periphery to deal with contractions in funding that massively affect the diversity of output. On a cultural level, this translated into both a contraction in plurality, but even more importantly, an amplification of the differences in impact between those organisations on the top and bottom of the pyramid. The primary cultural outlets – National Theatre, RSC, Royal Opera House, ENO, etc. – are strategically asked to bear the weight of leading the country through these “hard times,” and they are increasingly marketed as the temples of contemporary British culture and creativity. Again, this is not the surprising or deceiving point in the argument. The sobering figures come from two particular elements of a report on the top 100 subsidised organisations in the UK. The first figure concerns the percentage of BME1-led organisations in relation to the percentage of grants allocated. The average grant allocated to BME-led organisation is half of the typical RFO2. This mean that BME CEOs are generally running companies with smaller budgets and are more vulnerable to cuts across the board. Secondly, in a system with a budget of around 100M for subsidised theatre, the top 10 organisations get 50% of that money, leaving the other 169 sharing the remainder. More importantly, while BME make up 25% of the CEOs of these companies, not a single one is at the helm of the top 10. Nor the top 25. In fact, Madani Younis (in 2011) and Indu Rhubasingham (in 2012) – at 56 and 57, respectively – became the first non-white British artistic directors of major London theatres. From these figures, I infer that, while for more than 20 years there have been huge investments in creating opportunities at the bottom of the ladder for BME artists and organisations, the top attic is still a closed shop for a mono-cultural leading class. Further, until we see a change in this pattern, it will be impossible to consider how the newest generations of British men and women with mixed or foreign heritage could be motivated or empowered to succeed in theatre as they have been in other fields – like science and finance, and even in music and literature.

It is not enough to have healthy numbers that display the commitment of public funding bodies to diversity in the arts; we need to change the gatekeepers in order for different perspectives to have recognition at all levels. The boards of RFOs need to be more diverse and must address with greater rigour the plurality of their composition, if they don’t want to become even more detached from the changing landscape outside their meeting rooms.

  1. The abbreviation BME refers to Black and Minority Ethnic. []
  2. The abbreviation RFO refers to Regularly Funded Organisations. []