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Quotas and gestures militate against excellence

An actor is someone who, among other things, pretends to be someone else in a play or film. Agreed? And just to stress the “pretends” bit, we don’t expect the actor playing Macbeth to be a tyrannical, serial murderer in real life or the one cast as Mrs Malaprop to be an actual word mangler do we? Equally we don’t object when we see Ian McKellen or Simon Russell Beale, both gay men, playing doting fathers with wives and children. We didn’t have a problem with Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night at the Globe either. It’s called acting.

I was therefore a bit exasperated last week to see Richard E Grant siding with the campaigners who argue that characters from BAME, LBGQT or with disability should be played only by actors from those backgrounds.

These people – for whom I have the greatest respect and many of them are very fine actors – are by definition MINORITIES. We even refer to them as that. Therefore if you narrow down your casting options in this way the pool you choose from will be smaller – obviously. And that means that you might not be getting the best possible person for the job. This is so blindingly obvious to me that I can hardly believe I’m having to write it.

I have yet to meet anyone from any sort of minority background who wants to be cast to meet quotas or provide feel-good for people who simply can’t have thought this through. All actors and other performers want to be hired only for their ability to do that specific job better than anyone else.

What the industry has to do is somehow to encourage people from a wide range of backgrounds to audition so that there’s the widest possible field to choose from but it should never shackle itself by declaring, for instance “We need a lesbian to play this gay woman” or “We must recruit a wheelchair user to play this accident victim”. It’s absurdly limiting and runs counter to all the principles of open casting.

Laurence Fox – in his usual forthright, sweary way – made a similar point recently. He trained at RADA and is annoyed with his alma mater for a new insistence on script submissions with at least 50% female representation in cast and character. The same email stated that “We welcome writers of all genders but programme a higher percentage of scripts by those who identify as female”.

Of course – of course, of course – we all need good plays. But if we start stipulating the sorts of characters they include or the sex of the playwright on some sort of clunky quota system then we are going down what Fox contemptuously calls “this path”. It’s a form of censorship in advance: If you submit a play set in a men’s prison or in a football club we won’t consider it. Such a policy doesn’t necessarily lead to the best work. It might … but it quite possibly might not. Why can’t RADA invite plays from all comers and then read and select them without telling the decision-making person or panel  the identity of the playwrights – like blind testing at a competitive wine festival?

Facile quotas and blanket casting restrictions are not the way to feed and nourish our diverse, inclusive industry.

Richard E Grant

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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