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The diversity of diversity

Everyone I speak to at the moment wants to talk about diversity.

This week, Matthew Xia, in a very congenial, relaxed interview, told me about his passion for democratic art and how he wants to break down the power structures which prevent it. “When I walk down Piccadilly in Manchester the whole world is there” he says. “It’s very diverse indeed. Then you step inside the Royal Exchange and suddenly it’s a different, white, middle class world which simply doesn’t reflect its environment”.

Wind the clock back a few days to another café and another pot of tea and, in another pleasant interview, Roy Williams is lamenting first, the lack of black theatre companies compared with when he started out and second, the dearth of well known black playwrights. I point out that he’s the one everyone thinks of and he says ruefully: “But it shouldn’t be like that.  I know lots of very good black playwrights but they’re not getting the commissions and opportunities”

Xia thinks there’ll be no real change until we see more BAME people at the top, making decisions and, like everyone I’ve spoken to this year he is dismissive of the National Theatre which he regards as less than national.

Two things occur to me. First, things are improving but change takes time. Daniel Evans, Artistic Director at Chichester, told me last month that he’s delighted to have achieved 35% BAME casting this year – and that in a place like Chichester which doesn’t have the ethnic diversity that big cities such as Manchester and London do.  Bravo but it all has to be balanced against the bottoms-on-seats issue. First and foremost a theatre has to sell tickets. It’s a business. And that means you have to manage your core audience carefully which might involve not making too many changes too quickly. I addressed that issue in one of these blogs a few months ago and was shrilly accused of racism and failure to understand theatre among other things  – absurd, as anyone who knows me or who took the trouble to read what I had actually written, knows.

Second, what do we mean by diversity? Xia and Williams were both talking about race – skin colour even –  just as many others in the industry do. But there’s much more to it than that. Diversity is a diverse issue.

There’s the whole issue of women, for a start. Well go and see Six the Musical at the Arts and then walk down to the Strand to see Emilia and Waitress and tell me that change isn’t afoot. It’s all brilliant stuff which really kicks the patriarchy into the gutter. And note that almost every Shakespeare play now staged by anyone, anywhere has women playing traditional men’s roles, sometimes adapted and sometimes not – from Glenda Jackson currently doing another production of King Lear on Broadway all the way to Fourth Monkey training company whose predominantly female Henry V (including title role) I admired last month.

Relaxed performances are an excellent development too – a way of getting people of all ages with a whole range of special needs to theatres to enjoy shows in an inclusive way. Look, moreover, at how theatres, prompted by disability legislation, have improved access for wheelchair users and laid on hearing loops, audio description, signed performances and the like in recent years. And how welcome it is to see people on stage with impairments doing a fine job along with the rest of the cast. Are they cast for their talent? Too right they are. All of it would have been unthinkable even a generation or two ago.

And even if we come back to race we do well to remember that racial difference is not necessarily visible. Daniel Evans tells me that there are so many Polish people in Chichester that last year that they captioned one of the Christmas show performances in Polish and it was a huge success.

Making theatre as diverse as possible is, I think, a work in progress. And progress is the operative word. I’m not advocating complacency. Of course there’s still much to be done but don’t let’s belittle the enormous amount which has already happened.

Photograph Roy Williams (BBC)

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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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