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Rainbow casting without quotas

I’m an inclusivity advocate. I love colour-blind or “rainbow” casting such as you see in the current production of Oklahoma at Chichester or in the fabulous Six the Musical now running indefinitely at the Arts Theatre in London.

There is, as far as I’m concerned, absolutely no reason why Hamlet shouldn’t be played by a BAME (black, Asian or minority ethnic) actor provided – and this is the crucial point – that she (or he) has the acting talent and charisma to carry it off.  Exactly the same, of course, applies to Mrs Malaprop, Juliet, Major Barbara, Lady Bracknell, Hector (The History Boys), Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Jerusalem) or almost any other role.

And we’ve seen some absolutely stunning work recently featuring large numbers of BAME actors. The best Death of a Salesman most of us have ever seen at the Young Vic, for example, which is transferring into the West End this autumn. Then there was the Globe’s fabulous Emilia which enjoyed a sell-out West End transfer.

The point – and it’s a major one – is that the actor, irrespective of all other considerations, must be the best possible interpreter of the role for the work in question. Casting, as directors, tell me almost daily, is eighty per cent of a successful show.

Quotas of any sort prevent that because they mean that casting is (partly) affected by factors other than the actor’s rightness for the role.

A casting director told me recently that she is now under pressure to cast BAME actors rather than others – by implication, regardless of ability – because the Arts Council England funding, which the companies in question depend on, rests partly on it.  All her working life she has been free to cast the best possible actor for the role and now she is not. That is political correctness controlling art. And it’s alarmingly wrong.

I am not – by any stretch of the imagination –  a racist.  My Collins Dictionary defines racism as “the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others”. Well of course, I don’t believe that.

Neither, from what he wrote last year, in his Daily Mail review of RSC’s The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, does Quentin Letts who raised a huge storm of angry disapproval.

Letts loathed Leo Wringer’s work as Elder Clerimont finding him, “too cool, too mature, not chinless or daft or funny enough”. Well, that’s just one critic’s opinion. I didn’t see this show and might, as many other reviewers did, have disagreed with Letts if I had.  But that was his view and fair enough.

He then went on to wonder whether Wringer might have been cast because he is black – by implication as part of a quota. If so then, he opined: “the RSC’s clunking approach to politically correct casting has again weakened its stage product.” In other words – quotas and what Letts implicitly identifies as over enthusiasm for sometimes casting the wrong person for the wrong reasons. What Letts definitely did NOT say is that Wringer’s acting is below par because he’s black.

Drama schools have a major problem with this issue too. Every one of them wants to be seen to be open-handedly enrolling people from every possible background including, obviously, BAME actors. I’ve yet to meet anyone in the industry who isn’t striving for inclusivity.

If, however, you have only 30 places to offer on a massively over subscribed acting or musical theatre course then you must award them to the thirty applicants who have the potential to be industry-ready in three years. If they’re taken on for any other reason then your school is taking money under false pretences.

That, I’m sure, is what Gavin Henderson, Principal of Royal Central School of Drama meant when he infuriated the blinkered resignation-demanding brigade in 2018 by remarking that “Quotas would reduce the quality of our student intake.”

I have seen hundreds of end-of-course student showcases and I frequently spot several BAME actors, usually male, who are never going to work professionally in the industry. I know it, their teachers know it and so does every casting director in the room. So why were they enrolled on the course in the first place?  Back to those quotas, official or unofficial? Of course, there are sometimes non-BAME young actors in the same position but much less often.

The crux of all this is that BAME people represent around 15 to 20% of the UK population. Some of them will, of course, have what it takes to make a career in performance. Consider Cynthia Erivo, Paterson Joseph, Sharon D Clarke, David Oyelowo, Sope Dirisu and Chiwetel Ejiofor (and many others), for instance. But it was acting ability, potential and the luck to be spotted which got them where they are now, not quotas.

The M in BAME stands for “minority” so you really can’t logically expect to see drama school classes and show casts with more than around one BAME person in five on a crude average. And every cast member should be there for what she or her brings to the role/show and never for any other reason. It should go without saying too, that not every actor, however good, is right for every role.





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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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