Failure to diversify will cause theatre to become irrelevant to the majority of the British population, the report concludes.

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All theatres should “take a lead” on colour-blind casting and commissioning more work from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) writers, a report released by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation has recommended.

It also calls on drama schools to subsidise 50% of their places, thereby increasing accessibility for students from low-income backgrounds, and for Arts Council England (ACE) and UK Theatre to create an online resource collating “opportunities and successful BAME initiatives”.

The report has been welcomed by many in the sector, including Kumiko Mendl, Artistic Director of Yellow Earth Theatre, who said the report was “important” but warned that it “missed an opportunity” to make more far-reaching recommendations.

The report, built on in-depth interviews with over 60 theatre professionals, assesses the ‘pipeline of BAME talent’, and asks how long-lasting cultural change can be brought about so that BAME talent “is no longer missed or marginalised”.

Authors Danuta Kean and Mel Larsen warn that theatre remains “hideously white” and is at risk of becoming “irrelevant to the majority of the British population” if it does not become more diverse.

The report highlights a “disparity” between the desire of the theatre sector for change and the lack of practical implementation to make change happen. It argues for diversity to be addressed on and off stage at all levels, from the commissioning of writers, to production staff and those in leadership positions.

“It will take action from everyone to effect significant change,” said Andrew Lloyd Webber. “We are asking arts sector bodies, drama schools, theatre producers, actors, creative teams and philanthropists to take responsibility and specific action. I urge you all to read the recommendations and get involved.”

Nurturing talent

Early training and exposure to theatre is vital for BAME talent, the report finds, but the key requirements for delivering this – such as drama teaching and resources, theatre visits, youth drama groups and outreach initiatives – are either under threat or not known about by the people who need them most.

“A sense of isolation builds early for BAME theatre professionals,” the report says. “Representation of minority ethnic actors is as low as one student a year in some drama colleges, while once out of drama school respondents experienced far fewer opportunities for career-changing lead roles than their white counterparts, even when the roles in question were not ethnicity-specific.”

It notes a lack of representation of BAME actors on stages leads to BAME students feeling acting is “not for them”, which researchers claim is the primary reason parents discourage their children from a career in theatre.

Recommendations

In response, the report outlines a series of recommendations to those in a position to bring about change, including theatres, drama schools and funders.

It says many organisations and individuals are working hard to find ways of encouraging and retaining BAME and other diverse talent in theatre, but the problem is “accessing information” and “finding out what schemes exist and who can help”. It recommends that ACE and UK Theatre create an online resource of opportunities and successful BAME initiatives, which should include a “one-stop shop for aspiring BAME theatre professionals, secondary schools and sixth form colleges”.

It says subsidising half of drama school places could generate a “dramatic impact” on the diversity of intakes.

As well as recommending production companies make auditions for non-race specific roles ‘colour blind’, it says theatres “can also ensure” that lighting and make up technicians are trained to deal with the specific needs of BAME actors.

It addition, it encourages philanthropists to make cultural diversity one of their criteria for funding.

Response

Responding to the report, Kumiko Mendl of Yellow Earth Theatre highlighted a lack of focus on training those in leadership and decision-making roles – in theatre organisations and at drama schools – on the challenges of unconscious bias.

She argued for Band 2 and 3 National Portfolio Organisations and accredited drama schools to “gather the BAME workforce figures both backstage and on stage”, with reference to the specific ethnicity of those identifying as BAME, and set internal targets.

The report follows news of over £500k in grants from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, which went to organisations including Southwark Playhouse, the Old Vic and Hull Truck Theatre to provide training and career guidance to people from “culturally diverse backgrounds”.

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Comments

Can't but think we've made not much progress in the last 20 years. At Stratford East in the early 90s we tried to operate a colour-blind casting policy. Can't say it always worked but at least our writers group adopted the slogan 'We are multi-cultural or we are dead' and I got press flack for casting an Asian woman as a baddie in panto. I've mainly worked in India the last 10 years so what's been going on?