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In the wake of the recently published Sustained Theatre report on the state of Black and minority ethnic (BME) theatre in England, Sarita Malik assesses the situation for practitioners and asks why British theatre has such a problem with issues of race.

A few weeks back, I was speaking with an international producer based in India who makes popular Asian theatre that fills huge auditoriums across the world. He asked in despair, What do I have to do to get the UK to believe in this work. I know the audience is there. I know people that will sponsor it. But they just dont want to take the risk. I told him he should push. After all, many of the venues to which he was pitching have cultural diversity remits, and Arts Council England (ACE), the main funder of these venues, has recently been trying to boost recognition and circulation of Asian theatre in the UK (albeit on a regional basis through the South Asian Touring Theatre Consortium). This broader cultural context that I referred to seemed to confuse him. He just wanted to strike a deal.

What this exchange revealed as well as how institutionalised our thinking has become was that the layers of cultural marginalisation and exclusion that exist within British theatre are both far-reaching and deep-rooted. If we were to try and solve my friends problem, we would need to start by looking at issues of trust, cultural authority, notions of quality and risk, the dominance of European/Western theatre judgements, a lack of international vision all factors that get to the heart of why British theatre is still deeply challenged by racial difference, and is itself extremely culturally specific.

Reports: then and now

The recently published Whose theatre?... The report on the Sustained Theatre consultation (ACE, 2006), points to this systemic and institutionalised racism in British theatre, where those on The Inside and those within The Sector (the term used throughout the report for Black and Minority Ethnic theatre practitioners) are held in their place. Such an arrangement has been built and sustained by the broad racist mechanisms at work in the arts. When it comes to theatre, this can be specifically seen in unequally distributed funding, a lack of cultural awareness around Other artistic processes and histories, crude definitions of BME product and audiences, a lack of networks with BME businesses and other potential sources of private support, and so on.

So how can it be that the work of BME practitioners is still, to quote the title of the first of such official reports written three decades ago, The arts Britain ignores? (ACE, 1976). How do we eliminate racist structures and processes that have pervaded the theatre sector since even before Robert Adams founded the Negro Arts Movement in Britain in 1944? When does the long journey Towards cultural diversity (ACE, 1988) end? Is institutional racism really such an impossible nut to crack? Dare I say it, maybe not enough of us really want to.

Persistent exclusion

Whilst we continue to wait for this moment of cultural diversity nirvana to arrive, those of us in the business of socially conscious future-making need to ask ourselves, Do we really know what this Change will look like? People are the real agents of change, but are characteristically resistant to accepting it, particularly when it is perceived that there may be something to lose, either literally or symbolically. The ambassadors of real cultural diversity are the lived cultures, but they have typically been the recipients of cultural diversity policy, rarely involved in implementing, monitoring or structuring its agenda (something which the Whose theatre? report seeks to address in its consultation).

Now, this is not about a deliberate racist mindset in the arts any more than it is in other creative industries like broadcasting or cinema (sectors that share these power structures), but it is about long-established patterns of racialised omission and commission that have been allowed to persist, suspending any chance of real change from occurring.
We only need to look back at the recent trail of ACE-commissioned reports and initiatives Eclipse and decibel stand out to question what has changed beyond the rhetoric. Tony Graves Report on the Eclipse conference noted a pervasive liberalism at work and that, at the conference, he was faced by intelligent, competent, resourceful arts managers and practitioners. Yet there seemed to be a collective failure of ability when it came to the implementation of strategies to address the situation [of theatre racism].

The Whose theatre? report only briefly touches on the many levels of cultural exclusion that persist for example, how venues and funders respond to artists or work that is rooted in the community and/or caters for a more culturally specific audience. Think, for example, of Black theatre that is not street or easily marketable to a young urban audience? And what of the long-established (note not emerging) Asian-language theatre scene? Many of these artists remain completely unfamiliar to the mainstream theatre world including, worryingly, those at ACE.

Preferred versions of Black and Asian theatre still exist. So, for example, Bollywood-style parody pieces are now okay and even have the potential to cross over. However, most receiving venues will not consider programming home-grown Asian language theatre, which still remains underground and contained within certain community settings. These hidden practitioners only feel entitled (or worse still, are encouraged) to hire a space in a subsidised venue rather than being programmed. In this way, they are never truly put in a position to challenge the organisational culture or address issues around professional development. Such discrimination exists even in venues where other Asian visiting theatre companies are offered space, marketing and technical support.

Space issues

We need to connect the reasons why the Whose theatre? report was first commissioned with its recommendations and ACEs response to them. More specifically, there are a set of funding and political issues around the failure of the Talawa Theatre project (to build a Black-led theatre in London) that link directly with the reports recommendation to build a linked network of buildings, each of which is a gold standard , for the development of Black British theatre. Black-led arts organisations are nothing new. Since the 1950s from the Edric Connor Agency to Africa Centre, from the West India Dance Group to the Keskidee Centre and Unity Theatre there has been a series of collective and individual interventions to create alternative theatre spaces, tackle racial discrimination and gain public recognition. In the light of this, the recommendation to develop ways for The Sector to take ownership of its own future development is important and something that ACE, in its response to the report, claims to support. Significantly, the biggest challenge for BME practitioners in Britains recent cultural history has been one of gaining access to the established system. Since the early 1990s, BME communities have also been in the age of mainstreaming an energetic drive to be part of everything else. But in this new moment, cultural power is once again being directly linked to having your own space; the emphasis less on getting inside than going it alone. But does this shift which implicitly rejects preceding aspirations of assimilation signal an acknowledgment of defeat or progress?

Creative spaces like Rivington Place (the new home for INIVA and Autograph) and Rich Mix are redefining cultural ownership and Sector development in the arts. Support for these spaces and for racially oriented funding structures is already beginning to stir up familiar panics around ghettoisation and segregation by those who see them as patronised areas of arts subsidy that are being structured and treated as distinct from the rest.

Any concerns that the presence of Black-led spaces alone contradicts plans to influence and change [the] mainstream (one of the goals specified in the report) are, in a sense, missing the point. The fact remains that, without such bases, The Sector is likely to remain rootless, moving from one space to another, imbued with a strong sense of tenancy, and with little space to explore, develop and create. Notably, these spaces are also bidding as much for artistic excellence as they are for a more tangible support of (international) culturally diverse art overall.

Symbolically and materially, one can be clearer about what there is to gain from these spaces, than what there is to lose. The challenge now will be to manage the ten-year vision that the report encourages, but also to learn from the past (similar initiatives were proposed in The Black Theatre Season Report in the 1980s and The British Asian Theatre Report in the 1990s).The question is the degree to which The Sector can be part of the British theatre family through these spaces. And, perhaps more significantly, at what points we are prevented from being so.

Dr Sarita Malik is a writer and researcher on race and the cultural industries. She is the author of Representing Black Britain (Sage Publications, 2001)
e: sarita.malik@brunel.ac.uk