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What are the ‘choke points’ preventing culturally diverse artists from succeeding and should we stop talking about ‘diversity’? These issues and more were discussed at nitroBEAT’s ‘D’ Word event. Diane Morgan summarises. 

Photo of Nwando Ebizie performing
Nwando Ebizie of Mas Productions in the forthcoming production of 'The Passion of Lady Vendredi', a co-production between nitroBEAT, Mas Productions and Soho Theatre

Whatever position you take on the Barbican’s programming of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B and its eventual cancelation last autumn, it is important to recognise that alongside rights of freedom of artistic expression, the episode highlighted concerns within our publicly funded cultural institutions. The frustration felt by campaigners calling for its closure was fuelled by the lack of diversity (in this instance, ethnic) in the boardrooms and offices, within audiences and on the stages of our theatres and performance spaces in London (where black, Asian and other ethnic groups make up 40% of the population). My company nitroBEAT (formerly Nitro) was involved in the casting of the production and found itself in a mediating role, organising conversations and debates while simultaneously going through a period of organisational change.

The conference raised issues and concerns that will only increase in importance as we take further steps into the twenty-first century

In May this year we produced the one-day ‘D’ Word event in association with the Barbican and supported by Arts Council England, Soho Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East. Representatives from In Between Time, Tamasha and Tricycle Theatre and independent consultants also provided time and facilitation skills in support of the aims. 140 artists, artistic directors, executive directors, producers, managers, consultants and policy-makers gathered at the Unicorn Theatre to explore new ideas and possibilities for increasing cultural diversity within London’s theatre and live art scene.

Welcomed by Purni Morell, Artistic Director of the Unicorn, the event consisted of a suite of TED-style talks and performance provocations interspersed with facilitated discussions, opportunities to feedback, envisioning the future, informal conversation breaks, showcasing creative work, online interviews and social media commentary. A number of key questions prompted discussions.

How do we develop opportunities for culturally diverse artists to make and present work in London's spaces?

Theatre director Paulette Randall spoke about courage, enriching the cultural offer, the importance of not being pigeonholed and the need for theatres, as custodians of our history, to tell the truth and not be afraid to let diverse stories be seen and heard.

Fin Kennedy, Co-Artistic Director of Tamasha, presented a powerful list of ‘choke points’ that prevent culturally diverse playwrights from succeeding and how decisions by funders, script readers, dramaturgs, artistic directors and critics decide an artist’s fate. He called for root and branch reform in theatre, from exposure to art and culture in childhood, to experiencing professional developmental opportunities and diversifying professionals in the sector.

Joon Lynn Goh, Senior Producer at In Between Time, discussed the ‘embrace’ of Live Art to demonstrate an alternative attitude towards diversity and the starting point of a cultural strategy that looks beyond tick boxes and compels artists and producers to continually interrogate the margins of their forms and their selves.

Do the labels and categories we use need rethinking?

Paulette Randall declared that diversity is a dirty word and emphasised that if such an important word is perceived negatively it’s going to affect us all. She concluded that its dictionary definition of ‘difference’ and ‘separate’ might pinpoint the necessity of re-thinking the term.

Kerry Michael, Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East, spoke about the many different permeations of terminology over the last 20 years, including black, Afro-Asian, black and Asian and the current favoured term BAME. He advocated the use of ‘people of colour’.

Joon Lynn Goh spoke about artists and cultural leaders reclaiming representation and negotiating gender and sexuality, ethnicity and physical ability on their own terms as well as focusing on what unites them in championing the work of their organisation and engaging audiences.

How do we generate a paradigm shift in both quality and understanding of what is required to support work and share it with audiences?

Kerry Michael reminded us of the wealth of reports and progress that has been made and that artistic excellence was a collective aim. He reiterated others comments about the fear of getting it wrong and stated that more effort should be made in seeking out solutions.

Sharnita K Athwal of Shaanti dispelled the myth that diverse audiences were difficult to attract, sharing how she gained 2.6 million digital audiences for her festival and how arts organisations can create long-term, authentic digital connections with communities that can become regular audiences.

Two artists, Nwando Ebizie and Vijay Patel, presented ‘Lightning Talks’ and shared their creative process, with an emphasis on how their individual identities shaped their practice and challenged perceptions.

How do we share learning and good practice across the sector?

Writer and coach Gaylene Gould, defined ‘cultural neglect’ and the damaging effects of being excluded and underrepresented. She presented ways for cultural organisations to learn to love differently, which included embracing the creative abrasion that leads to innovation, and offered advice to those who are tasked with the diversity agenda in their roles to learn to love themselves better for their own personal wellbeing.

In the final talk, Heather Rabbatts (business woman and lawyer who rose to prominence as the youngest council chief in the UK) pulled together the themes discussed throughout the day, drawing on her vast experience of leading organisational change, working with talent and increasing diversity. She spoke directly to artists, advising them to “hold the ground yourself, know who you are, have a sense of a compass and build alliances”. She talked about diversity interventions that have worked and how those in power can shape pathways and increase access. Her final words came with the caveat “without undermining what makes us individual… I firmly believe that there is more that unites us than divides us”.

These insights support contemporary discussions around increased equality and visibility within the theatre ecology and proved that this is indeed an exciting time for diversity reinforced by a more pressing agenda from the arts council.

There is still much to be learned and understood. The conference raised issues and concerns that will only increase in importance as we take further steps into the twenty-first century with its shifting demographics. The event didn’t seek to and wasn’t capable of identifying all the issues or finding all the solutions, but it did create a platform for a wide range of stimulating contributions with the intention of helping to define areas for further research and recommendations for the development of future provision.

Diane Morgan is Director of nitroBEAT.

Click here for videos of all the ‘D’ Word talks, speaker biogs and photographs. Watch interviews with some of the speakers and attendees, and read tweets from the event.

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Photo of Diane Morgan