Europe’s largest ethnic minority is perhaps the most marginalised in the arts. Carl Woodward says addressing this means changing our ideas of access and inclusion in post-pandemic theatre.
As theatre braces itself for the challenges ahead, it is time to talk about communities that we as a sector have excluded for too long.
The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, has meaningful and long-standing relationships with local Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities. Our Voice is a programme funded by Lancaster University and is free to all who take part. It aims to engage with young GRT people and their families and highlight available learning and career opportunities for them.
Originally intended to be in-person participation activities, these lively virtual workshops have been taking place throughout the lockdowns. They utilise drama and storytelling classes to share the rich culture and distinct histories of young traveller girls, especially those with little engagement or confidence when it comes to culture.
A recent government report highlights how GRT kids often spend their childhoods battling prejudice. In the context of low arts engagement and high poverty rates, this project takes an agile community engagement approach. It gives significant decision-making power to these communities and invites young people to explore, develop, review and take part.
The programme’s successes prove that individuals will jump at the chance to get involved if you create space for their stories. Quality is key, too; that’s why it made sense to ask Bryony Kimmings to generate pre-recorded material for the girls to examine their own autobiographies. As a performance artist whose compelling shows draw on her lived experience, Bryony is a working-class theatre sensation.
Inviting reality star Amy Hart, who has Traveller heritage, to work alongside Bryony opened new opportunities to bring the girls together to create great art – and keep them engaged. Amy joined live sessions to provide encouragement and supported delivery of the live Zoom sessions.
For the young women themselves this inclusive approach enabled them to learn from artists and build their skills, confidence and find their voice. It all comes from a simple belief that theatre is for everyone.
Projects like this touch on the deeply challenging issues of representation, segregation, and cultural ownership.
Racism against Gypsies, Travellers and Roma people is nothing new. Roma are the biggest ethnic minority within the European Union; estimates vary but generally suggest 10-12 million people. Yet, they often receive unfavourable treatment and are poorly represented in film, television and on stage. Traveller communities have long been a lazy target for society and politicians; in fact, abusing Travellers seems to be an acceptable form of racism in the UK. The way these issues have gained in prominence, and the urgent need to tell stories that illuminate the historical and contemporary Traveller experience, makes these stories resonate even more powerfully.
This has been heightened by the pandemic. Our Government, elected on a pledge to ‘level up’, is at risk of presiding over the sharpest-ever increase in inequality. Work recently carried out by the Department for Education showed that young people in the South West, which had lower levels of Covid-19, were the least affected.
Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age than other ethnic groups, have worse attainment standards than any other ethnic group from early years onwards, and only a handful are recorded as attending university in any given year (although this may be because they are choosing to hide their ethnicity). There is an urgent need for more targeted education initiatives focused on GRT communities – particularly in northern England.
For anyone wishing to do work with these groups, the key is collaboration between local people and professionals inside and outside of your locality. We have been especially grateful for the unparalleled guidance from the Lancashire Ethnic Minority/Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Achievement Service, which helped us identify suitable families to engage with.
Developing the performance skills and autobiographical experience of young Travellers encouraged them to take pride in their culture. GRT communities often possess rules against outsiders and strict gender roles. We soon discovered digital sessions were, in some instances, more effective than face-to-face ones. Participants are less afraid to interact in their own environments; their families don’t have to change their lives or routines. Recognising the hybridity of this female-led project and the specific accordance of Zoom turned an obstacle into a revelation: there was a unique comfort of access for participants.
Moving forwards, The Dukes’ creative work with communities across north-west England aims to drive the social, cultural, and economic healing of Lancaster, supporting young people to overcome disadvantage and realise their full creative potential. Theatre’s commitment to race equality must reach even the most disenfranchised.
Continuing our mission to tell stories that matter and remain as accessible as possible will ensure our participation work is long-term, sustainable, and meaningful.
Let’s hope that this kind of participatory work made for, with, and by communities leads to lasting changes to the way marginalised communities are represented on stage.
Short film about the 'Our Voice' project by Ellie Devereux