Mercury weekly column by James Haddrell the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre
At the end of last year a major new study commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber reported that black, Asian and minority ethnic performers are regularly overlooked for lead roles in the theatre industry and that the sector has an “unconscious bias” against them. The report also highlighted the fact that a far greater percentage of students at British drama schools come from white backgrounds and, given the prohibitive course fees, from families with higher level incomes. For anything to change, the industry’s approach to recruitment, training, casting and even audience development has to change. Only a sector-wide intervention can improve the situation.
At Greenwich Theatre we are playing a small role in that transition. We support a large number of emerging theatre companies in making the transition from drama school to the industry, or from the fringe to mainstream touring. In the coming months we are supporting the Brighton fringe debut of CultureClash Theatre, a company led by two young female performers of Turkish Cypriot and Black Caribbean descent, and the first national tour for Paper Tiger Productions, a collective of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic performers. In both cases the work will also be presented at Greenwich Theatre. For CultureClash that means a revival of Cassiah Joski-Jethi’s Under My Thumb about a group of young women fighting a dystopian society built on inequality. For Paper Tiger, the national tour will include a week at Greenwich for writer Afsaneh Gray’s OCTOPUS, the acclaimed play about what it means to be British. Later in the season we also welcome Rifco Arts, an award winning British Asian Theatre Company, with the astonishing new play Miss Meena And The Masala Queens.
One of the most significant interventions in cultural diversity in theatre in recent years has been the formation of Black Theatre Live, a pioneering national consortium of 8 regional theatres led by Tara Arts, committed to effecting change nationally for Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic touring theatre through a three year programme of national touring and audience development. As well as visiting the South London home of Tara Arts with Paper Tiger’s Octopus later in the year, Greenwich’s relationship with Tara and with Black Theatre Live extends to a visit for the acclaimed show The Diary Of A Hounslow Girl, produced by BTL, which GLYPT brings to the Tramshed in Woolwich this week.
Written and performed by Ambreen Razia the show follows a year in the life of Shahida as she returns to Hounslow after her sister’s wedding in Pakistan and starts a new relationship. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Razia said “I first came across Hounslow Girls in college. They’re young women with tight headscarves, big hooped earrings and an urban mentality. The play’s about a British Muslim girl who comes of age. It’s about leading a double life at home and in public. People see a girl in a headscarf, but she’s still 16-years-old. She might be religious, but she still wants to experience normal teenage things… It’s semi-autobiographical, but it’s also influenced by girls from my school days.”
Until drama schools shift their recruitment strategies, theatres reconsider their producing and programming priorities, and audiences come to expect the kind of diversity on stage that they see around them every day, theatre will remain white dominated and our industry and our audiences will miss out on a whole host of stories, ideas, and talented artists that are not allowed to flourish in the way they should. However, interventions like Black Theatre Live and those venues supporting work from the likes of Paper Tiger, CultureClash and Ambreen Razia are finally beginning to change the landscape.
James Haddrell is the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre