"But who's standards?!"
Questioning and changing institutional standards
Text: Sue Emmas
The Young Vic is 20 years into a journey to make great art and a great theatre reflects and represents contemporary British society – in terms of gender, ethnicity, class, educational experience, geographical location, disability, class, and neuro-diversity.
This journey began under the artistic directorship of David Lan and most of the approach and actions I discuss occurred under his artistic directorship. With the arrival of Kwame Kwei-Armah we are both evolving and deepening our approach. We are proud to be seen as having led change in this space, but we are something aware that there is still a huge deficit for the UK to address.
Only 10% of artistic directors are people of colour, working-class people continue to be hugely under-represented in the arts, and despite 20% of the working age population identifying as disabled, just 4% of staff in UK theatres do so. Women are also under-represented as directors and playwrights on large stages.
The Young Vic has been working to address this inequality and we have made progress but still have a way to go. I have covered the areas we have focused in our ambition to address diversity, inclusion and representation: engagement with community; our audience; work on stage; artist development and our workforce.
Engagement with community
We are in a distinctive part of London (we straddle to the two inner city boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark) and we begin with our neighbours who we want to feel the theatre is theirs. Our Taking Part department works with schools and colleges, young people outside of school, and in our local community. We are now making shows that tour to community centres, prisons, mental health support centres. So rather than expecting people to always come to us, we will go to them.
This is also way for us to develop artists, audiences, our workforce. Our front of house and box office staff are local. Many of the young people who take part in projects go on to train and work in theatre.
This approach has worked because:
- We’ve made a commitment over a long period of time – our consistent approach creates trust
- It is an integral and integrated part of our artistic vision. The artistic and executive directors’ value and invest in the work as do our Board of Trustees
- This work is given the same production values, creative thought, space and respect as our work with prestigious directors such as Peter Brook, Ivo van Hove, Marianne Elliot.
- We establish meaningful, personal relationships with people over time so that people feel valued and listened to
- We recognise that sometimes you have to present work outside of the theatre in found or community spaces if you want people new to theatre to come to visit you and see a show
- We celebrate difference and learn from this engagement as human beings and as artists
- We have a Neighbourhood Theatre group who meet with the artistic director to share their thoughts on the programme and feed in to it
For the last twenty years we have committed to giving away 10% of our tickets to first time theatre goers in our community. This amounts to c.10,000 tickets a year. Now, the Young Vic has one of the most diverse/mixed audiences in the UK.
We have an ambassador system where local people encourage their family and friends to come along, we encourage the young people we work with in schools to bring their parents and extended families, we go and talk to people in local shops and cafes.
This approach has worked because:
- We don’t impose ways of behaving but provide a welcoming, supportive environment that embraces the different reactions an audience might have
- Our programme ensures that audience members who come from these communities are likely to see a story in which they see themselves on stage
- We do not see this as a marketing function. Many of these new audience members will never be in a financial position to buy a ticket. We simply want to ensure that art is and has meaning and impact for all.
Work on stage
This is both simple and unbelievably complex. At the most simple – we choose work that reflects modern society. We utilise the European cannon – whether plays or books – but at the same time we are creating a new cannon – of modern work written from a non-European viewpoint through work like The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney or the The Scottsboro Boys, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb and book by David Thompson.
This approach has worked because:
- We have been consistent – a theatre can’t do one play by a person of colour every two years and expect to build an audience or change a system
- Don’t presume a limited scope of cultural reference; for example, that refugees want to watch a play focused on refugee stories – it might be the last thing they want to watch
- There are very few occasions when an all-white cast is justified. Casting doesn’t operate like a night club: one in one out. It can feel very alienating if an actor is the only disabled, Black, working class person in a rehearsal room
- Don’t see it as the responsibility of specialist companies to present work of disabled artists or artists of colour
When David Lan joined the Young Vic in 2001 he chose to focus our attention on artistic development of directors. We recognised that if we wanted to make systemic change, directors were the place to start. Invariably they choose the stories that are told, the actors, design teams, run the companies and buildings. So, if we supported the development of directors we would affect change.
Our Directors Programme has a membership of over 600 directors. Most live in London but at least 20% are based outside of London. We put on five or six free workshops or events each month. Some in London, some regionally and some online. We run workshops on usual skills in how to work with actors, writers, designers etc. but also on how to work with disabled artists, at integrated casting and breaking down the myth of you can’t do Chekhov with people of colour due to historic authenticity etc.
We also recognised that most directors were male, white, middle class and university educated. We’ve talked about risk – recognising confirmation bias – were we look to see where directors of colour or female directors have been badly reviewed, or their shows have not reached their full potential. But we don’t judge white male directors by the same criteria. One bad show will not halt the career of a white man but for a person of colour or a woman this can be a career breaking moment.
So, we run a number of programmes that specifically seek out, nurture and support directors who are of colour, working class or disabled.
This approach has worked because:
- We pay everyone who assists on a show and all the workshops we offer are free
- We recognise that working in theatre is hard for anyone but there are extra barriers for people of colour, working class people, those who identify as disabled. We work to break down those barriers
- We have designed a career route that you can take someone from the stage of thinking about directing to forging a career and ultimately directing on one of our stages
- 98% of the offer for emerging directors is advertised openly to break down the ‘old boys network’.
- We create schemes specifically for different groups around caring responsibilities, ethnicity, gender. Sometimes for example people of colour need time together – not to be in a white space.
Despite the changes on stage, until three years ago our workforce was still pretty mono cultural. So, from 2015 we have worked to diversify our permanent team (box office, production, producers, marketing etc) and considered our recruitment processes. To do this we had to challenge our thinking and practice and it hasn’t been easy. We have had think about ‘fit’ and how this idea gets in the way of representation and diversity. As soon as you ask; Will they fit the team? It usually means are they just like me/us? We recognise difference and see that a range of perceptions and experiences leads to innovation and insight.
This approach is working because:
- Adverts say we are willing to train
- We meet more people - for assistant director opportunities we often get 25 – 40 people apply and we meet all of them
- We don't ask for degree or equivalent
- In interviews we have looked at the questions we ask, the signifiers we use to ‘assess’ a candidate’s suitability for the job. What they want to do in five years doesn’t indicate if they can do the job now
- Offer job shares where possible
We have also talked about misconceptions around maintaining ‘standards’. The argument ‘I’m all for diversity as long as doesn't threaten standards’ – but who’s standards. Our experience, age, class, ethnicity affects how we interpret data and make choices. The ‘best’ is not an absolute. The fact someone is a 30-year-old cis-gendered man with no children from London with a degree will completely determine who they think is the best person for the job. We have to recognise our hidden – or not so hidden – bias.
Some things to consider if you want to make a journey of change
- If you are afraid to make mistakes no progress will happen. Small changes can also have big impact so take a chance, try out an idea. If you wait for the ideal circumstances you’ll not move forward
- Concentrate on what you can change rather than what you can’t. Child care is expensive and it’s a hard reality to address. But theatres can help parents by not rehearsing on a Saturday or evening, confirming schedules at the start of rehearsals and sticking to them, giving 48 hours notice for auditions
- Remember that whatever class you are, whatever gender you are if you are white and able bodied, middle class and straight you are in some way part of the dominant culture and you need to recognise that as privilege
- 80% of the population have children. Opportunities to participate fully are limited by a working model that is not built for parents or those with caring responsibilities
- Do a quick check of your organisation: do you all look alike? Do you all share the same cultural references? Did you all go to the same kind of school? Do you have the same social activities, same social networks, same accent? Then you are only representing a small part of society and the same will be true of your audience
- You as an organization, institution, industry need to change to accommodate the people who are presently under-represented. Not the other way round
- If the casts on stage are always white or able-bodied you will never develop your audiences. If you don’t develop your audiences you will never develop your artists. To think you can be an artist you have to see yourself represented on stage
- If the present pool of actors, writers, directors is very limited it is the cultural organisations responsibility to create opportunities for people to seek out, nurture, train a new generation.
- People are not a single characteristic. Think about intersectionality. Women of colour have very different experience to women in general and to men of colour.
- Hidden prejudice is worse than overt prejudice because it is harder to identify and address. The arts tends to be populated by liberal, left leaning people. So they don’t see themselves as the problem. But they can be. If you are the problem step out of the way and let others make the change.