Matthew Hemley, The Stage, December 1, 2016
A major new diversity report commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber has slammed the UK theatre industry as “hideously white”. It says black, Asian and minority ethnic performers are regularly overlooked for lead roles and the sector has an “unconscious bias” against them.
The report, Centre Stage–The Pipeline of BAME Talent, highlights the dominance of white students at drama schools, the lack of diversity on the UK’s stages, the financial barriers to training and the stereotyping that BAME talent is subjected to.
Commissioned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation to aid the organisation’s work to improve “pipelines for BAME talent into theatre”, it has made four key recommendations:
- An online resource of BAME initiatives should be created, led by Arts Council England.
- Drama schools should make 50% of places accessible to low-income students.
- Producers should hold “colour-blind” auditions and stage more plays by BAME writers.
- Funding bodies should include diversity as a “key criterion” when awarding money.
In the report, Lloyd Webber said he had struggled to find Asian talent for his production of Bombay Dreams in 2002, and that BAME diversity in the performing arts was “once again high on the agenda”. He said casting agents often complained they do not get enough BAME talent at auditions and said the aim of his report was to come up with some “positive recommendations that can be adopted by people involved in every stage of the talent pipeline”.
“I passionately believe that the stage needs to reflect the diversity of the UK population or it risks becoming sidelined,” he said. The report’s authors, Danuta Kean and Mel Larsen, spoke to more than 60 theatre professionals. They found that “UK theatre is hideously white”, highlighting how, once out of drama school, BAME performers experience far fewer opportunities for “career changing lead roles” than their white counterparts.
“Every actor spoken to for this survey said the odds were stacked against minorities in a profession were the default lead is white unless specifically written for a black or Asian actor,” the report states, adding that lead roles are vital to convince other casting directors BAME talent has the experience “to carry future lead roles”.
Kean told The Stage that industry leaders suffered from “unconscious bias”, and tend to cast in their own likeness.
“They look at people who look like themselves or assume a role is white, not because they’re racist but because it’s a default,” she said. “People recognise there is an issue, but don’t know how to be part of that change.”
The report is sceptical that things will change unless unconscious bias is addressed. It suggests there needs to be more diversity among those casting and directing productions.
The report also finds:
- Musical theatre has challenged the “monoculture” with shows such as Dreamgirls.
- Touring productions have been cancelled because of the lack of BAME talent.
- Parental opposition to their children becoming actors is economic, not cultural.
- BAME performers are still being cast in stereotypical roles.
- White management is failing to engage properly with diversity.
Interviewed for the report, actor and Equity minority ethnic members councillor Emmanuel Kojo said theatre failed to represent most people’s experience. “Theatre risks seeming irrelevant to a 21st-century audience brought up in a multicultural society,” the report states.
Centre Stage highlights how BAME students at drama school feel isolated among predominantly white students. Kojo said schools offering summer courses should lower fees, claiming many in the industry fail to understand the barriers “because they’ve been brought up in families that can afford to pay”.
Kean said it was realistic for drama schools to finance 50% of places at a reduced rate for those from low-income backgrounds. “Some of them are very rich. Maybe they could do more than that,” she added.
Lloyd Webber is now urging the arts sector to “take responsibility and specific action”.
The report concludes that, if nothing is done to address the problems, “there is a real danger that not only will black and Asian young people stay away from the profession” but they will also stay away as audience members.
“Without them in the audience, theatres will become unsustainable, as they are forced to compete for a dwindling, ageing, white middle-class audience,” it warns.