Is Theatre Just for Posh People? was an industry conference hosted by GL4 & Strike a Light Festivals in Gloucester on 12/10/17. Here is the full transcript of my talk from the event.
I love the title of today’s event because on face value it seems like the simplest of questions. Of course we’re all here because we believe that the answer is “Absolutely not – theatre is for everybody”. But like so many conversations about diversity and inclusion in the arts what we believe is the truth and the actual truth, are two very different things.
The actual truth is that theatre – the theatre establishment, theatre making and theatre going - is still so dominated by “Posh People” (if what we mean by that is people who are privileged in contemporary life) and these are the very people most poorly equipped to talk about or understand diversity and inclusion, the causes of inequality, the experience of otherness or what to do about changing anything.
In her book, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge gives a great example of this by citing her experience of recognising her own biased ableist perspective. She tells us about a time in her life when her commute to work consisted of a train journey followed by a bike ride. It was not until she had to navigate a train station with a bike on a daily basis that she became aware of how hostile the physical environment was for anyone dependent on wheels to get around. It was only her lived experience of the disabling environment that helped her to see it for what it was.
She tells this story to try to explain to white people that we cannot understand the racism that pervades the very structures of our society because we do not live with the consequences of that on a daily basis.
I love it that she has reached for an analogy about physical access because I do that too. It’s something we can all easily grasp – and while I stand fully in solidarity with those with physical access needs – what interests me and what is maybe harder to articulate is those experiences of “otherness” where the barriers are not physical but cultural, attitudinal, semantic and intangible. The barriers we can’t see and can’t pin down because they exist in the subtleties of language, of behaviours, of dominant ways of seeing and doing and being. These barriers are intimidating and undermining and so hard to put your finger on that it is easier as someone who is different to question whether maybe it is you that is wrong or the barriers themselves.
So I am aware at this point that I probably sound quite “posh” so I just want to tell you a bit about myself and how I identify – if only to demonstrate how complex identity is. When it comes to class I am confused – I was brought up in a very low income single parent family. My mother was born in a working class family in the East End of London. My father was an immigrant, a holocaust survivor and largely absent. Having been forced to leave school early my mother had very aspirational middle class values placing importance on education, culture and travel. We went to the theatre.
When it comes to race I am also confused. My father was Jewish, which means I am not, as it passes through the maternal line. Like lots of people of Jewish heritage are I’m not sure if I count as a person of colour but I was racially bullied at school. I live with the consequences of anti-Semitism and the atrocities committed against my ancestors without any of the plusses of Jewish community or culture.
I am a cisgender heterosexual woman raised in an unequal and sexist culture and I am still learning that it’s ok to take up space and speak my mind.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and live with a hidden disability, the long term mental health condition Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Living with a mental health condition is where I feel most marginalised. The conversation is shifting - as a culture we now at last acknowledge that mental health is a thing. We talk a lot about stigma and discrimination but we don’t often talk about where that comes from, about the countless horrific violations of human rights against people like me throughout history often enacted by well meaning people in the name of doing good.
Like Freud’s “hysterical” women (women who were interested in intellectual pursuits like reading, or showed an interest in sex) who were subjected to enforced cliterodectomies or genital mutilation as a cure. Or the countless women incarcerated in lunatic asylums because they were victims of rape. Or the arbitrary electroconvulsive therapies and lobotomy’s carried out not so long ago. Or current practices like the holding in police cells of people in distress because of a lack of beds in mental health units. Or the somehow legal medication that treats people for depression but has the side effect of making you feel suicidal. Or the fact that right now 1000’s of victims of childhood sexual abuse receive a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder – problematising the victims’ personality rather than the perpetrators behaviour. Or that people with mental health conditions are being screened out of the benefits system by the new PIPs assessments leading to a spike in the suicide rate and increased distress, deprivation and marginalisation.
When you start to think about it all it’s no wonder that someone might find it difficult to speak up about their mental health, articulate their needs as access needs or believe they will be treated fairly or even safely.
I think the first thing that’s important about this for the theatre establishment to understand is that if you are “other” – you have experienced the oppression that goes with being different consistently over a long period of time in a lot of different contexts. When society has made you “other” in this way you might not have much faith or trust in the institutions of that society or the people who run them - the very people who benefit from the systems of privilege that disadvantage and marginalise you. Being “well meaning” or trying to “do good” is not enough
If you are anything like me, you will have heard cultural institutions speaking the rhetoric of equality while failing to address exclusionary practices. You might have taken the risk to speak up and challenge discrimination and been fobbed off or ignored or told to shut up or judged as being too sensitive or told that maybe you have a chip on your shoulder or been asked to express your valid point less emotionally or told that your anger about your experience of oppression is getting in the way of you being heard.
When theatre organisations talk about "audience development" – they are rarely talking about any of this. They often assume that people could access conventional theatre going if only they knew about it and so audience development activity looks at opening the door to what exists rather than looking at systems of privilege and access that make theatre going inaccessible to many – sure sometimes the barriers are pricing, transport, physical access but sometimes the barriers are cultural relevance or any sense of a theatre as a safe or welcoming or democratic space.
My early life was chaotic and through my teens and 20’s I lived with a range of addictive and compulsive behaviours. I found myself homeless, I drifted between friends sofas, protest sites and festivals – and then finding myself at home in these unconventional environments I lived for several years completely detached from mainstream society as a new age traveller living in trucks and tipis and benders. During this time I didn’t see any telly, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, go to a cinema, museum or art gallery. I did not go to the theatre. But I did experience some of the richest, most alive, most innovative culture I have ever experienced.
And this is the second important thing that the theatre establishment must understand to do anything about diversity. We have to re-examine what counts as "theatre" - and how these decisions are completely value laden with the white, straight, male, middle class, non disabled privileged aesthetic and perspective. In this - the cultural expression of marginalised groups gets overlooked. We think of theatre as something that happens within organised spaces, at specific times and with specific parameters and conventions rather than valuing the theatre, colour, texture and narrative of the everyday life of people who may not have access to the cultural establishment or feel it relevant. Like a sort of cultural colonialism which decides how creativity is expressed and valued.
If we want to level the playing field we have to take the radical personal and political step to reject these unequal power relationships. We have to recognise how arrogant it is to think diverse groups are out there just waiting to be included. At the end of the day, it’s down to the arts sector to become relevant to those groups, to adapt and have something to offer, not the other way round. After all, it is mainstream culture that loses out, becomes bland and monotonous, when we accept exclusion. It is not the marginalised people who are missing out necessarily – many of us have embraced our disenfranchisement and created thriving, liberating, mind blowing subcultures – we are courageous, we have learned to do it for ourselves, found our own role models, stepped into leadership, gathered our community around us, resourced ourselves and defined our own values and aesthetics.
Obviously I love conventional theatre making too and see the power of developing access for all. Some of the best moments of my career have been in theatre spaces with people who have never been in those spaces. Including seeing a show with some people in addiction recovery and over hearing them in the interval marvelling at what they were seeing and saying emphatically "This is what people do when they're not off their face on drugs". Or the many people I have accompanied on their first ever trip to the theatre some of whom have gone out in the evening for the first time in years and needed a great deal of support to do so.
These people don’t just wake up one day and decide theatre is for them. The people in addiction recovery for example had been offered free tickets – but that in itself is not enough. They were there because of relationships developed over a number of years that actively sought to remove barriers. They were there because they felt safe enough together to venture into the alien space of a theatre. And because they trusted the mental health service they used that provided the tickets which in turn trusted the theatre company who offered the tickets. Trust earned over many years.
As someone who has worked in the arts with very vulnerable people since 2003 I know that if someone takes the step to engage they may have been thinking about it for months or even years. They may have tried to attend a performance or a workshop previously and failed to make it through the door. They might have had to summon every ounce of their courage to get themselves there this time. Such is their vulnerability that we could blow it in an instant if we don’t welcome them safely and appropriately. If we don’t – they may leave – and it might take them years to try again. If ever.
We all like to think we are nice welcoming people but the headline news is - that may not be enough if someone is very vulnerable. The truth is if we are not working consciously and consistently to remove barriers then we are unconsciously persistently propping the up.
So if we want to work towards a theatre sector that isn’t just for the privileged, which is properly accessible and inclusive – we need to start by having a long hard look at ourselves. What’s gets in the way is that for anything to change we have to start by acknowledging what we personally are doing wrong.
We have to find our willingness to listen and learn how to do things differently. We have to find the time and the resources to do more than lip service, to move beyond cold cynical targets, or the robotic churning out of politically correct messages or shifting responsibility onto specialist organisations, staff members or sub groups.
We have to allow ourselves to become vulnerable. We have to learn how to be curious, open and responsive, how to feel comfortable not having all the answers, how to live with not knowing the right language, with making mistakes, with being corrected and being humble.
It’s such a wonderful opportunity to challenge our own expectations and preconceptions we should delight in that as a creative act – maybe the most creative act.