Why representation on screen and stage really matters.

The other day I was at a festival attending a Q&A session for a theatre performance that had been presented by a South African company by black female actors. I sat and listened to the questions being asked by a group of predominantly white women, and in doing so was reminded just how important better representation in every day culture is; and how far we have to go.

The question that really amazed me was in relation to a part of the play where a group of homeless orphans are knocking on doors seeking help from their neighbours, only to have these doors slammed in their faces. The question (and I’m paraphrasing slightly): “Is this a common example of how orphans would be treated in your community?”

Where do I start, right! 

Thankfully the Writer and Director of the piece responded incredibly well in saying that she could not possibly speak for her entire country or community.

It made me think. If this had been a play performed by white, english speaking actors, set in the UK; would anyone in the same audience have asked if this was ‘common in your community’? Is it simply that we have so few or narrow reference points for South African culture in the UK, that when watching a piece of art work we cannot divide fact from fiction or look at the piece of work for what it is, without it having to make a political or cultural statement and inform our understanding of said country?

This reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk: The danger of a single story. This piece was not particularly trying to make a statement and when performed in South Africa it wouldn’t have been expected to; yet bringing it to the UK meant bringing whole new connotations and levels of representation. 

Why? Because we don’t have enough access to work of or from different cultures. We don’t hear enough stories of different people living different experiences. Perhaps most crucially, we don’t question the singular narratives that are offered to us by the media. 

At the very same festival, there was another piece of work telling the story of two refugees and their journey from one country to another. Fantastic, I thought. A piece of work that could help people to understand a different perspective to that from the media and recognise what we have in common rather than what divides us. 

Whilst I enjoyed the piece itself and could see the intention behind the piece was absolutely genuine, and the process authentic. What it lacked for me was people telling their OWN stories. Instead the stories were re-told by women not from that community at all. I had a number of conversations with people afterwards and it was clear that people had a number of different views. Some felt it was just great that these stories were being told. Others were upset at a missed opportunity to have refugees own the space and tell their story for themselves. For me, this would have been far more powerful for both performers and audience members and could do more to strengthen relationships between refugees and other community members. 

That same evening I was listening to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s podcast ‘About Race’ and a guest was talking about the iron rule in activism being: Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Could these refugees have told their own story if they’d been given the right opportunity and support? I’m not saying that would have been easy; far from it (in the process of their research and development some of the young refugees they’d been speaking with had been sent back) but I do believe that more often than not it’s worth taking the longer, harder route in casting because the result is something that’s desperately needed and could have far greater impact. 

I’m not suggesting that I have the magic formula for making this work. I don’t think there is one. But I would urge people in these positions of power and with the opportunity to create work that could tell a new and very important narrative to carefully consider the best approach to take, and not always assume that you yourself are the best person to do the telling. 

For the most part, the rest of the festival was far less thought provoking or ‘challenging’ in terms of diversity and culture. In turn, the rest of the festival was a lot more white. It seemed once again that the majority of the time non-white actors are in the space, they are in roles relating to their culture. Rather than playing a role simply as a human being sharing this human experience.

This is where I am really keen to see change. I don’t want to only see BAME actors in the space when art is looking at themes of war, terrorism, migration, racism or any other ‘ISM! I want to be able to take my nephews to the theatre and see actors who look like them playing characters like them; British born black boys from London. Over the past few years film has progressed (not enough I’m sure but it’s a start) to see actors like John Boyega in Star Wars and the whole incredible cast of Black Panther making a huge impact, but theatre (particularly theatre for Children and Young People) is so far behind – why?

I have a theory that theatre hasn’t been forced to change in the same way because it’s consumers are less diverse than that of the TV/film industry. Theatre in the UK has traditionally been a world more readily adopted by white upper class individuals and families, but in order to develop theatre audiences, surely we need to develop the work on offer – not wait for the audience to change and then have to catch up by changing the product. After all, so much of the art and culture on offer is publicly funded and as such, should reflect the wider public.

The art world is full of people professing to be very liberal and wanting equality. So what’s stopping us from progressing?

I think there’s a few key things…

  1. Removing the barriers – there are still massive barriers in to theatre. Both to training and then to the professional world. This has GOT to become more inclusive so that we see a wider range of actors coming through the talent pipeline.
  2. Knowing when to step away – people want to help, that’s great, but sometimes the best way to help is to do less. That’s not the same as stepping away or completely removing yourself. It’s about recognising who is the best person to run a project, or tell a story and then supporting them to do that.
  3. Asking what’s actually needed – too often we assume what someone else needs. Art often takes a paternal role, succumbing to the ‘saviour’ idea that Britain has been portraying inwardly and outwardly for so long. Next time you are thinking, how can we engage this group, or how can we better support this community. Don’t have the conversation amongst your own team. Go and ask the people you are wanting to work with. It’s not rocket science to think that they will know better than you about what they need – to think otherwise is just ignorant. We can very easily fall in to the trap of thinking we understand because we are empathetic and just trying to do our best, but we can never truly understand how it is to stand in anyone else shoes and it’s incredibly easy to make massive errors in judgement if you don’t communicate properly from the outset.

*Featured Image: Street art in Birmingham, taken during a research trip considering storytelling and representation*

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