Breaking Barriers, Moving Forwards
A paper given at the Project X Symposium ‘Let’s Move to More Visibility’
22 Sep 2017, Tramway Glasgow
Some of you may already know something about my work in theatre in Scotland, that I have some kind of visibility in my field – but some of you may not. So I thought it might be worth telling you a bit about me. Kind of like a case study, with images showing some of my work, for flavour – then offer some thoughts about ways to move forward.
I guess, sometimes, theatre tends to dominate the performing arts landscape, but in terms of BME artists (or whatever term you prefer – I often just say black for short, and growing up in London, that’s what we were all called, so I identify with that too), I’m sure a lot of this will resonate with artists in other art forms.
In thinking about the subject of the visibility of artists of colour, which I have done for many years, it’s always useful firstly to look back. The place we stand in now is shaped by what came before, whether on a personal level, as a community or as a professional sector.
I’ve worked in Scottish theatre now for twenty six years. Originally an actor, I’ve pretty much turned my hand to most things, artistic, producing, even technical – when absolutely necessary, or when no money to pay people! I’m now a writer and theatremaker – though I hate that term, but it succinctly describes the range of tasks I will undertake to bring work to the public arena. Also handy when you’re doing a word count.
Starting out, I joined Category A Theatre Company, a Fringe First winning, small-scale, new writing company, which often used the prison setting as a site from which to explore social issues. As well as performing in mainstream venues, we took shows out to community centres and prisons. Though project funded, we had shoestring budgets. I learned on the job to produce, creating opportunities for myself to act. It was valuable training.
Working with writers Willy Maley and his brother John Maley, I was encouraged to feed in artistically. It was political, though I didn’t realise it at the time. They would adapt or write roles for me that recognised my type, ethnicity or cultural heritage; if that was the way I wanted to take it. They were allies.
It was the 90’s and we were the most diverse company at the time, white, brown, male, female, lower middle and working class, Indian, Scottish – with a touch of the Irish. We worked with communities, young people, offenders, then moved into short filmmaking, screening at film festivals internationally, winning plaudits and numerous awards including the Special Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. I was lucky…and spoiled. So much so that my expectations were impossibly high and would inevitably be dashed when that particular party ended.
While the makeup of the population was beginning to change, Scottish theatre unapologetically remained white. I was visible, because I was the exception, but if people turned their backs to you, you disappeared.
Strength in numbers I thought, and connected with people of colour working in different professions, or working other disciplines – usually in participatory settings, or as hobbies. Encouraged by funding agencies, corralled into one space, it didn’t really matter what the art that we did was, we just all looked kinda similar. Occasionally we might be tempted by a dribble of funding here, a minor opportunity there, so that we might stay interested long enough to undertake the function of purveying diverse audiences to the arts. Because, that’s what we were there to do. Develop diverse audiences for art forms that rarely represented us, or nurtured us as artists.
So, where does the power lie to change this state of affairs? I thought, and answered an ad for Live and Direct, a training course for Black Directors, at Contact Theatre in Manchester, mentored by its Artistic Director John E McGrath – before he went to National Theatre of Wales and now he’s at Manchester International Festival – and Felix Cross of Nitro, formerly Black Theatre Co-op. I had to go outside Scotland, because by that time I knew nothing of substance was going to happen here.
The course was a profoundly moving experience. For the first time, I was freely able to sit in a room full of Black practitioners and talk about my experience in theatre in Scotland, of direct and indirect racism (for let’s be clear that’s what I encountered…and it still prevails). I was assured that it wasn’t so much a chip on my shoulder that I had, as a foot on my head that would only allow me to bob above the water and take a breath, which would keep me alive. So I came back to Scotland fired up, and taking into account the current, determined to swim in the direction I thought would get me to where I wanted to go.
I set up my company Wave Theatre in 2006, and was project to project funded by Scottish Arts Council, and then Creative Scotland, through the mainstreaming initiative that was supposed to be taking place at the time. This required the support and patronage of larger, mainstream organisations, which was difficult to secure, because they were not interested in expending time and energy developing the few BME artists on the ground in Scotland, unless they slotted into the framework of what those organisations were already doing for themselves.
I knew exactly what I wanted to say and see on our stages, but couldn’t find a writer whose work I wanted to direct, so I started writing myself, and found I had a flair for it. With Wave, I had to develop an organisational structure for which I was funded, but not for creation. However, I still managed to be prolific in producing artistic work, that the money shouldn’t buy. I was being fed but kept in check on a cash starvation diet, which curbed my artistic growth. Perpetual development hell ensued, with no way out.
Diversity costs, let’s make no bones about that. I stayed connected to London and Manchester – going back to Contact Theatre for a residency – mentored by the ‘cool as…’ Dawn Walton, now Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre Company in Sheffield. (She directed the epic solo show, ‘Salt’ by Selina Thompson, which some of you may have seen at the Fringe last month) I auditioned actors for my work in those cities, where there are greater numbers and more choice, reasoning and arguing to use quality actors to showcase my work and be visible role models, for those considering joining the profession here. Sometimes it cost me – in more than cash – to do that, but it was worth it. I just didn’t, and wasn’t, going to write characters that looked like the actors in Scotland.
In those six or seven years before I closed the company I had developed six plays to various stages, made a short film, produced two new plays by other Asian writers, produced three large multi-arts events, a community production, produced three plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, did a Festival of Politics, numerous workshops, worked with around a hundred artists, individuals and volunteers from twenty five different ethnicities or nationalities. Not bad on a shoestring!
Other, rare, funded opportunities for BME artists were thrown out to those who were parachuted in from down south. Mostly they would be temporary visitors, unable to sustain a career here after the opportunity had ended, and no choice but to return home showing us a clean pair of heels. The space that they left would close up again. In reality it would be an opportunity, a benefit to the host organisation that was trusted to hold the cash and direct the scheme, with minimal benefit in the long-term for the artist, or BME sector in Scotland. In fact, few resident BME artists have been able to stay in Scotland, AND stay in the profession. You’d think that was a clear indicator that the existing approach wasn’t working. Sticking plaster remedies, when open heart surgery was needed to prolong the life of the patient.
Suffice it to say that I clung on and continued to work as an independent artist, against the odds. As I’ve mentioned before, there are allies out there, so find them and work with them. I’d always sing the praises of Playwrights Studio Scotland, and the Scottish Book Trust, who are sensitive to learning about the needs of BME writers. Both are really supportive organisations – who don’t pretend they know all there is to know about diversity – and others like the Federation of Scottish Theatre and National Theatre of Scotland are opening up to listen too.
Now you may say, ‘Aww you’re just being negative’, or ‘that was then but it’s different now’, or better. Really?
Here are a few examples to show how feeble some of the recent attempts to tackle diversity are:
A conference on diversity and access, with around 80% of contributors who are white and able-bodied, and a ticket price of £180.
A large scale community performance about refugees from North African countries, with around five visible POC in a cast of around sixty.
While in England, a £400,000 research project gets underway to conduct a study into the barriers for POC to attend arts events, and to teach arts organsiations how to develop diverse audiences, by an organisation from Sheffield without any POC in it!
Sounds like an Alanis Morrisette song, doesn’t it? (Ironic)
If things are better, then why are we having this symposium, this conversation? Again. It may be new to you, but I can tell you it gets repeated every few years. Then, some soothing gestures are made by institutions, old things done in new ways, and repeat.
A new generation of artists of colour (note I said new, not necessarily young), are keen to get going, making and getting work. I want to encourage you to think about how, for artists of colour in Scotland, this moment in time has come about. Learn from the lessons, research more broadly than Scotland, and look at how great strides have been made elsewhere. Yes, we’re visible now, but relatively powerless, I think it’s safe to say. The symposium title suggests we should move to greater visibility, but that does feel to me like incrementalism, when revolution is needed.
In order to be seen, things that obscure us from view need to be removed. Apparently, in twenty years time, POC are expected to make up around 25% of the UK population. How relevant will the arts be to audiences then, if it doesn’t reflect us, or our identities, if we aren’t actively doing something about it now? Be seen yes, but it’s time we used our voices to be heard collectively, bring our networks together so that we can share information, knowledge and expertise.
The most disappointing thing I’ve found with trying to develop a diverse sector, is that BME people do not turn up to support our own work – so we need to start doing that. Go to our plays, dance performances, and events. Arrange to go with each other. We are more visible if there are many of us grouped together. It may be a bit scary for regular audiences at first. They’re not used to it. Good!
Try as much as you can to work with each other, so you can bring your audiences together in support of what you are trying to do. Invite them personally, individually – it’s a laborious process -but as my mentor Dawn says, if you’re having a party, you pick up the phone, or go and invite people in person. It’s selling. Do people buy things just because they’ve seen a flyer on a mass mailing?
We also need to gather knowledge ourselves about arts policy, join boards of institutions, start taking part in debates and critical dialogues not only about our art form, but others, and the sector. These are opportunities for exchange, where we are able to share our experiences. How else will people know who we are and how we live if our work isn’t being seen prominently, then making decisions that affect us, on our behalf. We desperately need our writers to start reviewing. As far as I know there are no critics of colour in mainstream journalism here, and probably not on blogging sites either – but that is an area that is readily available for takeover. Not just reviews, but informed critique as well. It’s essential for our own artistic development.
These are some of the ideas I am working on at the moment and trying to bring these strands together, at this critical time in history: a movement, at a time when we need to organise, and actively participate; and a multitude of ways in which we can act – together – to show that actually, the sector is already diverse. We’re busy making work and having a great time of it, if only the establishment would look over their shoulders.
Back in 2006 when I first set up Wave Theatre, I had a meeting with Madani Younis, then the Artistic Director of Freedom Studios in Bradford, now at the Bush Theatre in London. I explained to him how difficult it was, both to plug away at my own work and create space for diversity in the Scottish sector. He told me I had to decide whether to ensure my own artistic development or risk it to be a beacon for other artists coming through. Gave me much food for thought, though the landscape and demography of English theatre is different.
There’s no shame in working hard to better your own position. But I always thought that if you don’t dig up the foundations of structural inequality and lay new ones first, when you hit that glass ceiling – as it is likely that you will – there will be nothing beneath you to break your fall and land safely.
The filmmaker Ava du Vernay says, “If your dream is only about you, it’s too small.” I agree. So I’d like to encourage you to be more visible, but be more vocal, and take up space, for yourself, and always, always, keep a hand out to take someone with you.
A Bridge 2 Far?
Some thoughts about Home is Not the Place, my Edinburgh Fringe show this year
15 July 2017
So, here’ a little bit of background about my Fringe show ‘Home is Not the Place’…
As some of you may know, I HAD originally wanted to re-present my previous show ‘The Bridge’, as the 70th anniversary of Indian Independence falls in August, and that period in history provides part of the backdrop. Themes of identity, personal and political independence continue to be relevant and universal. It’s also UK-India Year of Culture, and as Scotland’s only Indian theatremaker it seemed silly not to put it on, despite not being part of any official programme or showcase. But I’m passionate about my heritage, and it’s just what you do…
I was always really proud of the script and the touring production – so much more than just a piece of writing. It was a real turning point in my understanding of who I am as a person, the value of what I do, in real terms, as an artist – and why.
I really hoped I could take ‘The Bridge’ further afield, to India – maybe I still will– but it didn’t seem to tick some of those…you know…boxes, in order to get the support needed to do that. It was an honest portrayal of some firsthand experiences of family members in Kerala, and more broadly in India, during the early to mid part of the the 20th Century, at a time when the yoke of colonialism was still in place or its impact deeply felt. Perhaps, it doesn’t show sufficient gratitude to the beneficent Britisher, from the inferior native. I do get a bit bored with the Jewel-in-the-Viceroy’s-Whatnot perspective, which I can’t believe still continues to be peddled and gulped down, with lashings of Chicken Tikka Masala, and a Kingfisher beer.
As with each outing, I wanted to do some more work on the script, but was feeling like I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. I had a meeting with the writer Alan Bissett lined up, arranged by the Scottish Book Trust, who have really been supportive this year, after awarding me with the Inspiring Scotland Saltire Bursary. I sent him the script. I loved his writing and thought he might be able to look at it with the fresh eyes I didn’t have. So, he gave me some notes.
But if I were to go down the route he suggested, it would be a different piece, I thought. Not just a straight-forward editing exercise. I was a bit scared to be honest. But he’d thrown down the gauntlet, and you know what? I couldn’t resist picking it up. I’ve been wrestling with the script ever since, it’s tied me up in knots, given me many, many more grey hairs, the kids have gone feral, the cat’s gone missing, the sleepless nights have started, as I’m stationed religiously at the laptop.
It’s been a really hard task, pulling apart something I loved. Killing my babies. A Sophie’s Choice of speeches. I hope I’m doing the right thing. But you’ve got to try – keeps you on your toes. I hope I hold my nerve. What’s that thing David Bowie said about going into the water and if your feet aren’t quite touching the bottom, you’re probably about to do something exciting? I’m putting my trust in you DB…and the ‘process’.
I don’t know if Alan’ll get the chance to see the script before I go into rehearsals, because he’s had his own fish to fry. My run starts on the 18th August, ‘Home is not the Place’ will be what I came up with…
MIA: a brief jaunt into my working life, and about ethnic diversity in Scottish theatre, over the last twenty five years.
Paper given to members of Federation of Scottish Theatre, 7 Dec 2016
Just why are we still having this same conversation in Scottish theatre in 2016? Ethnic diversity has continually fallen off any list of priorities, as long as it’s been a priority at all. Thankfully, change has to be made, and I’m particularly grateful to Jon [Morgan, outgoing Director of FST] for hosting this discussion, perhaps it’s a parting gift to you. Diversity is a gift. We liberals like to say it, especially, when faced with the rampant rise and bitter reasonings of the right in the wake of Brexit, and the permissions it has given to attack people from diverse communities. But why is it so difficult to gift diversity to audiences, the sector and more importantly, our culture?
Starting out in Scottish theatre twenty five years ago, you could count the number of BME actors on one hand – now it’s two hands! *jokes* Strangely, it didn’t feel hopeless then, because of the exciting programming, regular touring from English BME companies, giving an impression of diversity outwith the Fringe – now long gone.
I worked early on with Category A Theatre Company, with writers Willy Maley and his brother John Maley. They LISTENED to me, creating roles for me to play and leaving room to contribute artistically. ALLIES. We took our shows to mainstream and community venues, and prisons, long before it was sexy. Producing the shows myself, I acquired the skills I needed later on, making small grants go a long way, learning on the job – I was a single parent with no money for long training courses. Often called a shoestring company, like it was an insult, we were richer for it – being creative. Eventually project funding left us, and we worked with communities and offenders, then made short films, winning plaudits and awards, including a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. It was the 90’s and we were as diverse a company as you could get then…or even now. White, brown, female, male, gay, straight, Indian, Scottish with a touch of the Irish, creating theatre that originated from and engaged people from all walks and classes. I was spoilt. Outside forces split the camp, and on a ‘career break’ to have my younger children, I reflected on ‘why am I here and where to next?’
Gradually more faces looked like mine outside theatre, though few in the work being produced. No roles and no one creating them. I thought of going back home to London. But my mother said I was always a fighter and so I stayed.
Then I chanced upon an advert looking for black artists for director training on Live and Direct, at Contact Theatre in Manchester. Nothing was going to happen in Scotland like that, so I had to do it, even though I would have to stop nursing my baby to go on the course. I was mentored by Contact’s Artistic Director, John E McGrath as he was then, before [National Theatre of] Wales and Manchester International Festival, and Felix Cross of Nitro. Something clicked for me. Sitting in a room full of Black directors, I could freely talk about my experience in Scotland, of direct and indirect racism in theatre (for let’s be clear that’s what I encountered). Contact asked us what we needed, tried to meet it and gave us the space.
The creative energy, accessibility to experienced artists and management, and the tear-jerking diversity at Contact, moved me, and I came back to Scotland, fired up and armed with a bursary to assist on a Traverse production. But my fire dampened quickly afterwards, realising Scottish theatre was just not set up to do diversity! I got back into the fray and set up Wave Theatre in 2005, a vehicle for new writing and devised work, creating stories and characters from Black and Minority Ethnic [BME] backgrounds, that were actual central to the scripts, not token gestures or colourblind-cast. Project funded by SAC, Wave was intended to be part of the mainstreaming taking place, requiring the support of organisations, which was difficult to secure. Other, rare, funded opportunities were given to BME artists who parachuted in from down south, and swiftly returned there, for the same reasons that any BME artist who wanted to stay in the profession, decamps to England, showing us a clean pair of heels. No work.
Meanwhile the few BME artists based here, scratched around working on community projects, which appeared in the end to brand you as, somehow, second class. The words participation, involvement or engagement in the same sentence as BME makes me shudder, even now. We could be audience developers, activists, but not real artists on main stages!
I never intended to be a writer, but I couldn’t find one to write what I wanted to direct, so I just did it myself. I was welcomed back to Manchester, to a three week residency at Contact, mentored again by John and, the inspiring and ‘cool as…’ Dawn Walton, who’d worked at the Royal Court and had been Acting Head at the National Theatre Studio. The relationship continued to another script, made possible through Playwrights Studio mentoring programme, because Julie Ellen – Director at the time – LISTENED to me, and was sensitive to the kind of support I needed as a BME writer. Playwrights Studio continue to LISTEN and be supportive still, with Fiona [Sturgeon Shea] at the helm. Working with Dawn was a revelation, she knew instinctively where I was trying to get to and challenged me to be brave. Dawn went on to become the Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre based at the Crucible in Sheffield, the only Black-led National Portfolio Organisation, annually delivering a mid scale tour to regional theatres, developing numerous writers, including the brilliant rapper/musician Akala, working on different platforms, and attracting the best black casts. Their board is made up of all women with extensive knowledge of the arts, over 50% of whom are BME, which is a crucial place to start. For anyone that really wants to know how to develop BME talent, their website is a great place to look. It is eclipsetheatre.org.uk
Diversity costs more initially, let’s be clear. I auditioned actors in London and Manchester, where there are greater numbers, to give me choices. I reasoned and argued for using quality actors. Sometimes it cost me – in more than cash – but it was worth it. I just didn’t write characters that looked like the actors in Scotland!
In the six or seven years before I closed the company (basically, I was in perpetual development hell), I had developed 6 plays to various stages, made a short film, produced 2 new plays by other Asian writers, 3 large scale multi-arts events, a community production, did a Fringe, the Festival of Politics, numerous workshops, worked with around 100 artists, individuals and volunteers, from 24 different ethnicities or nationalities. I counted them! Not bad on a shoestring. So when the argument is made that the BME population in Scotland is too small for theatre to be diverse, I don’t buy it and see it as an easy-up barrier. We BMEs are increasingly visible, on the street, in workplaces, public life, our cultures and traditions ransacked for creative material, or lifestyle elements. Everywhere but theatre…sometimes not even in theatre about people like ourselves!
When I finally got a small commission, (not from a producing organisation I might add) for Glasgow 2014, at the point at which I was ready to go quietly, I got sucked back in again. I decided to raid my heritage – seemed apt – and wrote about my writer grandfather, who died just before Indian Independence, and the journeys he and my family took. It was a chance to understand and present who I am as a person and a writer, and how we all connect.
When people don’t know you, or treat you as the ‘other’, that ‘other’ becomes the lesser, less sentient, less human. BME artists don’t exist in some exotic ghetto orbiting round the mainstream, we are an integral part of Scottish society, and with it our culture and heritage too.
If you think you know why theatre is not diverse, make a list of reasons why, and then list solutions, you might see where YOUR PERCEPTIONS are creating barriers.
Submitted a piece of writing recently to the Scottish Book Trust and Saltire Society for an award, and was jokingly told that I’d likely be in a field of two. But they LISTENED to people who knew where to look, and found more than two dozen BME writers quietly doing their thang and telling their stories THEIR way, which is as it should be. They’re just not accessing the information in the way that it’s usually disseminated.
I read that the first non-white immigrants in Scotland have been traced back to the late 16th century. Yet, OUR STORIES ARE MISSING FROM THE STAGE! I’ll just leave you with some words that someone once said about why we need to write,
And if the words that I have written,
Fall unfavoured in some other day and age,
They do exist.
To tell the tale of who we are,
What we are, what we believe.
We are history.
Poured out on to fragile pages.
At Rana Plaza
Poem, September 2013
Seventeen days after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building at Savar in Dhaka, Bangladesh, a seamstress was rescued alive. This is a re-imagining of her story.
(Link to the film poem here)
Through old wood frets, light leeched bravely,
To her lonely room, that kept her safe.
The Seamstress blinks at the open door,
To the narrow trench. between rusted shacks,
And washed rags, line-drying,
Crisscrossed, like festival bunting.
Humidity high as the aroma of drains.
She could taste both in the air, as she
Padlocked the door from outside,
And bolted. Late.
No lunch packed, no breakfast eaten,
The Seamstress runs to punch her card,
Before Big Boss sees, and marks it.
Late. to stitch vests for the west.
She just makes it.
It’s not a cause, it’s a living.
Poor for sure, at Rana Plaza.
At Rana Plaza, the downdraft
Devoured the voices of four thousand people falling,
The Seamstress thought her time had come, when the lot came crashing down
She closed her eyes, and lightly lay, on the softest bed, to welcome sleep,
On a cushion of air, flying free,
To certain death,
Concrete, metal, twisted, thundered,
Plundered breath, and limbs and life,
Blackout then…Momentary silence.
The earth sighed, heavy with loss,
And gifts a fraction, with pockets of resistance to closing air.
Fighters for freedom, imprisoned In chains of hope.
At Rana Plaza
A rumbling rises, shouts, screams, ring,
Swarms of rescuers scramble over
Treacherous, mounds of debris,
Drowns out muffled, dust filled rasps
Of buried souls crying, out for
Under the rubble,
Memories trickled of her short life.
The village girl, has long-gone left,
Sent means home when she could
Merged into the city, spoused,
But never settled for his hands,
Again, around her slender throat.
She’d fight back but he’d kick her down
And drop her to her knees.
He’d stop just short of choking her,
Sobered by the thought that she brought home the mutton,
And the pennies he stole for firewater,
Which made his rage boil blood,
That last time, with a cigarette, of the native kind,
And pains-taking deliberation,
Repeatedly patterned her exposed skin,
Pitted like human , broiderie, anglaise .
She’d pushed him out of mind since then,
she pushed him out again.
She thought of family, home, god.
But who would save the seamstress now,
Unfound at Rana Plaza
Days came, days went,
One after the other,
A live one, a dead one.
Live, live, dead.
No more, days passed
No matter, there’s plenty more.
Dirt cheap. Two for the price of one.
Like the clothes we stand up in.
A metal pipe glints in the sun,
Her harsh breath runs through it.
Ting, ting, ting.
I’m here, she cries.
Ting, ting, ting.
I’m here, he replies.
She forced her hand into the light.
He holds it, calls for help
To make her free. Again. They dig,
And cut and overturn
The wreckage and free her from her concrete tomb.
A blaze of flashes, phones,
Cameras , confusion reigns as
A miracle is reported.
The world and his wife,
Saw them save her life
But for some it’s seemed unfair.
The lineman at her factory
Insisted on his say
That she’d already been saved with him,
That first god-forsaken day.
Imagine his suprise when
Day seventeen arrived,
And they dig her out again.
Local dailies picked up the lead
Conflicting rumours struck
Suspicion that political play
Shaped her double escape, not luck,
Worldwide condemnation, drives an elaborate scheme,
Veils those cruel conditions with, a feelgood smoke screen,
To spirit away blame. A HOAX, by any other name
Her grateful smile, became a sign
To marvel at a time big business sought to bury their deeds.
A full portfolio of crime.
They’d seen the cracks inside
All scrutiny of safety, denied.
In that damn heat, for a pittance,
The Seamstress was handy fodder, small fry in a big net.
A degradation of options, her meagre wants unmet
Was a promise of a new life, not lived from hand to mouth,
The key to unlock a future, she had only dreamt about?
Would you not take the offered hand? Or stay hostage to your fate?
A lifeline to a drowning girl, who can’t afford to wait.
A poker chip in a global game, a victim of her state.
She clawed her way out of that heap,
Conspiracy or no.
Her fame provides,
No place to hide,
From terror dreams ,
Of death inside
That ground zero
Of industrialist pride.
And the wind cried,
For those one thousand, one hundred , and twenty nine
At Rana Plaza.
TICKING THE BOX: An overview of the impact of cultural diversity strategies in the Scottish arts sector since 1998
Report, December 2012
Cultural diversity in the arts is a policy area that has had a gradually increasing profile over the last fifteen years, subsequent to the findings of the Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. The MacPherson report, published in 1999, recognised and defined the racism inherent in institutional processes. The report’s recommendations for the operation and duty of public bodies led to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 [RRAA] followed by the Equality Act 2010 which supersedes past legislation against discriminatory practices.
The report’s reach extended to the nation’s cultural life. In Scotland’s National Cultural Strategy of 2000, one of the key strategic objectives included action to recognise and celebrate the cultural contribution of its black and minority ethnic [BME] communities. The Scottish Arts Council [SAC] designated 2002 as the Year of Cultural Diversity, and launched their Cultural Diversity Strategy [CDS] for the five year period until 2007.
This report will consider how effective cultural diversity strategies have been in the arts sector, particularly in the new light of the Equality Act. Previous research into the impact of cultural diversity in the arts in Scotland has been sparse, with greater emphasis placed on reporting participatory work with BME participants, rather than representation in the professional sector.
Detailed examination of diversity was alluded to but deferred, in reports such as Scotland’s Cultural Commission Report 2004 and Review of Scotland’s Theatre Sector 2012, where the need to address the issues is acknowledged but not attempted in depth. An Equality Review by SAC’s successor Creative Scotland [CS], is expected to take place in 2014.
Qualitative research data for this report has been gathered from the broader, more up to date research available in England, as well as the thin seam of existing data in Scotland. The issues, initiatives, and impacts are comparable, despite differences in political context and arts funding structures. Data was also collected through recording of an interview with Venu Dhupa, Director of Creative Development at Creative Scotland from 2010-12. Ms Dhupa had previously held senior posts, at the British Council, Nottingham Playhouse, NESTA and the National Theatre. She is an activist and consultant in the fields of cultural policy, leadership and diversity.
- CULTURAL DIVERSITY IN THE ARTS: VICTORY OR DEFEAT
“Representation on the Scottish Arts Council and committees which reflects the diversity of Scottish society” (SAC 2002), one of the key aims of SAC’s CDS had been achieved at a senior level by the appointment of Venu Dhupa at CS. It was a major positive outcome, however, she had developed her leadership experience in England, moving from a performance background to management. While it may not have been a direct result of that specific strategy, it may have ensured that space had been prepared within the sector, for a woman from a BME background to assume such a powerful role.
Defying expectation, Dhupa’s position at Creative Scotland, does not include special responsibility for diversity. Tactically, this would allow her to support the process without being an obvious figurehead for the policy. From her experience and observations, she believes that the cultural diversity strategies of both England and Scotland’s arts councils have failed in their ambitions. Contextualising that Eclipse, a joint initiative to combat racism in theatre, which began at Nottingham Playhouse, where she was Executive Director, had a “firmly anti-racist” agenda, Dhupa said, as a direct response to the Lawrence Inquiry. When she left her post in Nottingham, Eclipse was then taken over by Arts Council of England [ACE] and developed to “celebrate diversity”, losing “… the edge off the anti-racist campaign, and from then on we see it becoming diluted”, and safe. While the management understood that “diversity had to happen”, they were unwilling to surrender their power.
Dhupa likened it to Victory Square, in central Warsaw, where large numbers of people would congregate. The authorities, however, fearing the possibility of a threat to public order, frequently close it off, using the pretext of maintenance works.
Dhupa relates this to the arts councils, who retain Cultural Diversity under policy matters, instead of opening up the discourse to artists, empowering them to lead and advance the process, for fear of undermining the existing power structures. It goes further than indifference, “It’s active obstruction…so if you think about Victory Square, they’ll do a few road works, tidy up a few signs, but they won’t attack the heart of it. And neither will they let anyone else occupy the space to do it.”
The issue is not important enough to the governments to do more than nominally “support the strategy, tinkering away at the edges, so they’ll never fully implement the equal opportunities legislation”.
- MAINSTREAMING: OPEN ROAD OR DEAD END
The CDS stated that it had “anticipated mainstreaming as the goal for arts funding in Scotland before the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 [RRAA] became law”. Where mainstreaming is successful, it can have major positive effects on organisations, their workforces and the communities they serve. It is not, however, a one-time, quick-fix solution. It is an ongoing process, one that requires a consistent approach, with effective planning, monitoring and evaluation. Without this level of attack, the process could stall and “…degenerate into tokenism, where public commitment is given but little is actually done. “ (SCVO 2002)
How effective has this process been in promoting race equality beyond awareness into action? How has it met the requirements of the RRAA’s General Duty, and that of the subsequent Equality Act of 2010, which supersedes it, and mark a shift in the ‘culture’ of cultural production? Dhupa points to the canon in theatre, which has barely changed since she studied it at university. This cannot be an acceptable position to be in, in a multi-cultural society. “It goes beyond theatre, to all art forms including our museum collections and our national collections, where there is a resistance to re-interpreting the collections or the canon, in the light of the demography you’re seeing in the population.”
This reluctance, or inability, to assimilate multiple narrative identities as part of a unified, national cultural heritage can be seen in institutions like the National Museum of Scotland or Scottish National Portrait Gallery [SNPG]. When SNPG was re-opened in 2011 after re-furbishment, in the ‘Hot Scots’ exhibition, were featured a number of populist figures such as Dr Who actress Karen Gillan.
Poet Jackie Kay was the only black person included in it. Director James Holloway said “… they are part of what makes Scotland today. It’s important for the first things that people see to be people they have heard of… The country is very varied and this is part of modern Scotland.” (Higgins 2011)
Yet at the same time portraits of Pakistani Scots with their families, such as the screen actor Atta Yaqub or the Human Rights lawyer Aamer Anwar, were displayed elsewhere, in a small cordoned off area, at the end of an upper floor, in a display called Migration Stories: Pakistan. Kay, who had in the past been regarded as one of Scotland’s ‘culturally diverse’ artists, had broken through the confines of Scottish culture by way of her international success in literature. She had transcended that definition, to become mainstream, in the same way that Anish Kapoor or Chris Ofili are assured the classification of ‘artist’, unqualified by identification with their ethnicity.
Of the Pakistani exhibit, Dr. Amanullah De Sondy, questions that it is truly representative of the majority of migration stories from that community, mainly featuring the prominent or prosperous, in a “…neat and tidy, heteronormative family structure. If Scotland wants to be at the forefront as a progressive nation then we must present the bigger picture. ” (de Sondy 2011)
A glance at the Board of Trustees of the National Galleries demonstrates that there is no representation of BME communities there. It is pertinent then, to ask who is setting the agenda, informing the decision making process and raising the difficult questions that need to be answered, in the face of such contradictions, working towards the goal of equality?
Another key feature of diversity strategies has been the inclusion of training or internships, as a way of levelling the playing field, bringing the skills of the diverse practitioner up to par with their non-diverse peers. Thousands of pounds have been released to subsidise these opportunities, for which a satisfactory return for investment would be a visible change in the shape of leadership roles in the mainstream sector – spaces for these ‘graduates’ to apply the benefits of their training.
There is a danger that because the structures are not able to adapt to accommodate them, the most ambitious and adept practitioners remain unable to make their mark, leading to eventual departure from the subsidised to the commercial sector. Dhupa said, “…they’re not given the opportunity to push boundaries…” but only able “…to become like the leaders that have perpetuated the status quo. There is no room for the maverick leader…” Notable examples include designer and co-founder of Moti Roti, Keith Khan, the cultural historian and academic Gus Casely-Hayford, and performer turned arts executive Shreela Ghosh.
Conversely, the level to which leaders in the mainstream continue to undertake training, and refresh their skills remains largely unknown – the implication being that once in a position of power, they don’t need to, “…whereas an Asian or Black trainee will have gone through perpetual training”.
- AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT
BME practitioners have long been charged with the task of developing diverse audiences by facilitating participatory projects with BME groups or individuals, as a way of achieving this. Often this is a requirement of their funding agreements. There is an expectation that a satisfactory experience of engagement by a community participant can be converted into attendance, and “…that the most appropriate audience for a British artist of Asian origin is the ‘Asian community’, as if that were a homogeneous entity…” (Jeyasingh 2007). This is an illogical premise. Engagement is undoubtedly an effective way of connecting with people from BME backgrounds, but usually has to be centred on activity that is familiar to them, through their own experience or cultural traditions. In the same way, if attending arts events is an unfamiliar pastime, in an unfamiliar building, to an Asian person, it does not follow that an Asian company is going to attract them in for the first time.
In Scotland, there are challenges around programming and marketing events with a BME appeal, because little or no work is done to connect with BME communities. Theatres and other mainstream venues are not attractive or welcoming to new and diverse audiences. Because they are commonly single purpose buildings, new visitors are unlikely to have attended other events there, and the majority of existing users are white. Exceptions are areas densely populated by BME people, such as in English cities like Leicester, where performance venues are used for a variety of events. This is not the case in Scotland where the BME population counts for 4% of the population, according to the 2011 Census (NRS 2011).
In trying to fulfil audience gathering expectations from funders, there is a risk that practitioners are encouraged to circumnavigate their artistic ambitions of achieving impact in the mainstream, delaying their own progress and returning to the position they started in: lack of properly resourced production experience and of representation in key creative roles in the sector. As Dhupa says, “My own thought on this is that it requires a certain group in the population to acquiesce to that policy in order to give it legitimacy, and we’ve all done it…and I’m now speaking as a Black and Minority Ethnic activist, we have to be smarter in our tactics.”
“…Excellence in culture occurs when an experience affects and changes an individual “ (McMaster 2008, p.9). BME practitioners are used to creating work on dramatically small budgets. It is time for them to take the next step to access budgets that will allow them to create that which is also technically excellent, to match the affecting power of their work. Between Venu Dhupa’s arrival at Creative Scotland and subsequent departure in December 2012, the investment programmes have been re-designed, “…mainstream funds are open to diverse companies, they’re no longer boxed off…one of the things I could do was make sure the structure was there.” Equality is high on the agenda, and it is time for BME artists to be more tactical, vocal and to challenge the status quo. Dhupa concludes that “..it’s those sort of provocations that Scotland needs desperately. Because it’s too comfortable here.”
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