Tag Archives: Apples and Snakes

Whoever comes are the right people

What are we REALLY going to do about Race and Diversity in UK Theatre?

Lemn Sissay [British Library]

Lemn Sissay [British Library]

I went to the recent Devoted & Disgruntled event at the Southbank Centre last week. The invitation was written by Tyrone Huggins, actor-manager & playwright. The poet Lemn Sissay opened the open space, reading from flashcards provided by Phelim McDermott/Improbable Theatre. It’s a script I know well, having attended four D&Ds in the last few years. Lemn stuck to it, but added a little decoration as he got distracted by the general usefulness of the statements he was reading, statements such as: ‘the brilliant thing about the people who are not here is that they are not here’ and ‘whatever happens is the only thing that could have’ and ‘when it’s over it’s over.’ He did a bit of walking backwards then reverted to walking forwards again with the observation that it’s pretty much the same.

This D&D was about race and diversity. It’s the first themed D&D I’ve attended. My previous D&Ds were in Devon, where I used to live. The Plymouth event was almost entirely white, as expected; the Exeter event was almost entirely white, as expected. Then I moved to Birmingham a little while ago so attended one here (almost entirely white, unexpected).  I’ve also managed to get to one of the London ones, not the latest, but the year before (almost entirely white, unexpected).

Birmingham and London are the two largest cities in the country, both with non-white populations of around 40% – so why don’t the people around the D&D circle reflect that? Are the artists out there but not coming because they don’t know about them? Do they know about them but choose not to come? Never mind. ‘Whoever comes are the right people.’

Last week’s event was pretty ‘diverse’, when it comes to theatre. I heard people reflecting happily about the number of East Asians there, but one of the sessions was titled ‘why aren’t more black people here today?’ And the man who called it said he’d looked around the room in disappointment, full of white faces, again. Oh well. ‘Whoever comes are the right people.’

It’s a weird thing, to be so focused on skin colour. It’s weird because people are people, we’re all the same and we’re all different. It’s strange to be a ‘white’ woman talking about ‘black’ and ‘of colour’ and cautiously using such labels because I can’t use them comfortably, without feeling that I might be ‘othering’ others from my white position, but not to use those labels is to pretend ours is a colourblind culture, which it isn’t.  I don’t want to be a definer, I don’t want to ‘do’ race, but just as, at the recent Black and Asian Writers Conference in Manchester, Fred D’Aguiar talked about the skin of the black body allowing access to a larger history:

The black figure isn’t confined to time and space … you are able to get into a larger history and a larger hurt … something about skin and the nervous system allows you to know and feel things beyond the limitations of your body …

…likewise the skin of a white body makes us part of ‘a larger history and a larger hurt’ from the side of those who did the hurting. I may not have had anything to do with colonialism but I can’t assume that I have nothing at all to do with the traces of history and hurt that are still so present, as Steve Martinot puts it in his brilliant book, ‘The Machinery of Whiteness’:

Because whites are the definers, “race” as a concept is inseparable from white supremacy. That is, “race” as a concept is inseparable from the white hierarchical domination that constructs it. (19)

I have some gaping gaps that require filling in when it comes to the history of this country. My schooling didn’t mention colonialism, and from the sounds of it, Michael Gove’s proposals are not going to provide a solution. Perhaps if the middle classes were better educated, British period drama wouldn’t be quite so limited to Austen and Downton.

One of the sessions focused on the impact of education on careers in theatre: ‘what’s school got to do with it? How did you get where you are today?’ At drama school the British actor Mitesh Soni was constantly asked to put on an Indian accent and ‘do a funny head shake’  – all good preparation for professional auditions for which he is told to bring his own turban (he’s not Sikh) … Questions were raised such as, should drama school be explicitly teaching its British students of colour to do an array of accents to give them the tools they will need in an industry in which they will be typecast? Or should they continue to pretend the problem doesn’t exist on the surface whilst asking a young woman who has had what she describes as a ‘white middle class upbringing’ and who speaks with the most refined RP I’ve ever heard offstage, to do an accent that’s like her mother’s, and when that doesn’t result in what they are looking for they say: ‘a bit more fresh off the boat’. Perhaps the answer is to set up new schools.

The problem is that men watching TV shows full of men don’t notice there are no women in them. White people watching a play with only white actors don’t notice there are no people of colour. We don’t see what we are not when it is not there. This not seeing, is one way in which we white people ‘do’ race:

White people “do” race in the sense of “committing” certain practices, actions, and attitudes … What white people do to others through these practices, however, tends to remain unseen by their white perpetrators once the practices become elements of a cultural structure in which they simply “go without saying.” (Martinot, 23)

So, it ‘goes without saying’ that we just have to put on period dramas with all white casts. It ‘goes without saying’ that 12 Angry Men ‘aint broke so don’t fix it’. It ‘goes without saying’ that a drama school has to limit the number of black actors they accept. It goes without saying that English = white. It goes without saying that actor = white. It goes without saying that a cast list that doesn’t specify skin colour will be cast as white. It goes without saying that political dramas will be full of posh white men.


The British public (or perhaps that’s a particular slice of the British public) has only recently realised how great it is to see women in leading roles in TV drama. They weren’t reported missing until The Killing and The Bridge and Borgen. But in spite of Roifield Brown’s observation that  ‘the ability to talk effortlessly about … increasingly, the right fashionable Scandinavian drama’ can gain you entry ‘into this club’ (referring to the UK media), the producers in the club don’t seem to have clocked why viewers are so enamoured. The BBC Radio spin off version of Borgen thought it was the coalition Danish politics that’s the important thing. The four male characters are listed as:

The ‘unflinchingly determined’  ‘permanent secretary for the Ministry of the Environment’ [Hans, the lead]

‘A  hard drinking journalist’

‘An environmental rights campaigner’

‘The permanent secretary for the Ministry of Finance’

The two female characters are listed as:

‘Han’s daughter’

‘A long standing friend of Hans’

In Danish drama women get to solve crimes and run the country. In the UK we are cast in relation to the leading man.

Francesca Beard [R Denney]

Francesca Beard [R Denney]

Apples and Snakes (with generous Arts Council funding) were instrumental in cultivating a diverse English spoken word scene (also described as ‘performance poetry’/’poetry in performance’ etc). They have always done this consciously, looking to support the ‘disenfranshised voice’. In the eighties that was the black British voice. Now the focus is on voices from the regions. I believe that one of reasons why the spoken word scene (although by no means perfect) is so much more diverse than the theatre world is because it has no gatekeepers at its entrance. Anyone can do an open mic. Everyone is applauded. I started out doing open mic. That’s the way we can experiment. We can get heard. No unpaid internships. No writers’ groups that you don’t find out about until you’re too old for them. No unofficial mentoring via a friend of a friend. No job offer via your mother. No debt-for-life trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. Just the opportunity to try out work and get better at it, and then the open mics turn into paid gigs, opportunities to work with others, and maybe that turns into a touring theatre show. Like these: Francesca Beard; Lemn Sissay; Hannah Jane Walker; Ross Sutherland; Zena Edwards, Inua Ellams, Kate Tempest (not to make assumptions about how these artists got to where they are, but …they have all worked with Apples and Snakes). I think this section of the poetry scene (which increasingly bleeds into the theatre scene) is becoming the new mainstream when it comes to poetry, (either that or it’s not poetry at all, depending on who you ask). Certainly, far more poets working in performance reach an audience and earn a living by writing/performing than those who focus on the page.  But that debate aside, when it comes to race and diversity, can theatre learn from spoken word?

The discussions at D&D focused around the mainstream theatre, the casting of actors of colour, and possible solutions. There’s no getting away from the fact that ‘mainstream’ theatre and TV is where the money and the work is, so it’s not as easy to say, ‘make a new mainstream’ as it is in the poetry world. There are also a large number of white actors, writers and directors who have given up on the impossible task of trying to crack the little London circuit and are making their own work. Both Lemn Sissay and Tyrone Huggins got established by making their own work.

I was inducted into the make it yourself philosophy in Amsterdam and then at Dartington College of Arts. At Dartington there’s no talk of the ‘industry’ or ‘agents’ or ‘casting directors’, there’s no question that anyone’s skin colour will have anything to do with their success, there’s no unofficial quota on how many people of colour can be accepted. But then, there’s no Dartington anymore either. And when there was, it was overwhelmingly white. Hidden away in the Devon countryside, I only knew about it because my mum did.

One of the sessions called at D&D was ‘Is anyone else tired of all this shit?’- something like that. These are conversations that have taken place many times before, issues that have been raised many times before, it’s shocking that the issues are still issues. Kwame Kwei-Armah, discussing his decision to leave the UK to become the artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage: ‘I thought we had won those arguments already. I couldn’t face it again.’ He adds: ‘we still cannot get through glass ceilings to save our lives back at home.’

D&Ds can be very cozy and comfortable. There are rules (principles) that help us feel comfortable. Whoever comes are the right people. In Devon I knew pretty much everyone there. When I went to the general London one, in spite of the fact I’ve never lived in London (and in spite of the fact I’m pretty outside of all this), I knew quite a lot of people. It’s a tiny world.  Is it too tiny? Whoever comes are the right people. I could try to argue with that, and it’d make a nice conclusion to the blog, but these D&D open space principles are pretty solid. So, let’s go with it. We are the right people. But we, the right people, also have a responsibility to try and bring in the people who aren’t here, whether those people are casting plays, running theatres, or working on a weekday. And then, whoever we are, as Tyrone Huggins says: ‘I think we have to bust this thing open. “They” (whoever “they” are) are never going to fix this. It’s down to us. To me and you.’

‘When it’s over it’s over.’

It’s not over. Here are Tyrone Huggins’ questions:

Is it pointless to continue to discuss issues of diversity?

 Why bother to take the complaints of black theatre to an industry that has mastered the art of inertia?

 Given the literary core of the British theatre aesthetic, is it not an exercise in futility to image an equitable sharing of resources for alternative theatre forms and practice?

 Isn’t it true that when we talk about race we’re really talking about skin colour politics?

 Why talk about race anyway, shouldn’t the focus be on excellent work?

If the Creative Case for Cultural Diversity holds any truth, why is it not at the heart of our creative industries?

If Black Asian and Minority Ethnic audiences don’t turn out for theatre in sufficient numbers to support its economics, why spend time or money worrying about them? 

Does the digital world hold any opportunities for diversity or race in the performing arts?




Filed under Theatre, TV

Join Hannah Silva in Opposition

Invitation to join Hannah Silva in


A Political Play on Words

About the show:  

‘My Big Idea’, ‘The Biggest Past Decade’ ‘The Biggest Budget Deficit’ ‘The Big Society’ ‘The Broken Society’ ‘Riot Wombles’ Blair blare blah blah. Meaningless twaddle and jargon of modern political rhetoric get ripped apart in this one- woman manifesto. No one is safe.

Expect questions, politics, satire. Don’t expect answers, just a creeping sense we are all being had.

About you:

You like provocative theatre.  You might read the Guardian or the Times, but secretly love flicking through the Daily Mail, to get cross. You have opinions and are comfortable voicing them. You know what the politicians are talking about. At least you think you do….

About me:

….I decided to make Opposition because I wasn’t convinced I did know what the politicians were talking about. I’m based in Plymouth. I’m a playwright, poet and performer and am currently co-writing a play for Radio 3 with Colin Teevan. I work as a librettist with composer Joanna Lee (through the Aldeburgh/Jerwood Opera Writing Scheme). I have poetry in forthcoming anthologies published by Avalanche Books, Penned in the Margins, and Bloodaxe, and right now, I’m booking a tour for Opposition.

So how about it?

At the recent Edinburgh Fringe, Opposition received rave reviews and was described by What’s on Stage as: “radical, political, courageous….”

Go on, take up this offer to witness ‘a one-woman embodiment of a political system in meltdown’ (The Skinny) – your name badge awaits!

“This is a virtuoso avant-garde performance of a virtuoso avant-garde text by a virtuoso avant-garde artist. Go to listen, marvel, participate. Go to be amazed. Just go.” *****What’s on Stage

Join me – in Opposition,

Hannah Silva

photo: Eileen Long (performing at the Exeter Fringe, Bike Shed Theatre)

Opposition on Tour:

16 February, 7:30pm
ARC Stockton on Tees
Tickets: 01642 525 119

21 February, 8pm
Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple
Tickets: 01271 324 242

24 February, 7:30pm
The Albany, London
[invited audience showing, if you’d like to be invited, please get in touch with me (not the Albany)]

3 May
Lincoln Drill Hall

30th June
Ashley Wood Festival

Further dates tba: http://www.hannahsilva.wordpress.com

‘Yes there will be objections. But you know what? We’re happy about that’ David Cameron. 

Opposition is co-produced with The Barbican Theatre, Plymouth in association with Apples and Snakes. It is re-developed in Residence at Dartington Arts with support from the Dartington Hall Trust. Funded by The Arts Council England & The Arts Unit, Plymouth City Council.

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Filed under Opposition, Playwriting, Poetry, political theate, political theatre

Opposition, Edinburgh Fringe, ZOO Southside

Click here to book tickets for Opposition

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Filed under Edinburgh Fringe, Opposition, political theatre