Most people would agree that diversity is a good thing, especially in the sometimes claustrophobic world of the theatre.
However, should diversity mean theatrical apartheid? Whilst I applaud specific theatre companies and programmes aimed at enfranchising certain communities, I don’t think this is a substitute for more ‘mainstream’ theatres reflecting the real and diverse world we live in (perhaps a black face in a restoration comedy at a regional rep for example, or it not being a ‘talking point’ if an Asian plays a Shakespearian lead).
Tonight I was at The Hampstead for Kindertransport, a play about Jewish children brought to the UK just before the Second World War to escape the Nazi horrors. It didn’t surprise me that much of the audience were Jewish, in fact hearing people describe their family members being killed in the Holocaust during the interval brought the horror of events not just onto the stage in front of me, but right into the seat next to me (plus good theatre should stimulate debate and engage the mind).
But, when I see play’s dealing with certain groups, more often than not the majority of the audience are likewise Irish/Black/Gay/Asian etc. Whilst I understand the urge to see a play that is familiar or deals with some aspect of yourself, surely we go to the theatre to find out about other people (and perhaps ourselves through them!)? I have no problem relating the universalities of a Nigerian play to my own experience whilst also learning something about that culture. My enjoyment of a Kabuki evening at Sadler’s Wells was enhanced by a mostly Japanese audience who cheered just like we were in Tokyo. But my concern is that non-ethnic specific drama (modern plays or classics) be seen as ‘white’ drama, perhaps as an extension of the myth that theatre is only for the rich (already putting off a whole other section of society).
In fact drama and the theatre belongs to no one (but, yes, it does help if you can afford to buy a ticket. But that’s another posting…), we can all get different things of out different experiences. I remember being at the Indian Twelfth Night at The Albery Theatre a couple of years ago, the matinee audience was packed with multi ethnic inner London school kids. At the interval they all animatedly talked about the production, what the language meant, how the story would progress ect. This was purely the words of The Bard onstage, with a bit of Indian spice to jazz up the production (which worked very well), but I had no doubt that those children with races and religions from all over the world would have engaged with any exciting/decent staging of the play.
So how do we get the enthusiastic minority audiences to go to other events? I’ve rarely seen a non white face in the West End or Royal Court for example (perhaps those audiences should experiment more too). I don’t have the answer, and would welcome any comments. But I can say that fostering a theatre culture in schools is vital. Privileged kids already get taken to the theatre, what we need to do is ensure that the most disadvantaged children get to see a play. I think some system whereby the treasury gave VAT refunds to theatres to the equivalent value of tickets distributed to local schools, would be a cheap and easy(ish) way of doing this. The theatre gives so much revenue to the UK economy (and, more importantly, is so significant culturally), in many guises, that its long-term future (i.e. the next generation of theatregoers) should be secured.