At this year’s Breaking Out of the Box event at Theatr Clwyd, the hot topic of discussion was the access and opportunity for minority artists and technicians to the stages of Welsh theatre. As the debate surrounding diversity goes on, theatre writer Jafar Iqbal asks what comes next after all the talking?
I’m not going to bore you with statistics today. You’ve heard them all before, and they don’t actually do much right now except look pretty. If only for the next ten minutes, let’s talk about this very important issue in the way we always should – as lovers of art who want Wales to be comparable to the rest of the world.
I first attended a Breaking out of the Box event in 2015; that year it focused on issues facing Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences and performers. All these passionate people talking about access in the arts was wonderful and, having moved to Cardiff a few months earlier, I thought I’d arrived at the start of a revolution. Three years later and… here I am. Not privileged and honoured to be continuing the conversation but frustrated at having to help kick it into life. A lot of the ideas thrown around back at that event in 2015 either haven’t been implemented or weren’t given the attention they deserved by the organisations with the power to listen.
These conversations have been going on for years and years. Symposiums, brainstorming sessions, manifestos, research studies: same discussions, different terminology. Yet progress is frighteningly slow, and why is that? Why hasn’t the balance shifted from talking to action, even after all these years? I think it comes down to a severe lack of communication. Our gatekeepers aren’t listening, and that’s a big problem.
The first example of this is Theatr Genedlaethol’s 2017 production of Macbeth. On paper, it sounded incredible – a Welsh-language production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, performed in the powerfully evocative setting of Caerphilly Castle. Content aside, the company did a poor job of making the show inclusive and accessible. Getting to the venue and moving through the castle wasn’t easy for anybody but it was near-impossible for wheelchair users or those with mobility needs. That’s an entire segment of the audience no longer being catered to. Theatr Gen tried to counteract that by filming the play and showing it at cinemas across Wales, but shouldn’t we be trying to get people to go see live theatre, not giving them another reason to go the cinema?
The second example was this year’s Wales Theatre Awards, which caused quite a bit of a stir recently and led to what I lovingly like to call The Great Facebook Debate of 2018. A history lesson is important here. The awards were first set up by Guy O’Donnell back in 2013 to celebrate the Young Critics Scheme, made up of young critics aged between 12-25. By giving them this special responsibility, the awards created a pathway for more young people to be involved in the arts from an early age. The awards are no longer focused on bringing more young writers through, and arts criticism in Wales is suffering as a result. The gatekeepers didn’t pay attention to what the awards symbolised – they weren’t listening.
How the awards have evolved is a conversation for another day, but the organisers’ decision to shortlist The Golden Dragon for Best Opera is a slap in the face to diversity in the arts. Now I must make this clear – this is not a criticism of Music Theatre Wales. If anything, they should be applauded for responding to criticism and proactively making amends. That the judging panel of the Awards went ahead and shortlisted the show despite all that criticism suggests to me that they didn’t care about the issues raised. When you are an institution that claims to represent the entire nation, that ignorance, offence and disrespect also reflects on the entire nation. It was the responsibility of the organisers, the judging panel and the award funders – their duty as gatekeepers – to display common sense by removing the production from awards contention. Instead, they doubled down and we were treated to two misjudged public statements on the matter. By middle-class white men, of course. People who, like Welsh National Opera’s Artistic Director David Pountney, think phrases like ‘colourblind casting’ is an acceptable term to use in 2018. If the arts in Wales are to flourish the integrity of the awards need to be maintained, but they weren’t. Why? Because the gatekeepers weren’t listening. Those people should be held accountable.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. There are several recent examples of gatekeepers showing a willingness to listen, with exceptional results. Sherman Theatre’s production of Home in 2016 is one. Over 18 months, Andrew Sterry conducted interviews with three generations of the same Cardiff-based Pakistani family, shaping their stories into a touching narrative. Two sold-out audiences entered the Sherman’s doors that week, and I personally saw men and women openly weeping at the show. People who had never stepped foot inside an auditorium were overwhelmed by a piece of theatre. Why did it work? Because Andrew went to these people’s houses, drank endless cups of tea and spent hours listening to them. He brought the theatre to them, and that is called inclusivity. That is called access.
Disability-led companies such as Taking Flight Theatre and Hijinx Theatre also deserve mention. As we speak, Hijinx is in the middle of a ground-breaking project in Africa called Able to Act. A group of learning disabled actors from Wales are training learning disabled children in Lesotho to create theatre. They are actively responding to the needs of those who feel excluded and bringing the arts to them. It’s not only an enriching experience for those underprivileged children in Africa, but for the Welsh performers too. Taking Flight are renowned for integrating access into all of their work and producing beautiful pieces of theatre. How do these companies do it? By listening to the right people and responding to their needs. It’s so unbelievably simple.
None of these changes will happen overnight, but they shouldn’t take years either. We should be miles ahead of where we are right now. These are exciting times for Wales and we’re at a crossroads. Along path number one are those who think theatrical tradition comes before social and cultural inclusivity.
Along path number two is change. At the Tramshed in Cardiff once a month, Hanan Issa and Durre Shahwar host an open mic event for aspiring BAME writers. The talent appearing every month is so promising, were they not so disenfranchised. Joycelyn Langdon’s new book club concentrates on literature by BAME authors. In the absence of proper appreciation for under-represented voices, the BlackOnBlack Book Club tries to wrestle some of that power back. These are just two examples of fledgling arts projects that deserve our attention. So now you need to decide – what do you believe in? Do you want progression in the arts, or do you want to continue following the path set by Wales’ old guard? We talk and we talk and we talk. We need to stop talking and we need to start listening; and only when we listen will we act.
Jafar Iqbal writes about theatre for The Stage, WhatsOnStage, and is an Associate Editor of Wales Arts Review.