This article was originally published in Forge Press, the independent student newspaper of the University of Sheffield, back when I was Arts Editor last semester. For some reason, it never made it on to the internet, and I am very proud of it, so I am publishing it here and now instead…
It is a common misconception that the arts are an open and liberal. Most people seem to think that the arts are ahead of the game; that this is an industry which is accepting of difference and where you can thrive no matter who you are, so long as you have the talent.
As playwright D.C. Moore suggested at a Crucible Theatre panel event recently, “in the 90s, we thought all those battles were won”, but realistically, we have a long way to go. The arts are still a long, long way from offering equal opportunities, and it is not that the talent is lacking.
The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London, is iconic for its innovation and for offering new practitioners a space in which to present their work. It’s thought of in the industry as a powerhouse of equality, and yet if you look at a list of its Artistic Directors, they are exclusively white men. Vicky Featherstone, previously of the National Theatre of Scotland, has recently been appointed to take over the position soon – but it is 2012. Changes like this should have happened a long time ago.
And that is not the end of it. “The National Theatre,” D.C. Moore suggests, “will admit that they are not in the place where they need to be”, and of arts critics at all the major newspapers there is only one who was not Oxbridge educated.
Companies like Propeller Theatre also have a lot to answer for. Performing Shakespeare with all-male casts might appear to be harking back to its historical traditions, but turning back the clock is not necessary when there are so many talented female actors crying out for the kind of strong roles that Shakespeare affords.
Saying that Shakespeare’s women should be played by men, as Dawn Walton, Artistic Director of Sheffield-based Eclipse Theatre suggests, is a lot like suggesting that all Shakespeare’s black characters should be played by white people. And, in this day and age no one would suggest that ‘blacking up’ is acceptable.
Why, then, is this sort of thing happening? Sam Boardman-Jacobs, and actor and director who worked on Shelagh Delaney’s original production of A Taste of Honey, has a theory. The images we see in the arts are “controlled by middle-class, white men in suits”. The fact that Delaney, a working class 19-year-old in the 1950s, was able to get her work on to the stage, he suggests, is astonishing, and entirely attributable to Joan Littlewood.
Without women championing women, writers like Delaney, who writes characters, not issues, would never have come to the fore. The same can be said of Debbie Tucker-Green, whose work was misunderstood by everyone in the reading room at the Royal Court when she first submitted it.
The thing which makes writers like these so truly remarkable, though, is their ability to write about minorities without that being their defining factor. A black character, as Walton states, does not have to be the ‘noble savage’, and nor does their race have to become their character.
The same rule can be applied to gender and sexuality. Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey, which ran at the Crucible earlier this month and was the trigger for this discussion, is a perfect case-study in this. Featuring a sexually liberated older woman; a young girl experiencing sex and love for the first time; her black lover; and her (likely) gay best friend, the play demonstrates the fact that none of these factors have to be defining.
Jo, the young protagonist, accepts her lover and her friend for who they are inside, seeing through external appearances and issues of sexuality in a way that is almost unimaginable in the 1950s.
The honesty in this writing is what makes is so ground-breaking, refreshing and, ultimately, brave. That Delaney felt empowered enough to write what she wanted to, without worrying about the judgement of others, is incredible, but the fact that it was performed at all is even more remarkable. Gay, black or female characters before Delaney had been subject of ridicule, or cast as ‘the bad guy’. In this respect, her work was genuinely ground-breaking.
The fact that new writing of this variety is so rare today is not the fault of writers, however. It cannot be forgotten that the theatre is an institution, and, as such, comes with institutionalised values. Boardman-Jacobs account of several times his storylines were put down by commissioning producers speaks volumes: “I’ve been told,” he smiled, wryly, “that ‘oh, we’ve done a gay play this year’, or ‘oh, we’ve had a play about two women before. We don’t have time for kitchen sink dramas.’”
If the arts are going to open themselves up, truly, and start representing the true nature of British society – diverse, vibrant, and opinionated – then it needs to start being brave. In Sheffield, we’re lucky. The Crucible Theatre may be taken over by Snooker for what feels like too long every year, but this means it has income. It can afford to be brave, and show ground-breaking works like A Taste of Honey and Moore’s Straight. The theatre in general, though, is suffering so much at the hands of the Global Financial Crisis, that it can’t afford to be brave. Or, it doesn’t think it can.
What it comes down to, really, is that there are a new generation rising through the ranks at the moment who won’t, can’t and have no intention of putting up with this. Little victories have been won: the theatre is more diverse than it was, unquestionably. Unless it diversifies, and offers more opportunities to those with genuine talent and passion regardless of the tick-box issues around them, then (as one audience member at the Crucible so eloquently put it), “basically, we’re all fucked”.