Features Published 9 June 2020

Holding Theatre to Account

A new initiative is holding theatres accountable on Black representation. Here’s more info, plus thoughts on Exeunt’s aims for the future.

Alice Saville

As protests against police violence, racism and white supremacy continue, both in the US and the UK, organisations of every kind have two different responses to make. One of these responses is public and immediate. It involves social media posts of support and solidarity with Black people, ones that can across as heartfelt or utterly hollow, depending on the track record that they’re built on.

The other one of these responses is less visible. Organisations need to do the internal work to match their public proclamations of solidarity; and that’s something harder, potentially more uncomfortable, and much longer term. And because it’s often a hidden process (and something that, in the case of theatre, takes place offstage as much as on) it’s also something that it’s much harder to hold organisations accountable for.

Today, a new project is launching that aims to make this longer term response visible. Theatre Call For Action is starting with an open letter that asks the UK’s theatres to “use this time of change to work against the extensive inequality woven into the fabric of our industry” – one that’s signed by leading theatre voices including Giles Terera, Denise Gough, Adjoah Andoh, Inua Ellams, James Graham, and over a thousand more. In a move inspired by Sharon Chuter, who asked beauty brands to disclose how many Black people work on their teams, it asks the theatre world to do the same. It asks theatres and festivals to disclose how many Black artists are on paid commissions, it asks agencies how many Black clients and agents are on board, and it asks drama schools how many Black students and staff they have. The results will be published on the Theatre Call For Action blog.

Beyond that, it asks for organisations to commit to a longer term of action; to make progress on Black representation, and to do more to support existing Black employees.

One of the roles of a theatre publication like Exeunt is to hold the theatre world to account; something we take seriously, and try to do in a considered way. But I also really want to make sure that we’re using this time to hold ourselves to account, as critics and editors, and to reflect on how we can do better. We consistently try to platform Black writers, and to offer paid commissions to both new and more established writers who aren’t getting an airing elsewhere. But we could be doing more; both to support those writers, and to air a greater range of voices and perspectives from outside the mainstream. Beyond that, we’re also limited by not having a Black editor in our core team of three.

We recognise that Black artists are particularly vulnerable in a theatre criticism ecology that’s disproportionately white at both reviewer and editor level, and want to make sure that we’re doing all we can to counter this. I’m hugely grateful for the Black artists who are holding us to account, and more generally for their hard and often unrewarding labour of working towards a fairer industry – in a time of crisis, and in a way that can potentially risk their own health and careers. We want to work towards bringing Black people into decision-making roles at Exeunt, by hiring a Black editor. We’re still working on how to put this into practice. We’re constrained by having lost a sizeable proportion of our (already small) revenue during coronavirus – we’re extremely grateful for the Friends Scheme members who’ve been able to keep supporting us through this time, when we’ve lost all advertising revenue from theatres. But we also don’t want our struggle to survive ‘the now’ to stop us from thinking about the future. We’re determined to use this difficult time to ask difficult questions about how we can work in a fairer, better and more representative way.

This isn’t a problem that will go away once mainstream media coverage of the protests ends. It’s something structural, and unless we do the work, there’s a risk that theatre’s current crisis ends up cementing current industry inequalities. We’re dedicated to following and participating in the conversation around theatre and representation –  both by responding to what happens on Theatre Call For Action, and by thinking about how we can change the conversation within Exeunt itself.

For more on Theatre Call For Action’s work, read their blog, follow them on Twitter at @TheatreCTA or contact theatrecalltoaction@gmail.com to get involved with the project.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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