Features Published 30 May 2017

How can we reverse the decline in Asian audiences?

A recent study showed that theatregoing in Asian communities is on the decline. Trina Haldar writes on why letting young audiences see themselves on stage is key.
Trina Haldar
'Bend it Like Beckham'

‘Bend it Like Beckham’

A recent article in The Stage titled Asian audiences ‘turning away from the arts’ reported that “only 59% of people with an Asian background said they had engaged in the arts in the last year compared to 78% from the white and 70% from the black ethnic groups. Over the past 10 years, there has also been a “significant” decline – of seven percentage points – of the proportion of Asian people engaging in the arts.”

It’s not new to hear that certain voices and faces are missing across our screens and stages, but to learn that this number is actually on the decline is saddening, if not surprising. If we really want to make a change then we must own a shared vision as an industry. With the limited funding available, a way forward would be to pool our resources and commit to that change, and not just for Diwali.

It’s not only about finding the diverse actors, technicians, designers, directors etc. It’s about growing them, listening to and learning from them, while allowing them space to become the role models for the future. I certainly had to dig deep to find people who encouraged me and were genuinely interested in my own voice, and not just whether I had a ‘difficult Asian story’ that they thought people should be hear. To quote a BAME young person I recently worked with “I don’t really have a role model, but I’m learning to be one for myself.”

Whilst recent shows such as East is East and Bend it Like Beckham are of the highest quality and have a broad appeal, their West End runs were short-lived – perhaps because they’re telling British Asian stories written in the ’90s. I am reminded of Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who speaks so eloquently about the danger of the single story. Are we really saying that, after twenty years and a clear lack of an increase in Asian audiences, we need to tell the same story to an audience that’s already feeling alienated from our theatres? Also, who is choosing to programme this work? Are Asian communities being consulted, or is someone making decisions on our behalf?

When I first got into theatre professionally I was in my twenties and very few people looked like me. This is in some respect was slightly isolating but fortunately, people like Kully Thiari, Jatinder Verma and Adel Al Salloum were close at hand to inspire me to make my own path, work with good people and make great art. Having worked in the education departments of theatres for a number of years, my company Mashi Theatre was conceived to address the lack of diverse work I encountered, particularly for young people. If we are not creating work for younger audiences that reflects their own lives, why do we think they will grow up to become theatregoers?

We’re naturally drawn to people and stories that we can relate to, that’s part of human nature. Yet we are all so brilliantly different, too. So what exactly do we mean by the term diversity in theatre? For me it’s about the quality of the differences between us – the things that make us all unique, that intrigues us about each other and that ultimately bind us together. The full richness of the world is displayed in our supermarket shelves throughout the year, so why not also on our stages? We all have a history and are on a journey, constantly on the look out for something that resonates for us. When setting up Mashi Theatre that is exactly what my focus was: to show how fables from the Indian subcontinent offer something to all children, and indeed the child within all of us.

As a theatremaker, I enjoy stories that connect us. I happen to be born to immigrant parents and with that comes a mixture of all the language and colour that the Indian subcontinent has to offer. As Mashi Theatre tour our family show Tales of Birbal – ancient Indian folk tales – across the country over the next month, I have been able to witness this in action. Just yesterday at The Spark Festival in Leicester, a school headteacher said “Cultural exchange is the most important thing in the world. Our values unite us and that is key.”

There is no quick fix to getting Asian audiences through theatre doors, and countless panic driven schemes and an understandable fear of getting it wrong haven’t paid off so far. We need to work together but this cannot happen overnight.

Theatre for Young Audiences, part of ASSITEJ, currently have a team in Cape Town discussing how as an industry we can create more work for younger audiences that is truly reflective of all young people. They will be sharing their experiences at The Creative Case for Children and Young People, a symposium at Birmingham Repertory on Tuesday 11th July. This exciting piece of work is being driven forwards by TYA-UK. Perhaps you could also be a part of this change?

Find out more about Mashi Theatre at their website: www.mashi-theatre.co.uk – Or for more details of The Creative Case for Children and Young People, visit: www.tya-uk.org

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