There’s been quite a few articles recently about the dearth of working class artists in theatre (mainly written by middle class writers, for publications with a large middle class readership). And while plenty of interesting points have been raised, the overarching theme seems to be how difficult it is to carve out a career if you don’t have the brass. This is, if you’ll excuse the pun, bang on the money (I have to work full time alongside my playwriting). That said, I think that by focusing solely on cash, we’re actually losing sight of the other barriers working class artists face.
Only 18.2% of people who work in music, performing arts and visual arts are working class, in comparison to the 60% of the entire country [statistics from Create London’s report Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency and a British Social Attitudes survey on class]. And such a disparity suggests there’s something bigger at play than just finances. I want to offer an explanation and it’s simply that, for most people in the arts, class isn’t an issue. Let’s be honest – theatre is unapologetically middle class. I can’t go on Twitter without seeing some article fawning over yet another middle-class, London-centric, public-schooled actor/writer/director who either has family in the biz, bank of mummy and daddy propping them up or went to uni/drama school with whoever’s commissioning their work. And if you think that’s not true, have a butchers at who’s being programmed at the minute (I’ll tell you this for a fact: they won’t be from an estate in Leeds, and their mum certainly won’t work in Sainsbury’s). The reason why theatre doesn’t need to be concerned about hiring working class artists is simple – we’re invisible. Often, you can’t see a person’s class and, as a result, you can ignore it completely.
A recent surge of much-needed grassroots activism has meant that theatres are under real pressure to radically change their approach to hiring women, people of colour, and/or underrepresented groups. And some changes are being made. But it seems that a lot of venues and organisations only want diversity when it’s visible and they can clearly highlight the ‘changes’ they are making. It’s like when a show has cast entirely made up of people of colour yet their creative team remains as white as a sheet. So long as people are seen to be doing something, that is deemed enough. This is why class is constantly ignored – you cannot see it, you can’t easily be called out on it, so it’s not at the forefront of people’s agendas. For instance, if you’re filling out an equal opportunities form, does it mention class or anything about your upbringing? Of course not. Because defining class is a minefield, one that intersects with race, gender, sexuality and disability. And that means it requires people to go beyond the surface – something not a lot of people are willing to do.
But let’s be optimistic for a moment. Say theatres suddenly decide that the work they produce should have some reflection of over half the country. The question then would be – if class is invisible then how the hell do we identify it? After all, anyone can go down Shoreditch, pay fifty bob for a second-hand Fila top and tell stories about their ‘upbringing’ (which some writers are already doing in the vain attempt to forge some sort of identity/career). Some people claim class can be defined by what job their parents had when they were sixteen. Others think it can be capped at household income. Do you know what it really is though? It’s in the work people make. For instance, if a playwright is legit working class, I guarantee this will come through in their writing. There will be heart, sincerity, a world which you know they lived and breathed. And the best way to test this is if a piece is shown to the audience which it is supposedly depicting.
We trialed this with my first play Marching On Together, which we took to working mens’ clubs and community halls in Leeds. The play was about the fall of the Leeds United hooligan scene set against the miners strikes and we invited both former hooligans and retired miners to come along and see it. And we weren’t worried for one moment about how they’d respond. We knew the play had authenticity, that it was told by someone who knew that world. It wasn’t the poverty porn that might be accepted in London but would be ripped a new one anywhere else. And the very fact that ‘poverty porn’ exists lead me onto another huge problem facing working class artists in theatre – the perception of what a ‘working class story’ should be.
Over the past twelve months, I’ve seen several plays set in ‘working-class worlds’. And whilst these should have all appealed to me, not one of them resonated. And why? Because they weren’t worlds I recognised. Instead they were incredibly insincere stories where the main character hated the world they lived in, and whose sole purpose in life was to leave everything (and everyone) behind. The world and people I grew up with were NOTHING like this, and the plays I kept seeing couldn’t be more alien if they were set on Mars.
So why are such gross stereotypes of working class allowed on stage? I believe there’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, there seems to be the same circle of writers who are constantly commissioned (normally very middle class and well connected) hence they’re the ones who get to tell every story. After all, it’s far easier for venues to pick up the blower and call so-an-so they’ve worked with five times than go out and seek legitimate working class voices. Natasha Tripney has called out the fact that often, working class characters’ main purpose in theatre is to be used as detonators to ensure the other, more rounded figures go on a ‘journey’. For me, this is the result of writers depicting people they don’t have a Scooby Doo about.
Another reason we’re subjected to such inauthentic depictions of working class life is, like the majority of playwrights, a lot of theatres, venues and artistic directors don’t actually know what it’s like to be working class. As a result, writers can perpetuate stereotypes and get away with it as there’s nobody to call them out and say, actually, on the estate I grew up, people actually looked out for each other, as opposed to robbing them. And if writers are depicting the same old worlds, then they are just appeasing those who’ve asked them to tell a certain type of story in the first place. I’m not for one minute saying we should get rid of all the middle class gatekeepers and offer their jobs to people who were brought up on a council estate in Barnsley (although that would probably do wonders for my career). Rather, it’s more a case of letting go of the poor stereotypes that have come before and trusting us to tell our own stories.
I keep going back to the question of how do we ensure working class artists succeed in an industry so inherently against them? And each time I come to the same conclusion. There’s no hidden formula or secret – if theatre wants to change, it will. Take James Graham’s Sketching that I’m lucky enough to be working on at Wilton’s Music Hall. That came about by James and director Tom Hescott doing a call out for diverse voices, with their application process being to learn about the writer, their background and the stories they want to tell. They put in the effort to actually engage with those who are from under-represented backgrounds, to look beyond the surface and invest in the individual. Ultimately, this is what all of theatre must do. And as arts education in state schools comes under threat, making active efforts to reach (and hire) working class people will become more and more essential. As will a culture of openness and visibility around peoples’ class backgrounds. After all, how can you tell if the invisible finally disappears?
For more on class and representation in theatre, read Francesca Peschier’s article on Theatre’s Missing Accents.