Features Published 12 September 2018

There’s a lot in a name, actually

Fergus Morgan writes on the Kiln's controversial rebrand, and the message the backlash against it sends.
Fergus Morgan

The newly revamped Kiln Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?” I hate to be the sort of arsehole who starts an article with a Shakespeare quote, particularly one as ubiquitous as that R&J clanger, but the old man has got a point. What difference does it make what we call something, if it’s still basically the same thing regardless?

Would, for example, ex-Millwall FC centre-back Danny Shittu have gone on to play for Barcelona if he wasn’t lumbered with such an unfortunate surname? Would Elton John have written Rocket Man if he had stayed as Reginald Kenneth Dwight? And, to address the issue at hand, does it matter that Indhu Rubasingham has changed the name of the Tricycle Theatre to the Kiln Theatre?

Some folk think it does. The group of former artistic directors, chairmen, and board members who wrote a terse letter to the Guardian imploring Rubasingham to reverse the name change, for example. Michael Billington, too, who suggested that the switch was pointless because he detected no discernible alteration in programming policy. More than 1000 people signed a petition, and a few of the more sincerely disgruntled individuals even rocked up at the official re-opening with placards. These guys claim to represent the local community, but more than 12,000 people live in Kilburn, and more than 8 million in the surrounding area. I dunno who these people, with their hilariously budget website, think they are representing.

So, does it matter? Short answer: no, of course it fucking doesn’t, to any normal person. It’s a theatre. It really doesn’t matter one bit what it’s called. As Billington has already pointed out, the new season doesn’t signify any radical shift in programming. The same sort of top-quality work by top-quality artists will be produced. And, to be honest, Kiln is a cooler name than Tricycle anyway. Tricycle – a old-fashioned kid’s toy, with three little spindly wheels? No thanks. Kiln – fire, fierceness, creation, forge, pizza, plus a nifty contraction of Kilburn? Yes please. Lovely stuff.

What those filling their pants about the name change fail to grasp is that renaming the venue Kiln doesn’t erase its illustrious history as the Tricycle. It will still have been the home of Wakefield Tricycle Company in the eighties. It will still have produced those boundary-breaking political plays about public inquiries. It will still have championed culturally diverse work from culturally diverse artists. Those things won’t suddenly evaporate. Changing the place’s name doesn’t change its history. It just starts a new chapter.

What they also fail to grasp is that Rubasingham isn’t some new upstart seeking to steal their theatre from them. She’s a firmly established director, working in the top echelons of British theatre, with a cracking track record. In her current position, she’s earned the Tricycle/Kiln three West End transfers and two Olivier Awards. And now she’s overseen a two-year-long, £7m redevelopment – an excellent one, by all accounts – as part of which she has, after plenty of consultation, decided upon a forward-looking rebrand. Give the woman some credit. She knows what she’s doing for fuck’s sake.

But there’s actually a wider point to be made here – one about how we treat women in positions of power and how we treat people of colour in positions of power – and one that doesn’t seem to have occurred to those stood outside the Kiln Theatre cheerily holding their yellow placards aloft. Indhu Rubasingham is one of a handful of female, non-white artistic directors in the country. Her and Nadia Fall sit in the middle of the intersectionality Venn diagram like a lifeboat afloat on a sea of middle-aged white men.

There have been several sobering reminders of how far theatre has to come in terms of gender and ethnic diversity in recent times. In April, Sphinx Theatre Company produced a survey pointing out that only one fifth of English theatres were run by women, and that women only controlled 13% of Arts Council funding. The stats for non-white artistic directors are even worse: an ACE report back in January revealed that only 10% of National Portfolio Organisations were run by people of colour. There have been moments, sure – the recent appointment of Rachel O’Riordan at the Lyric Hammersmith, Kwame Kwei-Armah taking up his tenure at the Young Vic, the runaway success of shows like Nine Night and Misty – but these flashes of inspiration can’t be allowed to disguise a wider story of staggeringly slow progress.

A number of top jobs are currently up for grabs. Madani Younis is vacating the Bush after a sterling six years. Edward Hall is leaving the Hampstead after a slightly less sterling eight years, marred by the furore last year about the lack of female playwrights and directors on the theatre’s stages. Walter Meierjohann is stepping down from his role at HOME in Manchester. On top of that, Emma Stenning is leaving her post as executive director at Bristol Old Vic and the Young Vic is seeking a new creative associate. There’s a lot of big positions going right now. It could be – should be – a real moment of change for British Theatre, and it’s enormously encouraging that the Sean Holmes’ Lyric Hammersmith job is going to Rachel O’Riordan, who has done amazing stuff at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre.

Those protesting the Kiln Theatre’s change of name ought to pause and think about what they’re doing. At a potentially crucial time in British Theatre, when there is a real opportunity to broaden the diversity of the industry’s leadership, they are relentlessly lambasting one of our only female, non-white artistic directors for something as idiotically inconsequential as a name-change. Meanwhile, Nadia Fall is attracting negative mutterings about her leadership choices at Theatre Royal Stratford East before her first season even starts, while Emma Rice was very publically squeezed out of her job at Shakespeare’s Globe for daring to rock the boat. What sort of message does that send to those considering an application for a top job? That you might be allowed in, provided you don’t even try to shift the status quo? Who would take a look at the absurd flak Rubasingham is getting for swapping a few signs around and think “yep, that sounds like the career for me”?

Obviously, I know that names for things matter. But only some names. The fact that Ben Kingsley felt like he had to change his name from Krishna Bhanji to get roles matters. The fact that the National and the RSC have had two artistic directors named Peter and two named Trevor (same blokes, I know), but not a single woman matters. The fact that we have six West End theatres named after people, all of whom are white and only one of whom is a woman matters.

Whether a theatre is named Tricycle or Kiln doesn’t matter, but a name like Indhu Rubasingham does. It matters enormously, especially now, and especially when you can put the words “artistic director” after it.

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Fergus Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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