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Features Published 24 October 2017

Widening the Lens

Naima Khan explores the issues raised by Act For Change's debate around theatre criticism and diversity, hosted by the NT
Naima Khan
The panel of Act for Change's Widening the Lens debate. Photo: Helen Murray

The panel of Act for Change’s Widening the Lens debate. Photo: Helen Murray

Act For Change, a campaigning organisation dedicated to diversifying the arts, held their annual debate at The National Theatre on October 19th, this year addressing diversity in theatre criticism and titled ‘Widening the Lens’. The panel itself was both diverse and divisive, featuring creative director Grace Ladoja, theatre critic Lyn Gardner, arts blogger Megan Vaughan, film critic Christopher Tookey, commentator Lindsay Johns, director Matthew Xia and editor of The Stage, Alistair Smith. The main discussion was chaired by Shami Chakrabarti.

Though the conversation occasionally fell into unhelpful loops and the audience felt compelled to educate certain panellists, there were central areas of thought that, I hope, will lead the writers present to consider the ways they uphold structures that perpetuate erasure in theatre criticism.

Because that’s really what we’re talking about when we talk about diversity. And by ‘we’ I mean people like myself, who find themselves consistently seeking consideration and representation within the wider hegemony. For many of us, it’s a social justice issue, the context of which is centuries of injustice. The immorality of a lack of diversity is rarely addressed, though. Instead, we talk about representation and statistics. We talk about minorities not marginalisation and we talk about dead white males as if there isn’t another generation of elitists coming up right behind them, supported by an infrastructure that amplifies their voices over all others.

This is partly why Grace Ladoja’s talk was so useful. As Skepta’s creative director, she spoke about the journey of a genre into mainstream consciousness. She emphasised the need to make your art relevant to young people. This, she explained, keeps the older stalwarts on their toes and allows for a fresh influx of ideas, uses and interpretations. The creative direction behind Skepta didn’t rely on mainstream music critics or newspaper coverage. Ladoja’s was a DIY project, working outside the structures of the mainstream.

If critics take her advice, particularly critics from marginalised backgrounds, we’ll create our own platforms and cultivate our own markets. Although that model doesn’t hold to account those who have peddled exclusion over the decades, it seems smart given that the systems that prop up arts journalism have dilapidated rapidly.

Critics working in other sectors have created their own spaces with great success. Mostly Lit, a podcast presented by Raifa Rafiq, Alex Reads and Derek Wiltshire, is a literature review show shaped by the personalities and politics of its presenters. What’s so refreshing about Mostly Lit is the ability and willingness of the reviewers to locate themselves within the discourse as they journey through it. Woven into their critique of literature is thoughtful conversation on being black, feminism, patriarchy and pop culture that comes with enough openness to prevent naval gazing. Other platforms like Media Diversified and gal-dem also adopt similar vulnerability in their arts criticism. The most subversive one out there is The White Pube, which directly challenges our notions of what art criticism looks like with long-form gut reactions complete with emoji summaries.

The writers on those platforms approach their work with the radical idea that from their marginalised position in society, they have the right to critique all kinds of art. The panellists addressed a question coming from the other side of this: is there a ‘right’ person to review plays that reflect certain cultures and experiences? What does it mean, asked Lyn Gardner, for a nondisabled person to watch a show by a company led by disabled artists? Should you identify where you stand in the power structures of the art you are critiquing?

Doing so would require unlearning a lot about what theatre criticism is, and even more so what “good art” looks like, as Lindsay Johns and former Daily Mail critic Christopher Tookey made painfully clear. Johns, who repeatedly used the phrase “ya-get-me-blud-fam-playwrights” to describe the kind of theatre he doesn’t like, warned that diversity in theatre criticism mustn’t jeopardise depictions of the black middle classes. He believes black people who wear hoodies and use slang limit the portrayal of blackness in theatre. In fact, Johns is limiting to the debate on diversity. So too was Tookey who, after admitting that he’d come to plug his new book, thought it wise to tell us that actually, no one had ever asked him if he’d gone to Oxford or Cambridge. (It was Oxford, just fyi)

Yesterday I was part of the incredible Widening The Lens Panel by #afcdebate17 discussing diversity, the role media and who shapes culture. The debate really kicked off when a fellow speaker called an area of the black British community “the ya get me blud fam, type”. They believed that this TYPE of person is LIMITING to the portrayal of blackness, encouraging a stronger black middle-class representation of blackness is what should be seen in film, theatre, music and the media. I have never felt more angered by a statement that is flawed in so many ways. More than anything I loathe internal black racism, it’s a mental poison, why does there need to be a divide and why can’t all faces of blackness exist? Even more heartbreaking fact is this person runs a mentoring scheme and encourages this mindset in the young people they engage with. More ‘limiting’ is typecasting “the ya get me blud fam, type”, WTF does that mean? Ghetto? Uneducated? Street? What was their point here? The “ ya get me blud fam, type” is actually the 2017 face of Britain and its culture right now, the sound and look of the street. These people have worked their asses off to set an independent lifestyle that has created thousands of jobs for people like me, educated, intelligent, culturally rich, and well read. I’m angry because diversity should be about inclusion, education and understanding not to divide and be deprecating. I expressed my POV but there is much work to do, these people, the token ‘diverse’ voice, represent us but instead of pushing things forward are essentially holding things back. Reminder, when you are in that ‘role’ you are a vessel for all US so use your opinion wisely and try to educate instead of separate. full story on twitter in the #afcdebate17 hashtag

A post shared by Amazing Grace Ladoja (@graceladoja) on


Divisive voices are essential in debates but the presence of people like Lindsay Johns and Christopher Tookey, who came with no insight or introspection whatsoever, drag the discussion into a circular motion rather than propel it forward. Act For Change might consider whether either of these two panellists were really appropriate in a space that should champion unheard ideas, not the status quo.

While Act For Change had a captioner and BSL interpreters at the event, other than Lyn’s question mentioned above, there was no discussion on disabled critics or narratives on disability in theatre. Questions on this didn’t come from the crowd either. By the time we got around to discussing the ins and outs of the blogosphere as an alternative to traditional criticism, Megan Vaughan, whose research touches on this, had left. There was great scepticism about the free labour required to establish oneself as an art blogger in a world that already requires huge amounts of unpaid work from marginalised groups, but we didn’t get to chew over this during the debate. Helpfully Vaughan shared some data from a small sample size via twitter.

https://twitter.com/churlishmeg/status/920984097106874368

It confirmed that in short, bloggers are more diverse than traditional critics but not as much as we think, and most inclusion schemes rely on bloggers finding ways to sustain their own practice.

There are questions here too for Exeunt, a magazine which has proved time and again that it isn’t beholden to traditional models of theatre criticism and that laudably runs a BAME columnist scheme. What can Exeunt do to encourage a culture of useful introspection and inclusion, and how do the benefits of an independent platform like this one reach people from marginalised groups?

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Naima Khan

Naima is the Arts, Culture and Communications Officer at the Aziz Foundation. She is the former Theatre and Film Desk Editor at Spoonfed Media and has previously worked as a radio presenter and producer.

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