Room for everyone

Room for everyone

9 April 2017

Student theatre has a responsibility to promote diversity, and new writing is one important way of doing that, says Florence Bell

Two facts. 

1: Student theatre on a national level is overwhelmingly white (if you don't agree, you might as well stop reading now). 

2: NSDF represents the student theatre that comes out on top. 

Initially, then, it seems encouraging that 13 per cent of cast and creatives attending NSDF this year are black, Asian and ethnic minorities. That’s the same as the proportion of people nationwide who identified themselves as BAME in the 2011 census. I’m not sure the diversity of this year’s NSDF is reflected in student theatre nationwide, but it’s important progress.

But to be diverse is not just to represent proportions of the population, it is to fully involve BAME students onstage and backstage. How are we meant to attract non-white students into audiences when we’re failing to involve them in every stage of production? How many student theatre groups have commitments to diversity? Does your student theatre society have an anti-prejudice promise? Active initiatives to involves BAME students? If not, why not? What are you doing to make the theatre scene at your university more diverse? After all, if you’re part of a student theatre society, university societies are democratic. They’re run by you. And if you want to change something, it’s up to you.

These might be thorny questions, but they’ve increasingly taken centre stage in the mainstream theatre press over the past couple of years. Julian Fellowes’ new version of Half a Sixpence has rightly been criticised for its all white cast.

The truth is, student theatre has the same responsibility to diversity as professional theatre. Perhaps even more so. In a way, we’re the launchpad. Theatre groups aren’t just social scenes, they’re also where people begin their careers. The Stage’s list of the 100 most powerful people in British theatre in 2017 includes only seven people of colour. Student theatres have a responsibility and a power to increase that number in years to come.

No Human is Illegal is a play from Leyton Sixth Form College with a majority BAME cast. But that wasn’t a conscious decision for teacher Katy Arnell: “The boroughs of Walthamstow and Newham, where we’re based, they’re the most ethnically diverse places in Europe… I’m not necessarily providing opportunities, I’m just teaching the kids that I teach. And the kids I teach come from multicultural backgrounds. They’re all second and third generation migrants… It’s quite rare for me to teach a white British student. They come from every different background.”

No Human is Illegal, the only NSDF show this year to come from a sixth form college instead of a university theatre group, was devised by the group of students on the college’s BTEC Performing Arts course together with Katy. They used physical theatre, improvisation, interviews with members of the public and news footage from Syria, all of which explore the public response to the refugee crisis.

“The process that we went through in devising the piece was very much about exploring the students’ own admission of their naivety about this current and important issue, despite the fact that the students themselves come from such a diverse range of backgrounds, so it’s quite evocative but it’s quite a gentle piece as well.”

Katy has also taught in more affluent and middle-class areas that lack diversity: “While all of my experiences have been valuable, I certainly feel that inclusivity and diversity are at the root of the theatre I like to make. If everyone looks the same and has the same sort of upbringing and experiences of the world, it’s not conducive to creative practice. I believe having access to the arts – and that includes making it, watching it, talking about it – should be an experience for everyone, not just the privileged.”

Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the fact that the majority of the shows at this year’s NSDF are new writing or devised pieces has allowed for students from a wide range of backgrounds to be able to fully express their life experiences. In other words, diverse groups of students devising and writing new shows, often from their own life experience, create powerful pieces of art.

“It’s a breeding ground for creativity here [in East London],” Katie says. “It’s a cultural melting pot; you’ve got diversity and you’ve got grit and it’s real. These ingredients serve to deliver a more thought-provoking appraisal of the cross-section of humanity in Britain today. No Human is Illegal is not a play about race, it’s a play about the plight of people, the human condition and how we as a group came to process the enormity of the injustice in the refugee crisis.”

I can’t help but feel this strange attachment to No Human is Illegal simply because what they’re doing is so different. Maybe I can only speak for the student theatre scene in Nottingham, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. That matters. It’s important not to confuse plays with a diverse cast with plays about race. But I think it’s fair to say this play wouldn’t be the same with an all-white cast. Student theatre can’t hope to make plays for everyone when we aren’t representing everyone.  

Saying that No Human is Illegal represents the future of student theatre feels a bit like the expected way to end, but it just might be true. With every little earthquake, the scene gets shaken up a little more and we move further away from the white Footlights-style plays that have represented the centre of student theatre for too long. There’s room for everyone, and every year the scene gets bigger. And it’s all the better for it.



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