By Fin Kennedy, co-Artistic Director, Tamasha
Tamasha is a national touring theatre company which puts the voices of established and emerging culturally diverse artists centre stage. 2015 is out 25 anniversary; we’ve been building new audiences and developing new artists across the UK during that time.
I’m going to focus on the text-based new writing sector, and diversity within a BAME context, because those are the worlds I know best – plus I only have 15 mins.
So, how to diversify new British theatre?
In answering this question, we need to first examine the existing infrastructure of new play development, and in particular the key ‘choke points’ in a new play’s journey from concept to production. By choke points I mean the points in the system where a key decision is made about that creative idea’s future, and whether it continues its journey to the next stage on the road to being presented in front of a live audience, or falls by the wayside, never to see the light of day. The points where a creative project can be killed off – however inadvertently – by the decisions of one or two people.
My expertise in this area, by the way, is not only as a professional playwright of 15 years standing, but as a professional playwright who, I realised with some resignation the other day, as I filed yet another rejection letter, has written as many plays which have never been produced as ones which have. And let’s be clear here, plays which remain unproduced do not, in my view, exist – even if they were commissioned and the writer got paid. Theatre lives and breathes in the auditorium; the page is just a blueprint for that event. Unproduced scripts are like the ghosts of unborn children. The smile across the dancefloor which forever goes unnoticed.
I also have the dubious distinction of having had a play rejected by every theatre in London – which then went on to win a big award. That play, How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, is now my best known work, and produced around the world. It’s also one of the most performed plays in the UK by students, amateurs and fringe groups, and in terms of popularity at least seems well on its way to becoming a mini modern classic of existential angst. Yet choke point after choke point meant it almost never saw the light of day. This back story led one critic at the play’s world premiere to wonder ‘how much other gold dust falls between the cracks of British theatre’. I myself have often wondered that if I – a middle class, resourceful, white male graduate – found it this hard to have a playwriting career, how many others without my cultural capital, industry nouse and sheer, over-inflated sense of importance also fell by the wayside before they got anywhere near a professional stage?
So, let’s start at the start. A playwright has an idea for a play.
No, it doesn’t start there. In that imagining, a playwright already exists to have an idea at all. How does one become a playwright? This is a question which preoccupied me for years when I was starting out. I’d done a Drama degree, but it wasn’t as if you opened the jobs page in a newspaper and saw ‘Playwrights wanted’ ads. The whole process is a lot more mysterious than that.
I’d argue the journey begins as early as primary school – with family expectations and encouragement to take part in creative arts activities at all. Choke point number 1. Not much we can do about that, you might say. But actually, if parents from under-represented communities more routinely see themselves reflected on stage they might be more likely to encourage their kids to take part in an activity which actively appears to welcome and reflect them. (A brief aside – someone on Tamasha’s Board is quite senior within the BBC. He told me which BBC department gets the most diverse job applicants. Any guesses? It is News. Why? Because they most routinely put black and brown faces on screen. It really is that simple – but if we get it right, this quickly becomes a virtuous circle.)
But we’re jumping ahead – we’re still in school. The past five years of government meddling – free schools and academies, the English baccalaureate, a relentless focus on league tables, measurable outcomes and economic applications for learning as the sole arbiter of its worth have all served to seriously downgrade arts subjects in British schools. Choke point number 2. Not much we can do about that either – or is there? Several industry-led campaigns from What Next (www.whatnextculture.co.uk), to My Theatre Matters (www.mytheatrematters.com) , to my own In Battalions campaign (www.finkennedy.co.uk/in-battalions) have had some success in moving this issue up the political agenda. The dust is still settling from last week’s election, making this a good time to collectively keep up the pressure. It starts with writing to your MP.
So you’ve got a young person’s interest and attention, you’ve got their school to champion and value the act of making theatre – backed by a government which values the arts – so we’re already in a slight fantasy land. But in any case the next choke point is that diverse young person’s exposure to learning the craft of playwriting. Choke point number 3. Playwriting is first and foremost the act of deciding whose lives are worth putting a frame around. This is why I think if we’re serious about diversifying theatre we need to put our efforts into two key areas: diversifying playwrights and diversifying producers (I’ll come onto producers later). But these are the two key roles who make fundamental decisions about what ends up on our stages.
So how do we educate that generation in the skills of this trade? Yes, many theatres run young writers’ schemes – many of them very good. But is a working-class Bangladeshi girl from East London going to trek across town on her own to take part in a Royal Court group? I’ve tried to make her, and she won’t. Multiple barriers exist around independent access to these offers, everything from no independent culture of theatregoing through to concerns around safety and appropriateness – and even access to transport. Choke point number 4. These need to be tackled via an ongoing dialogue with parents and young people, but the simplest solution for now is to take the offer to them – run our new writers’ schemes in schools. Many of us already do, but it can be piecemeal and ad hoc. The single best way to welcome new, diverse young voices into our profession is to open that doorway and keep it open. A model of long-term commitment to one or two key schools, strategically chosen, rather than a scattergun approach doing one-off workshops all over the country. Going back year on year to win trust and build relationships, augmenting playwriting courses with ticket offers, masterclasses, platform discussions and careers days.
Easier said than done and of course there are funding implications. But this is in and of itself another choke point – number 5.
Sajid Javid, the last Conservative Culture Secretary, was the first to put an emphasis on diversity in the arts. This is to be welcomed. The unfortunate irony was that Mr Javid came at the tail end of a government which had consistently slashed support for the Arts Council, including the single biggest cut for a generation, the direct result of which was the closure of access points for new talent as terrified theatres contracted around their main stages to save costs. If there is one argument for the reinstatement of arts funding in the next parliament, it is about keeping the doors open to a plurality of voices by having the resources to undertake the necessary long–term R and D this requires. My own In Battalions research showed theatres across the UK curtailing education work, closing youth theatres, cancelling open access workshops and writers’ residencies through which outreach might be undertaken – all as a direct result of funding cuts to Arts Council England. If Mr Javid means what he says, I hope he will be making our case, whatever department he ends up in.
So a diverse young person has had some cultural education, they’ve attended some workshops and written something, they’re ready to go and hungry for some feedback. Finally we get to theatres themselves. Those which still have literary departments are increasingly reconsidering how best to spend their ever-more-limited resources in the service of finding new plays to produce. Even in less austere times the ratio of unsolicited scripts being picked up for production was so tiny as to barely make it worth anyone’s while. I’ve been a script reader, and the pay is low, if indeed it is paid at all. I was a pushy, middle-class 21-year old, on a panel with others from very similar backgrounds. Yet I was the first and often only point of contact many new writers ever had with that theatre. Diversity and remuneration for script readers is choke point number 6.
But let’s say you impress our bratty script reader and get asked in for a meeting. What then? If the theatre in question still runs such pre-austerity luxuries as workshops, play readings and attachment schemes, our writer is expected to demonstrate knowledge of this opaque ladder of opportunity and pitch his or her ideas accordingly – with articulacy, passion and persuasion – striking just the right balance of ambition and humility. Imagine doing that while trembling with fear, and a sense of unworthiness. Pitching your work – and indeed yourself (a.k.a. social and cultural capital) is choke point number 7.
But let’s say one of those opportunities comes your way, perhaps an attachment, perhaps a seed commission – and our writer starts getting paid (a bit) to write. What then? Then begins the long road (years) of ‘development’ – seed commissions, meetings, competition entries, shorts nights, attending the right press nights and writers’ groups – all while holding down a non-arts day job while writing in the evenings and at weekends. The holy grail is to start to tip this balance – to consistently make enough from the writing to go down to 4 days a week temping, then 3, then 2 – until the promised land of Full-Time Playwright finally arrives – and all within a narrow window within which our writer can afford to take a few risks, before kids and mortgages make such risks irresponsible. I never reached that point in 15 years. Writing plays to commission has only ever been, at best, one third of my annual income. Choke point number 8.
But let’s say our writer’s play proceeds to full commission – at Writers’ Guild rates – Hallelujah! What then? Drafts, dramaturgy, meetings, notes, rewrites, deadlines, more drafts, more dramaturgy, more meetings, more notes, more rewrites. This is when a commissioned play is most vulnerable. A difference of vision. A cultural misunderstanding. Subjective taste masquerading as objective dramaturgy. All it takes is a whisper – ‘Not for us’ – and the whole thing vanishes in a puff of smoke. Choke point number 9.
But let’s say it doesn’t. Let’s say our diverse new playwright makes it through these hurdles and her play arrives at the fabled Programming Meeting – sometimes known as going ‘onto the grid’ – like a medieval torture method, or the gut-churning denouement to a reality TV show. It is here that the theatre’s Artistic Director, the literary manager and assorted Associates – all subject to the same cultural, educational and economic filtering processes within their own careers – make a final decision on whether or not to put not-inconsiderable resources into producing this diverse new play. One of the key decisions here (other than ‘Is it any good?’) is ‘Does it have an audience?’ But imagine you are the first of your kind. The question ‘Does this have an audience?’ requires a certain leap of faith. And any artistic director will tell you how long it takes to build up audiences for diverse new work. Choke point number 10.
So we’ve made it to production, and a celebratory drink on press night looking back at the past few years. There is one final choke point. Once a diverse new play gets staged, the critical reception it receives is a key factor in that production’s success, and indeed in whether it manages to prove itself, to prove the question mark around audiences, which in turn dictates whether other, similarly diverse work will get commissioned and produced in future. No-one is asking critics to be over-generous to diverse new plays out of the goodness of their hearts, but the diversity of those critics themselves is a whole other issue – though sadly not one we have time to go into here. Choke point number 11.
So looking back at this journey of a play from inception to production, it’s clear we’re talking about root and branch reform of almost every stage of new play production – from exposure to arts and culture in childhood, to coming into contact with professional opportunities during key life stages, to the decisions of funders we never meet, the make up of script readers, literary managers, artistic directors, dramaturgs and even critics – all decide a diverse new play’s ultimate fate.
Where to start in terms of reform?
Well, what about with writers doing it for themselves? I’ve long been of the view that the traditional commissioning model of new play production renders writers – of all backgrounds – almost wholly passive. I’m not a writer who has been fortunate enough to have one or two companies get behind me early on in my career and produce play after play after play. That used to annoy me. Looking back, I realise it made me a better artist. It made me more resourceful, less passive, less reliant on one theatre and its house style, or the largesse of one or two powerful individuals. Most importantly, it forced me to look outside the theatre industry as I struggled to sustain a career – and this led me into schools, and what was to become a ten year association with one school in particular, Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, in the heart of East London’s Bangladeshi community. That relationship not only stimulated the creativity of that host community through the workshops and courses I ran, but also stretched and developed me as an artist, as I acquired a methodology to write with, for and about diverse communities far removed from my own, and to do so with integrity, authenticity and legitimacy. Ten years on, that work has led (directly and indirectly) to the founding of three new theatre companies – two in a school and one in a social services department – four trips to Edinburgh, a Scotsman Fringe First, a festival at Southwark Playhouse, the building of a new 150-seat studio theatre on an East London school campus and seven published plays for young people, with diverse large casts, which schools across the country now regularly perform.
This experience turned me into my own producer – and ultimately an artistic director. It is an experience I now seek to pass on to a new generation of writers. In my current job running Tamasha, I am proud to say these are by and large BAME writers, and a majority young women (some are in the audience today). I’d like to leave you with a few new initiatives we are trialling which I hope might take some of my accidental learning into a new, more strategic phase.
There are four real projects and two fantasy ones.
Tamasha Playwrights is currently an unfunded pilot though very much real – a new in-house playwright-led collective which meets in our offices after work. Not only do we examine the craft of playwriting itself, but also how the industry works; with visits from producers and literary managers, sessions on fundraising, budgeting and how to get their own projects off the ground. The idea is to put these playwrights in the creative driving seat, to become their own producers, reclaiming the power from the long and labyrinthine road of literary departments and opaque producing infrastructures. We’re also training them in how to sustain a playwriting career between commissions. This autumn we will be launching Tamasha Playwrights as an agency of diverse playwrights-for-hire, available for schools workshops, teacher training and bespoke young people’s commissions for colleges or youth theatres. Every year we will refresh this group, and add to the agency a new crop of diverse playwriting role models.
Schoolwrights is an even larger initiative which Tamasha piloted when I was Associate Artist as far back as 2010. As the UK’s first centrally-managed and quality-controlled playwrights-in-schools training scheme, Schoolwrights lasts a whole school year and draws up to 6 local schools together into a network of placement organisations for playwriting residencies, in which diverse, emerging playwrights co-create new plays with inner city young people, for performance in professional venues in productions directed by their teachers. Schoolwrights isn’t cheap, but it is potentially game-changing. Parity of esteem runs throughout – everyone learns from everyone else. We are currently fundraising for a three-year amount to run Schoolwrights both in London and regionally from 2016-19.
Tamasha’s third real project is Taxi Tales, a site specific community project on which one of our star playwrights, Ishy Din is leading. Ishy is a Middlesbrough minicab driver turned playwright, whose career Tamasha launched in 2012 with a national tour of Snookered. Ishy is now in hot demand, developing several theatre commissions as well as TV and film. But he’s always wanted to bring it all back home, and this year, with our help, he has – with a project which involves working with real minicab drivers in Middlesbrough to develop monologues for the drivers to perform to customers in their cabs. There’ll be a London show, and workshops about the process, on Friday 10 July – ask me afterwards for more details.
Our final real-world project comes from my long-time collaborators Mulberry School, who this year founded an Alumni Theatre Company – an ‘old girls network’ of former students making new work, run entirely by and for the Bangladeshi young women of the area. This entirely spontaneous, grass roots initiative has sprung up after twenty-five years of extra-curricular creative arts work, with which I have been involved for the last ten. Its existence excited me hugely because it is a sign that the work is taking root in the community, which suggests it is becoming locally-owned and therefore, hopefully, permanent. Tamasha has agreed to professionally mentor the Alumni Theatre Company, making our expertise and connections available to them on demand as they grow. It is a straightforward thing for any professional theatre company to make a little of salaried staff time available in this way, and I would encourage them to do so where opportunities such as this emerge.
And finally, the fantasies. The first is actually inspired by Mulberry’s Alumni company. If I had all the money in the world, I would build ‘Tamasha 2’ – a shadow national touring company, fully operational alongside ours, with shared offices and entirely staffed with new, diverse theatre artists at the starts of their careers, all of them on a salary for a year, and mentored by a core member of Tamasha staff. There would be a shadow Artistic Director, shadow Exec Director, shadow Marketing and Comms, producing, finance, development – all working together to create their own touring production, perhaps thematically linked to ours, and touring alongside it in a double bill. The costs would be high of course, but a sustained investment of this kind would be an apprenticeship like no other, and meaningfully train and launch five or six professional theatre careers, every year, for as long as it ran.
Perhaps more realistic in the current climate is the final dream: an Introduction to Producing course for diverse young people. In my first Artistic Director job, I’ve been on a steep learning curve this past 18 months, getting on top of co-producing agreements, box office guarantees, tour booking, fundraising and all the other assorted but often invisible back office functions of a theatre company which are as critical to making the work as the work itself. Whenever I learn anything new like this my experience in schools starts to channel my Inner Teacher to ask: How could I teach this to someone else in an eight-week scheme of work?
Yes, some similar-ish schemes exist, I’m thinking of the National’s Step Change programme or the Society of London Theatre’s Stage One initiative – but none are BAME-specific, and none aimed at an age group young enough to still be considering which career is for them. An Introduction to Theatre Producing module aimed at 16-18 year olds is surely not impossible to envisage, or even for an exam board to take on. With its mixture of arts and economics it could form part of not only a Drama A-level or BTEC but also Business Studies, Economics or even Maths too.
If you feel this is worth a further conversation, come and find me. It is something I would love for Tamasha to help set up.
I’ll leave it there, but for one final Thank You to our hosts Nitrobeat and the Unicorn. If this becomes an annual event, I hope to be back to deliver and update. I also hope that it won’t be too long before we move on from talking about the D-Word to the E-Word: Equality.