The formation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on October 1 2007 raises an important issue in the representation of minority and marginalised viewpoints in theatre. Taking over from the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights commission; and the Equal Opportunities Commission, the new body is charged with overseeing what is sometimes known as the “Single Equality Duty’, covering the three statutory equalities of Race, Gender and Disability; and three general equalities of Age, Religion and Sexual orientation. The body, under the rather controversial leadership of Trevor Phillips, is also charged with monitoring the European convention on Human rights, which the UK signed up to with the Human Rights Act in 1998.

The Human Rights Act was incorporated into UK law on 1st October 2000 and is intended to implement the European Convention on Human Rights in the UK. The latter outlines several issues, including rights to freedom of thought, conscience & religion, the right to respect for private and family life and in particular, ‘The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms… shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.’87 The legislation has a number of implications for employers; however, the principle it establishes for all groups is the positive promotion of engagement, rather than the outlawing of negative discrimination. Given that the theatre is in the business of reflecting back the tensions of society, giving it a model of itself – “holding a mirror up to Nature”, it is inevitable that the rapid progress of society should be reflected in performance. There are issues here of cultural and personal identity; of fairness and accuracy of representation and engagement; and a challenge to combat those who seek to make trouble.

87 http://www.cepr.org/aboutcepr/policies.htm#Human_Rights 38

Interestingly, there is also evidence of benefits accruing from diversity, which are worth more than a passing mention.


There is a long tradition of theatre of ethnic minorities in London, going back to the Yiddish theatre that arrived in London as part of the flight from the Russian pogroms in the late C19th, and ran up to World War 288. Jewish theatre was a vibrant part of the East End society, and left a radical tradition of socially engaged theatre within which Pinter, Wesker, Bernard Kops and Lionel Bart. Joan Littlewood was able to tap into the same seams of creativity.

88 Davies, Andrew: Other Theatres: the Development of Alternative and Experimental Theatre in Britain. Macmillan , Basingstoke, 1987 pp 60-65

89 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCwPQNw1fxQ Nitro, Mass Carib 07 September 2006

90 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2KR76V0-Q4, Nitro, The Wedding Dance 20 Feb 2007

The story of ‘ethnic theatre’ really gets going in the late 70’s; as a reaction to the racism that was developing in the recessionary environment following the Yom Kippur war and the subsequent economic crisis. 1979 was the foundation year for both Tara Arts, under the leadership of Jatinder Verma; and the Black Theatre Co-operative, which has since become Nitro. Temba Theatre company started in 1972; and Talawa in 1985, the latter two by Rose Bruford Graduates Alton Kumalo and Yvonne Brewster. All of these companies were a magnet for new Black writers such as Mustapha Matura, Jimi Rand.

Nitro, under composer/director Felix Cross since 1996, have gone on to specialise in music theatre, producing the dramatised oratorio Mass Carib89 (2006, composed 1987) and the book for The Wedding Dance90 (2007) Iced (1997) by Ray Shell, ‘Up Against the Wall’ (1999) by Paulette Randall and Felix Cross, and ‘Passports to the Promised Land’ (2001).

Photo 17 Scene from Mass Carib video 

It was to Talawa, under the inspired leadership of Paulette Randall, that the offer was made to create the first home for Black Theatre in the UK. The Arts Council had recognised as part of both the Eclipse report (2001) that there was a need for an ‘Incubation’ space for black theatre, and offered the rebuilt Westminster as a potential 39

home. However, the project fell apart in acrimony in 2005, leading the Arts Council to withdraw its offer of a £4m capital grant.91

91 http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/newsstory.php/25814/exclusive-westminster-theatre-delayed-until 92 http://www.yellowearth.org/site/archive-production/boom/ 93 http://www.tamasha.org.uk/developing-artists/ 94 http://www.kalitheatre.co.uk/ 95 O’Neill Sean, Woolcock Nicola: “Extremists hijacked play protest” The Times December 22, 2004 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article404969.ece 96 http://www.akademi.co.uk/

The British Chinese community is represented principally by Yellow Earth, who have recently (2008) completed Running the Silk Road project, in the UK and in Beijing as part of the Olympics. “Yellow Voices is in partnership with Birmingham Rep, Soho Theatre and the Young Vic. Yellow Earth Theatre celebrates 13 years as the leading British East Asian touring theatre”92 Meanwhile British South Asian experience is represented by a number of companies: Tara, as already mentioned, have just achieved their 30th anniversary; Tamasha “is an award-winning theatre company led by director Kristine Landon-Smith and actor / playwright Sudha Bhuchar. Alongside its touring productions, the Company nurtures emerging talent through Tamasha Developing Artists, an ongoing programme of professional development initiatives for writers, directors, designers and performers”93. Kali Theatre, run by Janet Steel “encourages, develops and presents new theatre writing by Asian women. Kali presents touring full productions of new work while our Kali Shorts and Kali Futures programmes encourage and support the creation of new work through workshops, dramaturgical support and public readings.”94 Kali were the company who produced Behzti (Dishonour), by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (2005), famously stopped by a violet protest by young Sikh men at Birmingham Rep. Something of a cause celebre, the play had been developed by a Sikh writer with the local community; but seems to have been used by a small groups as pretext for other issues.95

Photo 18 Rehearsing Running the silk Road Screen grab http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jc3HsmUa

While all of the companies mentioned above seem to have taken an Anglo-indian approach, exploring drama through writing, it is well to remember that Indian drama forms are often from a Dance-drama background; most famously in Kathakali, but also other classical traditions such as Mohnayattam and Bharatnatyam. These traditions too are being reinterpreted. Akademi Dance “is a cutting-edge, progressive organisation with an international outlook. Its work is modern and holistic, informed by the traditions and rich heritage of South Asian dance and driven by the needs of South Asian dance artists in the UK”96

The issues with minority ethnic arts are many. Giles Croft in 2001 put his finger on one: ‘When you mentioned that there has been some progress in the employment of 40

actors, the reason why that has happened is that for the people who run organisations, there is no threat in that. The problem arises when your own position is under threat and when you are having to look at the way you think. That is the form of institutional racism prevalent through the theatre. ‘97 This thought was echoed frequently by Philip Hedley, both during and after his time at Stratford East. Taking over in 1979, he realised the demographics of the East End had changed since Joan Littlewood started the company, and set about reflecting the character of Newham as it evolved.

97 Giles Croft – Artistic Director, Nottingham Playhouse: The Eclipse Report 2001. Full report: www.artscouncil.org.uk/documents/projects/1510.pdf 98 http://www.stratfordeast.com/the_theatre/history_1979_2004.shtml 99 Lecture at “Many Voices” Symposium

100 http://www.reallyuseful.com/shows/bombay-dreams

101 http://www.susan.croft.btinternet.co.uk/Supplements/Blackplays.htm

“Before becoming Artistic Director, Philip Hedley had worked as assistant to Joan Littlewood for some years. His first choice of play as Artistic Director in 1979 was Mustapha Matura’s Welcome Home Jacko which opened on 17th March 1979. He continued and expanded the educational work started by Joan Littlewood. …. The theatre engaged in large-scale co-productions with nearly all the leading subsidised Black and Asian companies, including Black Theatre Co-operative/NITRO, Talawa, Tamasha, Moti Roti, and Tara Arts.“98

Speaking at the Rose Bruford Symposium in 2007, Philip Hedley made a similar point to Giles Croft. It was important to empower the community with which one works: sometimes that means giving up power, which may challenge one’s inner assumptions. “I sometimes think it’s like catching sight of a shambling old man across the street, and suddenly realising it’s my own reflection in a shop window!”99 There is some evidence that some aspects of Black theatre are gaining general acceptance: Bombay Dreams was a commercial attempt to capitalise on the enormous market for Bollywood cinema:

Bombay Dreams is award winning composer A. R. Rahman’s Bollywood extravaganza for the stage, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber in London and on Broadway. Reaching out to new audiences, the staging was a riot of colour and spectacle, with a script by Meera Syal and lyrics by Don Black. Akaash, the hero, dreams of escaping from the Mumbai slums to find success and riches as a Bollywood star and also of finding love on the way”100 According to reports, the show was pulled only because of the lack of Indian performers; though poor sales on Broadway indicated perhaps a more local appeal. The appetite for British-Asian entertainment among Britain’s 4.2m Asians is huge, but rarely observed by mainstream media. The Indian community as a whole is developing fast, as an aspirational community their level of higher education is above average. Philip Hedley’s revival of the Jimmy Cliff musical The Harder They Come (2006), following on from the success of Five Guys Named Moe (1990) proved there was a West End audience for Black musicals.

There is a long tradition of black writing in the UK, which is being promoted strongly. At the Theatre Museum, Susan Croft’s catalogue of Black plays101 is quite extensive. If, 41

as Dorothy Heathcote pithily puts it, “Drama is about humans in a mess”102 then it is unsurprising that the tensions produced by migration, race conflict and assimilation are a fertile ground for writers to explore; whether it be Roy Williams’ Sing your Heart out for the Lads, (2002) about different attitudes to race identity among football supporters; or Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen, (2003) about issues within the Black community of Hackney. Taking the longer view, we seem to have progressed from a phase of exoticism, perhaps exemplified by Brook’s Marabharata (1985), where it is seen as acceptable to appropriate elements of another culture in the cause of aesthetics; to an examination of ‘otherness’ and exploration of post-colonial issues:

102 Quoted in Berry, Kathleen S: Dramatic Arts and Cultural Studies: Acting Against the Grain Routledge London 2000 103 Shobana Jeyasingh in Catalyst 4/4/7, CRE 104 Bonnie Greer, writing in Catalyst 4/4/07, CRE 105 See Runnymede Trust Report: Who cares about the white working class? Runnymede Trust, 2008:

“Runnymede asked eight prominent thinkers on race, class and inequality to reflect on the state of class in 21st century Britain, and its relationship with race equality. The running theme throughout the contributions is that the plight of the white working class is constructed – by the media, politicians and anti-immigrant groups – as either the fault of immigrants and minority ethnic

“Since then it has taken me time to unravel the fact that the demographically accurate term ‘the arts of the ethnic minorities’, coined for the best of reasons as a strategy of empowerment, had in the popular un-consciousness found a happy home in the long and deeply held colonial notions of ethnicity. The shortened term ‘ethnic arts’ had become synonymous with the Orientalist ‘native arts’ with all its inherent and historically conditioned prejudices”103 Shobaha Jeyasingh’s criticism stills stings, but other commentators shift to a more nuanced position. Bonnie Greer comments:

Cultural diversity has to be careful about leaving room for individual expression, for the adventurous, and the challenging. But art and culture are not the same. Art is individual. Culture is collective.”104

In examining Carnival (see chapter 2) one can see elements of all three perspectives; however, contradictions becomes resolved in the joy of celebration; and newer, younger generations from different races play together in ways unimagined in the past, mingling cultural practices. The agenda, at least in London and other metropolitan centres, has moved from multi-racialism (cultural forms existing alongside each other) to interculturalism (cultures mutually penetrating and informing). Within this dynamic, the experience of second- and third-generation British men and women is the driving tension of much modern drama. It is a complicated and highly dynamic set of processes: the rise of the BNP can be interpreted not just as a symptom of cultural alienation and dissipation by the white working class, but as a failure to grasp the level of complexity of the issues. Race is no longer a dialectic, but rather a ‘multilectic’ debate.105 42

groups, or the cultural deficit of the underclass itself, or both, while leaving the hierarchical and highly stratified nature of Britain out of the equation.” Also: Department for Communities and Local Government Sources of resentment, and perceptions of ethnic minorities among poor white people in England Department for Communities and Local Government, 7 January 2009. This report examines sources of resentment, and perceptions of ethnic minorities among poor white people in England.,

106 Arts Council Whose theatre? Report ACE, 2006. “In November 2005, Arts Council England instigated a consultation process and commissioned an independent report on the infrastructure and development needs of the Black and minority ethnic theatre sector over the next 10 years. Please visit www.sustainedtheatre.org.uk ”

Much of the new thinking seems to have come about since the Macpherson Report into the policing of the Steven Lawrence murder: among the recommendations was the notion that equal treatment which does not recognise cultural difference may itself be racist. From a performance perspective therefore, the notion of ‘colour-blind casting’, while at times an improvement on Black actors always playing servant roles in the classics, may also ignore the issue of cultural bias within the heritage represented within the classic canon, and therefore be equally as patronising. In this as in so much else, the debate is important as the outcome.

Given the complexity of all of these issues, the reaction of Arts Council England should be seen as an attempt to catch up with developing issues. The Eclipse Report of 2001, quoted above, was a genuine attempt at creating practitioner-lead policy, and to get traction for Minority theatre. The more recent response, following a review, was the Sustained Theatre Initiative, initiated by the “Whose Theatre?” report of 2006106 As a network, it seems quite extensive: 22 company sites are listed on the website, from across the UK.


Where Ethnic minority arts were 25 years ago is where disability theatre companies seem to be today. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given that the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 follows on from the Race Relations Act of 1976 (and the Sex Discrimination act of 1975). Indeed, the relative infancy of disability rights was commented in Graeae Theatre Company’s production, The Flower Girls (2007) set in a ‘crippleage’ in the thirty years following World War II.

The same issues of integrated casting and separate development for particular groups is being explored. The politics within disability communities itself is more complex than often appreciated in non-disabled circles. Some deaf people, those who use signing, regard their community as a linguistic group rather than being defined by a sensory impairment, while others are insistent on using English (through lip-reading or written forms). Inevitably there is debate between the two groups: when society seeks view, 43

often a contradictory message will come across. The notion of ‘disability’ as a social rather than medical construct runs deep – a non-inclusive society creates the barriers that people with disabilities encounter. There is now some discussion about the relative merits of signed as opposed to captioned performances – each individual will have their own preference; while hearing aid wearers are likely to prefer the hearing loop system.

The Disability Discrimination Act creates an obligation on employers to promote inclusion of people with disabilities, and to make ‘reasonable adjustment’ to buildings, processes to ensure that. Given that much theatre activity is in receipt of public funding, the Act is having quite some effect; but also the generally liberal nature of the arts also promotes inclusive approaches. What has changed is the realisation of the extent of disability within society, though the term can include conditions as diverse as diabetes; mobility and sensory impairment; learning disability; or mental health. Disability, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families 107, is characterised by its diversity.

107 Tolstoy, L: Anna Karenina “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Quoted by Alan Ayckbourn in The Norman Conquests. 

108 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0PqZqu_WAM Flower Girls in Rehearsal Part 1 09 October 2007 109 Adams-Spink, Geoff: Dirty talk for blind people BBC News website

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8144793.stm Page last updated at 09:41 GMT, Thursday, 16 July 2009 10:41 UK

However, as we have seen with ethnic minorities, participation is only half the debate, with issues of representation also at the fore; but, I believe, exaggerated in the case of disability. It is more complex than the Black-actor-as-Othello and Black-actor-as-yardie scenario here: Wheelchair actor-as-Hamlet is more complex when it is Wheelchair-actor-with-different-speech-pattern-playing-Hamlet’s-poetry. And there are serious issues of content, when the community being represented have for so long been invisible and unheard. These are issues for the community in everyday life, let alone on stage. Where does the issue of conceptions of beauty reside, when dealing with amputees or facial disfigurement, for example? Or issues of sexuality for people with disability, something touched on in “The Flower Girls: “Keep your hand on your halfpenny, my dear.”108 There is a debate around issues of pornography:

Photo 19 Graeae in rehearsal from video

Writer and performer, Mat Fraser, says that making adult material available to disabled people is an intrinsic part of inclusion. “It is the erotic that helps us to feel alive, real, included, and disabled people have so much to offer the world of the erotic and the adult,” 109 44

There is a minority view within feminist circles that, so long as women are in charge, that erotica/pornography as an expression of female sexuality can be empowering: the a similar argument is being made by disabled writers, that they are being patronised by the view that they are somehow ‘unfortunates’ and therefore shouldn’t be sexually active :

This is a prejudice that is being challenged by activists, artists and writers, like Penny Pepper – a writer of erotic fiction that includes disabled characters. “We are tired of being nannied and denied the rights to sexual expression that non-disabled people take for granted – so on that level, at least, we should fight for equal access to view and enjoy such material,” she says.110 A similar case exists for learning disabled people, where ability has long been measured as ‘reading age’ thus infantilising adults with usual desires. In fact, learning disabled need the same access to other people. Heart ‘n’ Soul in Deptford run a club night called the Beautiful Octopus Club, which regularly draws 200 plus learning disabled people from across SE London; members are not just passive members, but engage as DJ’s and light jockeys too.

110Adams-Spink, Geoff: Ibid 111 www.vaginamonologues.co.uk/ 

112 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ghe1XrWzZP8 To Be Straight with You – DV8 Physical Theatre 11 June 2009 113 Guardian Theatre Blog Posted by Andy Field Wednesday June 4 2008


The other former statutory duty is that of sex discrimination; but like the parallel issue of sexual orientation, traditions of writing and dance within the playhouse were well established from the 1980’s onwards, and too numerous to explore. In that sense they fall just outside the remit of this paper; but worth noting in passing is Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues111, which has achieved a level of mainstreaming; and DV8’s To Be Straight With You (2008):

How does a society reconcile its religious beliefs with an individual’s human rights? DV8s Artistic Director Lloyd Newson leads a multi-ethnic cast in a poetic but unflinching exploration of tolerance, intolerance, homophobia, religion and sexuality. Based on hundreds of hours of personal stories collected from individuals directly affected with these issues, To Be Straight with You powerfully incorporates dance, text, documentary, animation and film. DV8 Physical Theatre’s work is about taking risks, aesthetically and physically, about breaking down the barriers between dance, theatre and personal politics and, above all, communicating ideas and feelings clearly and unpretentiously.112 Both shows seem to have their origins in a Vox Pop approach. To some extent, the issue in both cases is less urgent than in the past, to the extent that the Guardian had to resort to shock tactics to get people to respond to a blog on feminist theatre:

“Feminist theatre is a scarce commodity. With a handful of exceptions, feminism has failed to take a thematic hold in the theatre. Is the situation as unimpressive as it appears?”113 45

The other equalities mentioned at the start of the chapter are, of course, represented to some extent; but perhaps in ways that are not as recognisable. While age equality has Age Exchange114, who have been doing reminiscence work since 1983, faith communities themselves act as cultural centres; whether mosque, gurdwara, or chapel. Riding Lights Theatre Company115 was established in 1992 specifically to serve the Christian community; and we should not forget that many evangelical and Baptist organisations have very elaborate performance set-ups, as well as providing a whole generation of singers grounded in Gospel.

114 http://www.age-exchange.org.uk/index.html 115 www.ridinglights.org/

116 See Chris Baldwin “Participatory Arts and the Agile Citizen” on “Sidcup Papers” http://theatrefutures.org.uk/sidcup-papers/participatory-arts-and-the-agile-citizen posted January 13th, 2008


The equality agenda, when applied to theatre and performance, implies an imbalance of power which requires an artistic response: like Boal’s work being applied to education, it is an area which the Left have identified as an area for action. Chris Baldwin of Spiral Arts talks about cultural identity, heritage and cultural participation in a time of rapid cultural shift in Spain. The equality agenda implies a Holy Grail of universal engagement, rather than the Arts existing as the preserve of a cultural elite – in other words, a middle-class enclave occupation. He favours an approach based on Article 27, Declaration of Human Rights: ”the right to participate in the cultural life of the community as a cultural right.”116 He also cites Unesco’s definition of engagement, implying cultural diversity

entitlement to equal opportunities to participate

provided with the cultural means of functioning effectively within that society

obligation of government etc to nurture the source of diversity

promotion of diversity: interactions between different cultures

as moving beyond a 90’s paradigm of diversity with aim of achieving social cohesion. In a British context, where global labour movement has been established since the 60’s, the issue now tends to be one of what Pierre Bourdieu describes as social and cultural capital. As opposed to models of society which identify earnings as the prime signifier of social class, Bourdieu notes that access to cultural forms is at least as significant. With regard to the traditional working class, there is a strong feeling that its cultural forms are not valued; leading to a high level of marginalisation, even among those who have been educated into the middle classes. In the context of race, the Guardian observed:

“Such triumphs are all the more remarkable in an industry that was last year deemed institutionally racist by the Arts Council, and is dominated by a male, Oxbridge coterie. To date, Britain’s only Asian woman artistic director is 46

Leicester Haymarket’s (Kully) Thiarai, who says, “There’s still a real sense that theatre is for the Oxbridge crowd. Sometimes I think, ‘I’m a working-class girl – what am I doing here?’ Those barriers remain real issues.”117 It would be instructive to expand this thesis to include more ‘commercial’ aspects of traditional working class culture: pantomime; amateur drama and musical performance (not exclusively working class, but certainly originating there); working men’s club, holiday camp and cruise entertainment; brass band and male voice choir; processionals such as the Miner’s Galas; and living as opposed to preserved folk traditions. Lest I be accused of rosy tinted romanticism, I will finish this chapter with a cautionary note. It is worth citing at some length a report on an international arts gathering of arts managers:

117 http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2003/jul/26/whoswhoinbritishtheatre.features

118 http://artscounselling.blogspot.com/ 6/10/09 Mark Robinson, Chief executive, Arts council england north east Accessed 20/10/09

“One of the speakers who caused the most breaktime-buzz at the IFACCA World Summit was Stojan Pelko, the State Secretary in the Slovenian Ministry of Culture. After a tour-de-force of Minister-as-tourism-advocate from the Jamaican Minister of Culture, this was a totally different kettle of fish. There may be other State Secretaries who end by exploring a metaphor from Gilles Deleuze, but I’ve missed them so far. “His topic was whether cultural diversity was the source of world peace or the root of all conflict. Coming from a part of the former Yugoslavia, as he put it, once you have known poets shooting from the hills it is hard to see culture as therapy or something than can overrule ‘real power’. Using a devasting clip from Goran Markovic’s The Tour, he suggested that in global capitalism ‘there are no innocent songs’, and that the discontinuities of history – where old certainties break down – are where the universalities emerge. (Certainly at that point, this seemed a world away from the ‘dodgy advocacy’ I mentioned yesterday, and suggests a positive outcome to recession.) “Where the arts could be ‘real arms’, Pelko argued, was in creating what he called ‘subterranean solidarities’ – by encouraging a sense of non-identity with the collective where people became ‘raw, free and vulnerable’. (As opposed, I take it, to the security of common identity and values that can, in extremis, lead to intolerance.)”118 47