(Originally published for The Creative Case for Diversity in association with ACE and Disability Arts Online, Sep ’11)
Three years ago I was selected to participate in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s arts journalist bursary scheme. It was an initiative which aimed to support aspiring arts journalists and critics, whilst simultaneously broadening the demographic of the RSC’s audience. Throughout the year, I sampled the breadth of theatre that London had to offer; I had found my bliss. But at the same time I was faced with a glaring truth: London’s diversity is not reflected in London’s theatres. Audiences were predominantly made up of the white middle class, and were not representative of the city.
I soon realised that my bridge to a new career had the potential to be the bridge to something else: a more ethnically diverse audience. Broadening the demographic of critics, (which was equally lacking in diversity) could be a step towards attracting and engaging with new audiences.
Diversifying the critics circle will alter perceptions. Having high profile critics from across the demographic will diminish the notion that going to the theatre is a preserve of the white middle class, which will potentially attract new audiences to the theatre. I often meet young Londoners or professionals from the black and minority ethnic community who use the words “posh” and “middle-class” when referring to the theatre. When they learn that I am a theatre critic, they’re surprised but genuinely interested. On a conversational level, I can see how that initial interest can be harnessed to engage them with the art form.
Engagement is central to increasing diversity in any medium. I have found that theatre criticism and the debates which stem from it can often be introspective. Enthusiasts speak to fellow enthusiasts, whilst the discussions surrounding black and minority ethnic shows tend to sit outside of the mainstream. Increasing diversity within the critics circle will remove these discussions from the margins and place them into the mainstream, creating a discourse which engages with a larger audience.
Finally, a more varied group of critics will allow for a wider range of social and cultural perspectives to emerge. The temptation to celebrate a show for its cultural ambiance will be reduced and the discourse will no doubt make for more impassioned and interesting reading. Artists take their inspiration from the world around them, so why not draw on that same source of inspiration when discussing the work.
The lack of diversity in theatre cannot be resolved in one act. But attracting and speaking to new audiences, whilst creating a debate that’s varied, interesting and inclusive is a starting point. And a critic, seated somewhere between the stage and the audience is in the perfect position to do this.