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On Tuesday 19th November  2013 I swapped the stalls for the stage and put forth a provocation, as part of RADAR at the Bush theatre. The theme for the Platform event was: Breaking Walls, Building Bridges.  Below is the transcript for that speech.

Are we preserving a cultural heritage or are we building one?

I realised quite soon after speaking to Madani and Omar that I couldn’t be asking a bigger, more complex question, but it’s one that has remained at the forefront of my mind over the course of my career and experience of theatre (both writing about it and working within the industry), predominantly in London. So, I’ll be addressing the question from this personal vantage point.

I love London and I love theatre.

RADAR Image AS

Photograph: John Tramper, courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe

My passion for theatre was neither learned nor inherited through family tradition. It was in fact, inspired by this dashing chap and his raw fish, which I should add is not a euphemism.

This is Jasper Britton, playing Caliban in the Globe’s production of the Tempest in 2000. I was studying English Literature at A Level at the time and our teacher decided that we needed to experience Shakespeare as groundlings. And so off we went and stood at the foot of the stage on a typically grey and wet day, and as I watched the production, a piece of raw fish came flying out of Caliban’s mouth and landed directly on my shoulder. In that moment I not only became a part of the performance (I felt the eyes of the auditorium turn towards me), but I’d been brought into the world created on the stage above me. I’d formed a connection, which up until then had depended on trawling through pages of a text with a pencil.

That’s where it all began. It was the moment which inspired and sparked an interest in theatre, which some may say borders on obsession. But it de-mystified it and exposed me to another world. For me, that moment at the Globe remains pivotal.

Since then I’ve come to see theatre as the most vivid expression of humanity.

The theatre is where I go to be provoked, entertained; where I go to question, to escape, to understand love, loss, morality, justice and every thread that binds us as human beings. But one thing that remains obvious and, which has prompted this provocation, is the disparity that exists between the life that surrounds me on the streets of this city and the life that appears on stage and in the stalls.

The critic Kenneth Tynan said:

“No theatre could sanely flourish until there was an umbilical connection between what was happening on the stage and what was happening in the world.”

That connection with the world is what should sustain theatre. Despite this intrinsic tie to humanity, theatre as a medium seems to be crawling along the road to change and representing the world outside. Undoubtedly there’s been progress, and I know there are artists and practitioners who embody these ideals but on the whole, we have a culture that’s slow to evolve.

Discourse around gender, ethnicity, disability and equality within the arts appear in almost cyclical waves to varying degrees. The difference between one conversation and the one prior to it is usually miniscule. The speed with which the theatrical sphere is changing, or not, leaves us with a cultural landscape that leans heavily towards preservation.

How innovative can we claim to be, if we’re still struggling with representation and inclusion?

Now these concerns aren’t unique to the theatre and the arts. They exist in the world outside the theatre too. In the corporate world for example, there are various initiatives, networks, awards ceremonies and whole departments assigned to these very issues. Next year, British companies may be tied to quotas on boards. I can’t attest to the success of these approaches, and obviously corporate organisations have greater resources at their disposal, but I’m often confronted with the thought that if the corporate world can consider the significance of achieving equality and take steps to implement change, given the  structures within which they operate, why then can’t the most creative medium lead the way and re-imagine the status quo?

It’s almost as if the industry exists in a paradox. There’s a limitless freedom that comes from a blank page or empty stage, yet difference or ‘an alternative’ continues to be something that has to be negotiated, perched on the periphery, vying for an opportunity to impact on the broader cultural landscape.

Why?

What better arena, than one that is defined by creativity, to affect this change?

I’m not speaking about being prescriptive, ticking boxes, or rolling out statements about equality and diversity, but enacting tangible change; shifting the emphasis from the traditional to the imaginative, taking greater risks and stepping into the unknown, in terms of both narratives and casting decisions. Not to court controversy, or secure funding, but for the simple fact that it makes for more interesting and varied work, which ultimately comes to define a culture.

The Cultural Olympiad was a hugely significant moment, the Unlimited Festival in particular, which provided a platform for disability-led work was striking. Why isn’t that moment, a lasting and defining marker of our cultural landscape?

Obviously the question of subsidy and how and where it is allocated plays a role in this conversation, but that’s for another platform.  But I will say this, with subsidy comes responsibility: that is a responsibility to respond to the life beyond the walls of the theatre. Every theatre and cultural institution should resist insularity and aim for a kind of fluidity with the outside world.

So how do we develop audiences?

By coming back to the idea of inspiration. The digital explosion has certainly changed the way we speak about theatre, speak to audiences, and even see theatre, but we mustn’t get complacent, or leave the digital world to single-handedly do the job of reaching new audiences. Nothing can replace that first moment of awe and excitement, which as we’ve seen can be as simple as a piece of raw fish landing on a shoulder. We should be constantly looking to invite the novice into the theatre, the person who may not come from a tradition of attending the theatre, but has a claim on the cultural institutions, which make up the city.

We need to open up the buildings, de-mystify the experience of going to the theatre and remove any assumptions about both the theatre, and what shows certain communities want to see, because minority groups are not homogenous.

We need to step outside the theatre and proactively forge relationships with alternative networks and the communities, who exist outside the walls. In short, engage, start a conversation. That conversation might lead to a moment of inspiration, and spark a passion and desire to return or venture further afield. It’s time theatres became creative about the ways of reaching out, and ultimately sharing ownership of a theatre building.

Stepping outside a theatre and into a community is an approach that does work. To use an example, at the press night for Peckham the Soap Opera at the Royal Court, I spoke to a gentleman beside me and it soon emerged that this was his first visit to the Royal Court Theatre. I asked what prompted this visit, and it was as simple as him seeing the production at the Bussey Building in Peckham, where he lived, and deciding to venture forth to experience it at the Royal Court. It’s about engagement.

Exposure is also key. I often meet people who are intrigued by the theatre, who have never visited the theatre, or whose point of reference might only be the big West End numbers, and are often unaware of the work that exists off West End. They’re interested, and want to explore. The London audience is there, it just needs to be tapped into and drawn into the theatre.

Going back to the original question, we’ve inherited a cultural heritage to be proud of. Traditions and the past proffer an education, the opportunity to re-imagine and experience yesteryear anew, but surely a greater legacy lies in innovation, in affecting change; using the essence and freedom of an art form to see and experience the world anew. If we can begin by at least reflecting the world around us, imagine the possibilities thereafter?

I’m going to leave you with this final thought: If not now, when?

Amardeep Sohi

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