Last week Spoonfed kicked off their On Progress series. It’s an exploration of the question ‘how should we measure progress in theatre?’ At the moment, we tend to hold up a lot of anecdotal and statistical evidence to demonstrate how theatre is progressing and becoming more diverse. I’d like this series of articles to be a collection of thoughts from people who are cited as examples of progress, to garner their thoughts on how we should measure inclusion/progress/diversity.
Think of the days of Sir Arnold Wesker and Edward Bond; we are not there now and it’s a shame. It’s a shame that theatre doesn’t feel more radical. It’s feeling more and more chic and we could do more to encourage the other voice to be other, to be true to its otherness.
For instance the play I’m doing now, Snookered, is written by a taxi driver [Ishy Din] and he keeps talking about how ignorant he is of the theatre business and how much he has to learn. He’s written a play that is extraordinarily vital. It’s true to the voices of the people that he grew up with. Now, he could learn something about structuring his play but there’s nothing he needs to learn about the voices of the people in his play because that’s got nothing to do with taste; it’s to do with truth.
But he feels intimidated a little into making sure the theatrical establishment welcomes his voice. I think actually they need to ensure that he understands he doesn’t need to do that, that they need his voice more than he needs theirs. Everything I can say to him in terms of guiding him in that journey is to try and protect his individuality. He’s written four parts for young Asian actors that are incredibly muscular, complex and unsentimental.
One of the things Nicholas Hytner first talked about when he took over at the National was interrogating the idea of what a ‘national’ theatre is, whether it’s necessary, and who and what it represents. That kind of ambition being explicitly stated and being up for debate is the sort of ambition that big theatre venues need to continuously engage in. And it’s a threat, it’s intimidating, but it’s necessary if it’s going to keep the form urgent and question pervading ideologies.
Wesker wrote about what the ambitions of theatre should be. He said you judge the quality of a piece not by its situation, not by the event dramatised within it, but by the quality of a writer’s perception of that event. That’s what makes something profound and timeless. It can be set anywhere – Rome, Athens, Birmingham – but the quality of the perception is what lifts it beyond the ordinary.
The press’ responsibility here is ridiculously important and divisive. Increasingly, their reporting is to do with the celebrity, the new and the sensation rather than the important, the significant and the nuanced. That applies to reviews as well as profiles of new artists etc. They’re always looking for what they suggest are radical profiles of artists but it doesn’t strike me as being radical, it strikes me as being chic. The celebrity thing absolutely pervades the way the world of theatre is written about and dramatised in the papers. We don’t have nuanced debate any more.
That said, there’s such a pressure to get audiences in and we’re in such a vulnerable place financially I’m not surprised that marketing and PR companies are used in the way they are being used. There’s a greater and greater reliance on trying to use any avenue to get audiences in. But I think its also the responsibility of a venue to encourage a more considered debate within the media. How we do that, I don’t know, but it needs to come from the top down.
Pigeon-holing, for example, is still an enormous issue and there are a lot of misconceptions about things like Asian theatre. I think that there’s an idea that there is an “Asian theatre”, that there’s a particular form that companies like Tamasha and Tara Arts engage in, and I don’t think they do. They just make theatre. The subject matter might change, the nature of the stories might be to do with experiences had by Asians, but I don’t think even that should be a brief of theirs. The only importance of them being identified in that way is to sort of say, well that is the profile of the people making the work, that is not the profile of the work but it says something about the historical, the cultural, the political background that the artists have been informed by.
This what theatre does for me more effectively and more uniquely than any other art form: it puts ideas and argument at the centre of the entertainment experience, and that needs to be celebrated and encouraged. Most people who work in theatre have a complex sense of otherness. There’s not a lot of money in this profession and people tend to persist with it because they have to. They need to ask questions and continue to interrogate things. It’s ironic that ultimately I think if we are only celebrating difference for the sake of difference, it’s not just reductive, it’s also going against what a form like theatre can do; which is to demonstrate the human parallels that transcend time, borders, race and age. Those are the sorts of things in a play that make you vibrate in sympathy with the other, as it were.
In conversation with Naima Khan
If you’d like to suggest an artist or get in contact about the On Progress series, email email@example.com