Oops! I just took a look behind the brown door…

Revised brown door image

Tanuja Amarasuriya is a Producer and Director working with Live Art, Theatre and Film. She is one of Theatre Bristol’s Creative Producers, but this is a provocation from a personal perspective. Her blog is at weirdypapoose.blogspot.com

Last week I went to a meeting led by Sustained Theatre, ostensibly to discuss setting up ‘regional hubs’ for practitioners from “The Sector”.

You get what I mean by “The Sector”, right?

Apparently, I’m part of “The Sector” because I work in theatre and I have brown skin. Well actually, because I have brown skin. The theatre bit is a given because that is the whole of what Sustained Theatre are dealing with.

Recently, I’ve been asked to participate in a whole load of “cultural diversity” thinking/action/research. To be honest, I’m not even sure if “cultural diversity” is the correct phrase any longer. Terminology and definition is always a massive stumbling block in this area. It is never clearly resolved, as demonstrated by Sustained Theatre settling on the phrase “The Sector” – a label that is ALWAYS going to sound weak because it needs clarifying every time you use it. If I tell someone that I’m part of The Sector, I can guarantee that they will not assume that I’m a black person who works in theatre. No. They’ll probably think I’m part of some sort of cult.

Hold on, I don’t even know if I’m allowed to call myself “black”. I’m of Sri Lankan descent, so maybe I should call myself “brown”, or “Asian”?

Usually I say “I live in Bristol, but originally I’m from the north”.

But that’s specific to me, it’s not the condition of my ethnicity. The thing is, my ethnicity does not in itself tell you an awful lot about me. And the problem with ‘cultural diversity in the arts’ debates is that they tend to want to identify ‘our’ professional needs as a group banded together through ethnicity. And in my experience, that doesn’t greatly chime with my professional needs as an individual.

The bigger problem with this approach is that it defines itself outside of other discussions. Integrating with broader, non-ethnic-specific debates (about artist or audience development, for example) is not always considered from the outset, or indeed, at all. Many of the ‘Sector needs’ identified in a report like Whose Theatre…? are the needs of ALL artists working outside of traditional theatre. If I take Live Art as an example, there are similar problems: around audience development, a lack of understanding of the range of work covered by the notion of ‘Live Art’, artists’ technical skills and training, a lack of published archive, and how work is supported or not by venues (Ekow Eshun’s closure of the Live Art programme at the ICA being a case in point).

It seems to me that much research into the needs of “The Sector” starts from an assumption of lack. Perhaps it’s a fair assumption that, if diverse ethnicity is under-represented in theatre, then it must be due to something missing, somewhere. But by starting from this position, and by conducting the research outside of the broader context, there is a real danger of duplicating support that is already on offer and thereby setting up an (unintentional) apartheid between support for black artists and support for all other artists. For example, if an aim is to get more black and asian artists’ work distributed internationally, then shouldn’t the goal be to get more of these artists included in existing, respected platforms such as the British Council showcase at Edinburgh Festival? Is there a danger that by focussing on a diversity-specific showcase like deciBel, we are tacitly stating that we don’t need the British Council showcase to consider work by diverse artists?

If ethnically diverse artists are not accessing professional development support that is already on offer, does that mean we should automatically seek to set up alternative support structures for black artists, rather than find ways to help them access the support that’s already available?

I’m sure deciBel and the British Council talk to each other, but that’s a big assumption on my part as there’s no visible partnership on the deciBel website. And without seeing a visible link between diversity-specific support and mainstream support, are we reinforcing the idea that diverse artists cannot access that mainstream and that the mainstream is not interested in them? Bristol no longer has a dedicated Black arts venue, but over the last couple of years, I’ve personally seen performance work by a huge range of ethnically diverse artists: Yara El-Sherbini, Roza Ilgen, Qasim Riza Shaheen, Hetain Patel, Shi Ker, Harminder Singh Judge, Folake Shoga, Jiva Parthipan, Marcus Young, Edson Burton, Mem Morrison, Leiza McLeod… Most of this list comes from Arnolfini’s live art programme, but it also features work I’ve seen at the Tobacco Factory and Mayfest. These are all high profile professional programmes, but I wonder how many black and asian theatre professionals simply do not look to these programmes because they assume they’re not interested in diverse artists or audiences?

I’m not saying that there are no issues specific to non-white theatre professionals (there certainly are – particularly around recognising theatre as a profession and accessing training), but perhaps there needs to be some better assessment of where these issues relate to issues for theatre more broadly, so we can see where the real gaps in support are?