The theatre world, along with the rest of the arts, is waking up to this evident diversity problem we have, and we are now starting to see lots of new, original work on important stories from voices that have previously been silenced. The subject of diversity and representation in the arts in general is a hot topic, as well as the main focus of many artistic organisations plans for change in their programmes and work.
Don’t get me wrong, this problem is nowhere near solved. I would be here forever if I were to list all the reasons why, but I can name a couple that are particularly important to me. Firstly, there is still a lot of work to be done to make theatre fully accessible for disabled people. Most theatre spaces are completely unequipped for those with any kind of disability or impairment, meaning that disabled people are completely shut out from these spaces. Another, more complicated issue that theatres have, is finding a way to create programmes that reach out into disadvantaged communities, genuinely managing to engage and gain the trust of the people that live there. This is not only challenging but often unaffordable, as organisations that create these projects have to secure funding to pay those who cannot afford to take the time off work, and so on, which is maybe why they don’t happen as much as they should. There are so many brilliant projects that have been successful in this, such as The Grenfell Project, which was stunning. However challenging these projects may be, I really believe that these kind of projects are the key to true representation in the arts, much more so than what I have been experiencing, which seems to be a lot of ‘box ticking’.
No one wants to feel that they have been given an opportunity simply because they are in a ‘disadvantaged’ category. It’s offensive, it feels wrong. You didn’t get the opportunity because you are talented, you are there simply to tick a box. But that’s only one part of the problem. Implementing these box-ticking quotas personally make me, as a deaf writer, feel very restricted and frustrated. I often feel that my ‘disadvantage’ seems to be the only way (or makes it much more likely) that I will be recognised for my talent in the industry.
I don’t want to write about my deafness. Of course, it affects me emotionally and is something I struggle with in my everyday life, but the stories I want to tell are nothing, or at least consciously, to do with this part of myself. I am not defined by my ability to hear, I am shaped by my experiences, my morals and opinions, my itching frustrations about the world. As any writer is, right? So why do I feel like the only thing worth writing right now, in terms of my success as a playwright, is play about my struggles as a deaf person? And it is, because in a way, at the moment, it is true. It’s what the industry want. And it’s suffocating, being in this box.
It’s not just writers who are affected. I have spoken with BAME actors who tell me that they don’t look asian enough to get an ‘asian role’ and they aren't white enough to get a ‘white role’, so where do they fit? Where do you go if you don’t fit into any box? Similarly to myself, I am not completely deaf or completely hearing so I am somewhere in the limbo of the hearing world and the deaf world. I am hearing, but not fully, and I am deaf, but not fully. Do I tick the deaf box, or not? Is it worth feeling like I get the opportunity because I am deaf, or do I take advantage of this backwards box ticking system to ensure that I get an interview?
This has all come from good intentions, and in a way, this box ticking system has ‘worked’, according to stats. The stats show that higher numbers of BAME and disabled people are working in the industry. Well, as long as it looks like we are making progress on paper, I guess it’s all okay. (It is not okay). A bunch of numbers could not possibly accurately portray the progression of diversity representation in theatre. I think another point worth mentioning, something numbers can’t show, is the issue of how these groups are seen in the arts. From what I have seen, it is nearly always in a show about how their ‘disadvantage’ affects them. What we should be asking is: why aren’t disabled or BAME actors on stage in roles that aren't defined by their race or disability? I can’t wait to see the day where BAME and disabled people’s ‘disadvantage’ is absolutely nothing to do with the plot, where there is more to their characters than their suffering. To me, it seems we are all a bit boxed in, confined to our race, our disability, or even our absence of one.
As a writer, I feel as if barriers have been put up around writing about people whose skin I have not been in and issues that I have not personally experienced. I have rebelled against this in my writing because this idea that we should only write about what we know to such an extreme extent, limits so much creativity, and is a ridiculous thing to ask of a writer. This constant worrying about what is okay to write about or not is detrimental to the productivity and mental health of a writer. It is our job and responsibility to properly research, so the characters we create are fully realised, and I can assure you that if the greatest writers of all time had only written about “what they knew”, we wouldn’t have the incredible stories we have now.
The beautiful thing about writing for me, is that you don’t need to have experienced the life of your character, because of the beautiful gift of empathy. This feeling of being boxed in actually makes us more divided, and more fearful, it generates a lack of understanding, of empathy for one another. I feel like there is a weird, unspoken rule, an elephant in the room, about who gets to tell which stories, based on our identities, and which boxes we fit into.
So I guess the question we should be talking about is, are we waking up to this diversity problem in the right way? Perhaps this issue is a bit too complex to be solved with simply ticking a box. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had true diversity, where the BAME, disabled and working class communities are fully present in the arts, where they can break out of these boxes and tell stories that are about something other than this one part of who they are?