The diversity, or rather inclusivity, debate has been a hot topic in the media and journalistic realm. This year has seen the #OscarSoWhite conversation rise to prominence for the lack of BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) artists and actors receiving acclamation.
The BAFTAs were also in the limelight with stars – Idris Elba and Lenny Henry to name a few – voicing concerns about the industry not doing enough to embrace ethnic diversity.
But for many years, there has been a somewhat behind-the-scenes drive to increase the presence of BAME people in theatres – both on stage and in audiences.
2016 appears to be the year of the tidal wave.
Last month, the push for “equal representation of black theatre” took its first leap and saw two playwrights – Afshan Lodhi and Archie Maddocks – commissioned through the Revolution Mix project to create new works. This week also bore witness to the first all-black production of Hamlet announced by Black Theatre Lives for tour.
The mastermind behind the former, Dawn Walton, is hoping to make “a big splash” with Revolution Mix. The project is born out of Eclipse Theatre Company, which she directs, and her efforts are not only coming to fruition, but are creating some of the biggest metaphorical fruits out there.
“This is absolutely a movement,” she remarks, “the clue’s in the title”.
The three-year project, announced last year, will challenge the lack of black British culture in mainstream regional theatres and will be the largest ever national delivery of black British stories.
The starting point for evolution mix was two plays,” she explains. “The first play was Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Errol John (1957), and the second play was Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (1956).” Those two plays were produced within 18 months of one another and Walton comments on how the legacy of the first play is indistinct when compared to the latter. Look Back in Anger left a lasting influence on TV, Walton’s go-to example being Coronation Street; the “kitchen sink drama” as she puts it. But the impact of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, which was awarded by the Observer as Play of the Year in 1959, is “not clear”
“It’s invisible to say the very least,” she says. “I wondered why that was. At the time there were not many black actors, that original production flew in some American actors. And I’m guessing there weren’t that many black writers, but when I started to research, there weren’t that many black directors in the fifties either. That’s not the case today. So I wonder why that still prevails and why it’s still difficult to be a black artist in this country. That was the starting point.”
Walton found that certain beliefs about ethnic diversity were ignorant and misguided. And she took it upon herself to right that wrong.
“There’s been a number of moments where, whether on TV or in theatre or in film, the argument has been that you can’t have black actors in certain situations. I should define black,” asserts Walton. “I’m old school, so I see black in the oldest, broadest, sociopolitical sense. And I thought ‘why would people have a problem with somebody being in a costume drama?’.”
Walton’s fiery gravitas bubbled through her calm demeanour. “They have that problem because it is their belief that black people didn’t exist in this country much further back,” she continues. “This is a revisionism of history, it’s a white revisionism, and it is inaccurate and wrong. It’s also kind of ignorant, read a book! Revolution Mix will attempt to address some of that. The work we are developing is inspired by five hundred years of black and Asian British history. We are going to write the missing British stories and they’re all black and Asian. All of them.”
The ‘we’ Walton refers to is a pack of artists – from writers to designers, producers to board members. There are 15 diverse writers in the Revolution Mix project, a number whittled down from 300 applicants. And notably, her all-female board.
“I had to select 15 to take a three-year journey with me,” she says. “We are a pack, we work as a pack, and we work individually. Inclusivity is very difficult when you’re isolated. You have no idea if it’s you or the system. I created a group of us so we can be clear when it is us and when it is the system.”
The ground-breaking company were given close to £250,000 from Arts Council England as an Exceptional Award, nearly £100,000 from the Heritage lottery fund, and received an extra £100,000 grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.
Twelve organisations across the country have since partnered with Walton, from the Royal Court Theatre to the Bristol Old Vic, and are working together to deliver Revolution Mix. All of this shows people’s pressing want to tackle inequality and diversity.
“We got an exceptional award and that money was for the first weeklong workshop,” Walton says. “It included theatre, TV, radio, among other things like Professor Robert Beckford coming in and spinning our heads with two hours on black and Asian British history. Alongside that we can advance our audience development work which is very important. We go out and meet people [from disengaged communities] and let them know that something [our work] at last is coming for them.”
The underlying mission remains. And Walton sends a hefty message to the industry: “Diversify what’s on stage, diversify who gets to tell the stories so there’s a level of accuracy, diversify your audience, get an audience that is reflective of the cities and the towns you tour, and diversify your workforce”.
Revolution Mix is currently in the works.