Producer, Lexi Clare writes about why we accept harmful discrimination, the ‘openness’ of theatre and how she is hoping to make change with Maiden Speech Festival.
I think many people would agree that there are a plethora of ways in which this industry needs to change.
It is difficult to know where to begin when it comes to talking about change, but there was a moment around two years ago that really stayed with me, which ultimately became something of a catalyst in my resolve to work towards making change in the industry. I was finishing up my training at drama school and a visiting agent gave me some well-meaning advice: ‘In this industry, it is preferred to be either slim or large. There are so few jobs for the average build actor/actress.’ I’m not kidding. This incident may seem trivial in isolation, but the truth is that I had already spent years questioning whether it was possible to succeed as a size 12 actress and as someone who had worked hard to overcome an eating disorder, I found the agent’s comments deeply troubling. When you have spent a long time learning to disentangle your sense of self-worth from your clothing size, it really is disheartening (and potentially dangerous) to hear that gatekeepers in your chosen career may contradict this. I know many will read those words of advice and dismiss them as patently untrue. I know others will read them and think: ‘That’s just the way the industry is’. But if it is, should it be? Does it have to be? And why do so many artists feel that their only option is to accept it?
Compared to many others in this industry, I have immense privilege. I am a size 12, cis-gendered, able-bodied, straight-passing, white woman. I do not know the experience of facing discrimination because of ethnicity, disability or being gender non-conforming, but I do recognise the experience of, (in my case) micro-exclusion. Representation affects us all. The media and entertainment we consume is a lens through which we see the world, so when certain identities and bodies are validated or erased, privileged or rejected, it has significant repercussions for cultural behaviours and beliefs. So what do we do about it?
Fast-forward two years and I am now better known as a producer than as an actress. I am creating my own work and making space for others to make work as well. My current project is a festival of new work by emerging artists called Maiden Speech and it is an effort to promote positive change within the industry. Across a two-week period at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden, we are championing new work that engages with themes of gender, sexuality and identity through a myriad of stories and styles. We are staging fifteen new shows by emerging artists, hosting four discussion events about the industry and curating a scratch night where we offer a platform to three other companies with similar goals. We are working with National Youth Arts Trust to offer complimentary tickets to young people from non-privileged backgrounds, as well as running two free workshops for their beneficiaries on developing theatre-making skills. We are operating with a very narrow profit margin to ensure sure that pricing is as accessible as possible: £7.50 for a single show, £15.00 for an evening pass and £27.50 for a festival pass, which works out at £1.72/show. Finally, we are using our platform to raise funds for Stonewall, a LGBT charity that promotes acceptance without exclusion.
In order to expand the narratives we see on stage and screen, I believe we need to start by creating space for a wider range of artists to share their stories and skills. As the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media puts it: ‘If she can see it, she can be it.’ For artists who have experienced exclusion or feel that they have something different to offer, engaging in self-producing and theatre-making at a fringe or off-West End level can be invaluable in demonstrating what they are capable of. Maiden Speech is comprised of vastly different narratives and styles, ranging from drag to cabaret, spoken word to solo shows, work that is playful, joyously messy, funny, dark, witty and raw. It is my hope that the success of these shows on a fringe level will encourage gatekeepers to expand their programming beyond what is tried and tested, and the trajectory of several shows from our inaugural season suggests that under the right circumstances, this is eminently possible.
I am barely skimming the surface when it comes to talking about change in the industry and I definitely don’t have all the answers. It also has to be said that change is not an easy thing to achieve. In my experience, producing or advocacy is exhausting, challenging and there is never enough time or money. Maiden Speech hasn’t received any funding so I have worked my ‘muggle jobs’ seven days a week over the past three months to raise the capitalisation funds, doing my best to produce the festival at the same time. As much as I want to celebrate what we are achieving, I also have to acknowledge that my workload right now is unsustainable and I would argue that funding for emerging artists is a crucial component of making change.
We are beginning to see positive changes in programming and diversification from theatres such as the Royal Court, Bush and Young Vic, and I am cautiously optimistic about the trajectory the industry is taking. For emerging artists developing their practice and young companies working on the fringe and off-West End, it is important to challenge rather than unconsciously reproduce dominant ideologies that have monopolised art and entertainment for so long. Ultimately, I think the future of theatre is tied to whether or not we can develop models that are accessible and inclusive; if we want theatre to survive and thrive, we need to disabuse people of the notion that theatre ‘is not for them’. Part of this comes down to representation, seeking out artists and stories that offer fresh perspectives, and part of this comes down to accessibility.
There is one more thing I want to touch on: the concept of kindness. Working towards change also poses challenges in the sense that no one ever gets it completely right and even with the best of intentions, you are bound to receive your fair share of criticism. I have a lot to learn but I think Maya Angelou was pretty spot on when she said: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’ This industry is hard on all of us, but with determination, persistence and kindness, change is possible.
Maiden Speech Festival will run from November 27 to December 8 at the Tristan Bates theatre. For more information or to book tickets, visit the website.