Nikita Karia speaks to Ryan Calais Cameron, artistic director of Nouveau Riché, about ally fatigue, Black History Month, and the success of the young company thus far.

Ryan Calais Cameron is the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of multi-award winning theatre company Nouveau Riche that tells stories about the lives of Black men and women. Cameron is a warm soul with genuine zeal for creating new work and investing in young artists, and despite Covid-induced pandemonium, he feels more determined than ever, which manifests in Nouveau Riché’s bold lockdown projects that he tells me about.

Not wanting to avoid the glaringly obvious, I ask Cameron how he is coping at the moment: “I’m good. Mentally I’m coping because we’re a tight knit family. The people I work with are like my brothers and sisters. We’ve cancelled five shows this year but we’ve still been keeping busy.”

While most artists are worrying about having to retrain, Cameron explains that Nouveau Riché have been lucky enough to have the financial reserves to keep creating work. He talks me through how they’ve been spending the money: “We were meant to be on tour with our most recent theatre production Typical before corona came and sucked away everyone’s dreams. So we thought about alternative ways of getting the show out there. I was inspired after seeing Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over which was originally staged at Kiln Theatre but then became an online theatre-film hybrid directed by Spike Lee and was better quality than any NT Live I’ve ever seen. So I thought, let’s do that. We filmed Typical over the summer and were one of the first teams to be back in a rehearsal room. The measures were crazy. We had to wipe our hands every half hour, half the crew were on Zoom, and 6 people were in the room. It was a surreal environment but we were just happy to be back.” 

“We’re also trying to invest the money we’ve made back into young artists. In May, we released our Mad Times Monologues call-out. We’re offering a seed commission and development support to an aspiring playwright who is going to be announced soon.”

Taking a rare moment to stop and reflect on the whirlwind journey that Nouveau Riché has been on and the success of their debut show Queens of Sheba, Cameron explains: “We started creating work in 2017 so next week is our third birthday. We’re a company that tells local stories about local ethnic minority communities that have international and national appeal. We want people from all walks of life to feel like they need to see our shows.”

“Our first show Queens of Sheba is about Black women and ‘misogynoir’. The response to it was crazy. That was our catalyst as a company to want to make theatre professionally. We were certain these stories would resonate with local communities who were looking to see themselves represented on stage. Queens of Sheba won The Untapped Award which meant that we could take it to Edinburgh where we had a sold-out run and won The Stage Edinburgh Award. That’s when we knew we had dynamite.”

With the festival cancelled this year, we spoke about Cameron’s experience of Edinburgh, the highs and the lows: Edinburgh was a high point, for us as a young Black company, because it was so unexpected. We were hoping to sell 40% of our tickets so to sell out and see a huge Returns queue every night was crazy. We felt like local celebrities. And then to get published by Oberon within the space of two months – it was overwhelming.”

“But I found Edinburgh incredibly stressful. The main problem is its class issue. Edinburgh is so expensive that for most artists, performing there is just not feasible, let alone try and make a profit! When we were there, we knew there weren’t going to be a lot of other Black companies there because there were no initiatives to welcome them. Edinburgh needs to consider how they include more people – there needs to be more opportunities for people to just have a go while not having to remortgage their house! You can’t say you’ll welcome everybody in and then not create any initiatives to enable it.”

Speaking about actual versus optical support, we get on to the topic of Black History Month, which is important whatever the time of year but which feels more profound after the summer of George Floyd: “I call it the Black Lives Matter Summer. Out of the conversations that we’ve opened up now, not one single conversation is brand new. We’ve been speaking about this stuff for years – there are other companies doing it too like Talawa and tiata fahodzi.

“Right now everyone is doing a new Black this, a new Black that. A lot of things I’m seeing are incredibly performative. As a company, we’ve been offered new gigs, but organisations don’t want to pay us. What’s the point in bringing us in if you’re not gonna give us respect? Organisations will claim they stand by Black Lives Matter but they have zero Black people working in their whole organisation. I don’t want a statement or a black square. If you really want change you have to be able to communicate with the companies that are already doing that work. I’ve already witnessed ‘ally fatigue’ in a lot of organisations already. We’ve been here before and we’ll be here again and those who really care will continue to care.”

Looking to the future of the theatre industry, artists of colour and for Nouveau Riché as we begin to adapt to the new post-Covid landscape, Cameron says: “It’s good to see theatres starting to pick up and getting offers but we have to have conversations about safety first. It’s people’s lives at stake.”

“I think the industry could go one of two ways. Some venues will programme a famous actor that will get bums on seats and sell sell sell. On the other hand, venues could say ‘lets programme companies making brand new, radical work because we’ve got nothing to lose right now.’ And that second option is what we hope for.”

“A lot of Black companies deal with what I call the R factor (the risk factor). Every conversation is about risk. Risk that we might not sell. Risk that Black audiences won’t come to a certain venue. But now, big venues are having to downsize from a 600-seater to a 100-seater and are looking to programme smaller companies that they know can fill 100 seats every night. So I’m hoping it will create opportunities for working class and ethnic minority artists to perform at venues they previously would have considered too risky.”

“In terms of Nouveau Riché, we’re like cockroaches — you can’t keep us down! We’re opening up our first literary department. We’ve dabbled in digital but our passion is to get back on the stage. By hook or by crook we are going to be on somewhere, even if it’s a park bench!”

To learn more about Ryan and the company’s work, visit the Nouveau Riché website.