New Season, or Old Tricks? London Theatre and the White Lead

In London the BAME community account for over 42% of the population, so why aren't the actors taking centre stage reflective of that? If the white able-bodied voice is what fronts the majority of the theatre we experience, we are destined to only ever see life from that perspective and no other.

Danny Lee Wynter on stage at Shakespeare's Globe as The Fool in King Lear opposite David Calder as Lear, 2008. Author's own picture.

Yesterday I read another brochure for a newly announced season of work by a highly revered London theatre company, in which every leading actor was white and it got me thinking: how much are the artistic directors of our major London theatres listening to the current debate on diversity and to what extent are they making a conscious change in reference to the casting of their lead actors?

In London the BAME community account for over 42% of the population, so why aren't the actors taking centre stage reflective of that? If the white able-bodied voice is what fronts the majority of the theatre we experience, we are destined to only ever see life from that perspective and no other. Immediately, I thought of the diversity on offer to me as an eighteen year old theatregoer fourteen years ago and was struck by the lack of progress we have made.

In the last few weeks a handful of London theatres have announced new seasons of work and yet, the position from downstage centre looks as white as the screen upon which I write. So what happened? Why have many of these organisations forgotten the same open hearted attentiveness to better diversity in the arts that they demonstrated so generously only ten months previously, during the launch of our campaign Act For Change?

A new season of work is an incredibly important period in the theatrical calendar. An exciting time of considerable challenge where a plethora of elements come into play. How best are we going to address what is currently happening in our society through the work we choose to produce? What is it that is politically engaging us as company, city and nation? Who is available to help us make this vision happen? And then the finer detail: will the chosen leading actress agree to take on the role before going to press with the announcement? What will we do now our leading actor has decided after weeks of negotiation that he'd rather go off and do some filming in LA? First world theatre problems, yet problems which will ultimately have a huge effect on box-office sales, deadlines, getting the rest of the cast in place, not to mention the continual day to day running of a building. A new season is undeniably a tender window of opportunity and I take my hat off to anyone who manages the fine art of balancing all of these factors.

However, in light of the recent conversations taking place up and down the country from artists and audiences alike, who are the leading actors being cast centre stage this season as five of our major London theatre companies serve up their latest offerings?

For many years performers from the BAME and disabled community have made do with playing the supporting roles in the major productions staged by many of the theatres I shall go on to mention. Occasionally these actors come to the forefront but this is still, very much, a rare occurrence. The depth, scope and demand a leading role can place upon an actor is what most of us, at some point in our careers, aspire to. It's noble of the actor who says "I just wanted to be a story teller", but I guarantee; get him or her drunk enough down at The Pit Bar after hours, their dreams of playing Arkadina, Viola or Jimmy Porter will quickly emerge and this is natural. We all have dreams and goals when starting out but for most of us they are quickly met with reality: a reality which speaks for itself the moment you pick up a brochure for most new London theatre seasons. The white able bodied experience is one which is celebrated in every postcode of the capital and if you're not that the climb feels insurmountable.

This season, the Almedia Theatre, will showcase three Greek tragedies (The Oresteia, The Bakkhai and Medea), all led by white able bodied actors (Lia Williams, Ben Whishaw and Kate Fleetwood). In the Bakkhai, Agave; one of the only parts traditionally available in Greek Tragedy for a woman over fifty, director James McDonald has a man stepping into the role. Of course, if McDonald wants to cast a man in a female role, he should absolutely be able to, but what's interesting is that he has chosen to do this at a time of such great sensitivity around the issue of gender equality, the dearth of good parts on offer for women in the classical cannon and the ongoing discussion of positive discrimination in the arts.

At The Young Vic Rory Kinnear will appear in an adaptation of Kafka's The Trial, film star Romola Gari gives her Isabella in Measure for Measure and the Belgian theatre director Iva Van Hove directs Simon Stephens' new play Song From Far Away. Although we can hope for diversity in the lead casting of the latter of these productions, Van Hove's recent successes, again, for the most part, have all been white able bodied affairs. The Young Vic does great work showcasing diverse artists, yet this usually happens away from the main stage, in the confines of its smaller auditoriums. If the opportunities aren't there for them to seize how will the younger generation of BAME or disabled artists get better at playing leading roles in main house classical theatre?

The Old Vic, a company with an historically appalling track record for diversity, will this season stage the Cole Porter musical High Society with a leading cast made up of entirely white able bodied actors. That said, they do have a diverse team of front of house ushers, which is always a reminder we're not entirely trapped in the nineteen fifties.

Purists would argue that you can't take a story set in a racially segregated time and incorporate diversity into the narrative while still remaining true to the story being told. To them I say; we're standing on a stage in front of 1,500 people every evening breaking the fourth wall and launching randomly into song every couple of minutes. Audiences are to using their imagination. They've been doing so for years! Why are we still trapped in the mindset that BAME actors are off limits for the leads in these 'traditional shows' unless it's Ragtime or Porgy and Bess? The Sheffield Crucible's recent production of Anything Goes proved to the contrary; that diversity can unleash a fresh take on a story many of us have seen a thousand times previously.

The Donmar Warehouse, one of the few theatres in London not run by a white young/middle aged man, this season will give home to Temple, a new play starring Simon Russell Beale and directed by Howard Davies. Having already mounted Patrick Marber's Closer, this spring, with an all white able bodied cast, there is now a lot riding on whether the casting of James Graham's new political drama The Vote manages to incorporate the same diversity we experience upon our streets and in our government. Again, to my knowledge, the Donmar hasn't had a visible BAME artist or actor from the disabled community leading a company for some time now. I hasten to delve into the minefield of invisible disabilities as the industry is still struggling to find a way of monitoring this particular issue. There is such an existing stigma around artists with invisible disabilities that many are unable to come forward, and feel that if they did they wouldn't be understood or accepted by society, which in turn makes the mountain towards equality an even steeper climb.

The Donmar has a faithful audience who enjoy watching plays and being seen watching them. I'm not altogether sure how much a concern diversity is for an audience who pay through the nose to sit for two hours in the dark with Ewan McGregor. However, they must be commended for Phyllida Lloyd's most recent all female company, which placed women centre stage in classical plays traditionally led by men; a welcomed antidote to the usually male dominated Shakespeare's Globe where, this year, Dominic Dromgoole marks his swan song as artistic director by visiting King John, As You Like It, Richard II, Merchant of Venice and Measure For Measure; to name but a few. Stepping into doublet and hoes to lead each of the individual companies we have the talents of Charles Edwards, Michelle Terry, Jo Stone-Fewings and Jonathan Pryce.

I've a great fondness for The Globe as it's where I made my own theatre debut back in 2008 as The Fool in King Lear. There have been real breakthrough moments for the company where past seasons successfully managed to incorporate diversity but; this is rarely true when it comes to the leading roles, the parts where a young actor gets to learn and be challenged by his or her craft. There was, of course, Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo, Ladi Emeruwa as Hamlet, plus countless productions from visiting companies from all corners of the world in their Globe to Globe work, but strikingly few main in-house classical productions have seen a BAME or disabled artist lead the company, certainly not in the venues newly opened indoor Jacobean Theatre.

Julie Walters and David Morrissey recently voiced concerns about the kids currently coming through into the profession; the ones who can't afford to be artists. It is worth noting that a lot of the leading actors I've mentioned thus far also happen to be the recipients of first class educations.

Finally we have The National Theatre, currently presided over by Nicholas Hytner, a man who, without question, has done more for diversity than any of his predecessors. The company, shortly to be taken over by Rufus Norris, recently announced a highly anticipated first season of work including Chiwetel Ejiofor in Everyman and Indhu Rubasingham directing The Motherf**ker With The Hat.

For many actors I speak to, Norris' appointment cannot come sooner. At a time when so many of his contemporaries aren't doing it, forget or simply fail to, his new regime built upon the back of a strong track record for inclusivity shall hopefully begin to soften further our perceptions of what diversity can be. Only time will tell whether we start to see these long overdue changes taking place centre stage and not just in the tokenistic casting of the supporting parts. To paraphrase the trailblazer for equality in American TV, Shonda Rhymes, everyone should be able to go to the theatre and see someone who looks like them and loves like them and just as important, everyone should be able to go to the theatre and see someone who doesn't look like them and love like them because, perhaps, then they will learn from them. Perhaps then they will not isolate them. Marginalise them. Erase them. If every major theatre company in London led the way in getting this fundamental thing right, specifically in the casting of the leading artists in their newly announced seasons of work, the majority of whom are for the most part all white and able bodied, we'd begin to see real progress, rather than be stuck in this current situation where actors now attend auditions and fill out diversity forms so that theatre and casting directors can meet targets and shoe horn diversity into virtually every place upon the stage.

All of these London theatres do sterling work in their community and outreach programmes, though diversity tends to be relegated to these departments alone. Despite their protestations, many financially solvent London theatres have yet to catch up with the work of their own education departments which are presently putting them to shame.

At the tail end of last year I accepted an invitation from one London theatre to meet up and try to help them identify how diversity might be better addressed in the work they carry out. An associate who worked there revealed that one of the most memorable, moving things they'd witnessed during their time with this company was a performance from a child in a reimagining of one of their own productions played out by local kids of all different genders, shapes, sizes, physical abilities, colours and nationalities. So begs the question, why is the casting in the work we do for the public so often, dare I say it, white/middle class? Why do we choose again and again to play it so safe? If the answer is the financial gain acquired by sexy star billing, any good casting director should be able to provide them with list upon list of high profile BAME or disabled actors. London, indeed the whole country, is teeming with them!

Diversity should never feel like an 'issue of the month', but an ongoing quest for excellence, to which every artistic director in the capital should be throwing their commitment towards. Simply put: what people see; they feel they can be. London is the cultural capital of the world. Our stages and leading actors must reflect our society. We should ALL want this, not just this season but every season.


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