Written by
Jim Carrick-Birtwell
Changeboard

Published
14 Dec 2017

Embracing infinite variety in the arts - and business

14 Dec 2017 • by Jim Carrick-Birtwell

One of my brothers is an actor, and performed recently for a south London-based Asian theatre company, Tara Arts, in its production of Macbeth. Reimagining Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’ through a different cultural lens worked brilliantly. The soothsaying witches, for example, were cast (no pun intended) as Hijra – transgender individuals in Indian society – bringing a new, exotic and highly entertaining mysticism and other-worldliness to the haunting prophecies of these dramatically important, but often under-developed, characters.

What was most inspiring, however, was not the acting, but the predominantly Asian audience. Seeing this collection of adults and children, parents and relatives, coming together to watch a play – in a patently novel environment – and watching mirror images of themselves as the dramatis personae, created a collective delight that was truly moving. 

The experience was unusual because black and minority ethnic (BAME) people are woefully under-represented in theatre audiences in the UK, with their participation deeply unreflective of the 14% of BAME people in British society – and the 40% of people of BAME origin in London. It has been apparent throughout my life that theatre remains the preserve of a non-diverse, white audience; one that seems to have a monopoly on the arts, and therefore the gifts it provides to those it includes.

Art mirrors business

If art holds up a mirror to our lives, is it fair only to reflect white lives? If minorities and whole constituencies, including black and Asian people, do not feel that a social structure (in this example, ‘theatre’) represents or reflects them, is it surprising they feel excluded, disempowered and disengaged with this medium? 

Theatre and the arts, more broadly, must take responsibility for reflecting everybody in society, and all of their lives. If art is to imitate life, it must reflect the rich cultural, social and ethnic diversity of its populations and communities, justifying its position as a bastion of the cultural wellbeing of our society. 

There are obvious parallels in the need for our workplaces to reflect more accurately the diversity of society at large, and there are lessons that business can learn from theatre – both being stewards of immediate and extended communities. 

The theatre sector has been making some positive and concerted steps in the past 20 years towards programming for a more diverse audience. In 2000, in setting out its National Policy for Theatre, Arts Council England agreed that “in many parts of the country, theatre has failed to engage with a broad audience. It has certainly failed to engage adequately with young people and with multi-cultural Britain”. 

It voiced the need for the theatre community to develop work that speaks “to the diverse audiences who make up this country today”. By 2007, Equity found that the theatre sector had “been taking increasingly positive steps to address issues of diversity”, highlighting initiatives by the Arts Council such as the Black Regional Initiative in Theatre, and the work of venues such as the Theatre Royal Stratford East in creating “new work that reflects the interests and concerns of local communities, particularly black and Asian people”.

More recently, The Arts Council’s 2015 Equality & Diversity study encouragingly reported an increase in awards made via grants to the arts for projects targeting:

BAME audiences (a 50% increase to 1,352 successful applications in 2014/15); disabled audiences (a 25% increase to 454 successful applications); and socially excluded audiences (25% increase to 891 successful applications).

Are the arts evolving? 

And, representing the clearest marker yet of a sea change, in late September, a new glass ceiling for the arts was smashed with the announcement that Kwame Kwei-Armah had been appointed artistic director of the Young Vic in London. He is the first African-Caribbean director to run a major British theatre, something of which he’s acutely aware, describing this reality as “almost sinful”.

His most recent role has been as artistic director in Baltimore in the US, and in an interview in The Guardian he said: “In America, I am the only black male artistic director of a major theatre. And in Britain, I will be the only African Caribbean director of a major theatre. And in Europe I don’t know of any, which tells me that in the Western world there is only one diasporic African artistic director of a major theatre, and that is what I mean by sinful…[This] is systematic inequality. I cannot believe there is only one person to hold the reins of a major cultural institution. It doesn’t make sense. Therefore, it has to be systemic.”

I’d recommend reading the whole article, in which he talks of the rise of rage in the US as a result of widespread poverty, and a society divided increasingly along racial lines, where “disparity and inequality is deeply baked into our system, and that’s for white folk, too”. Committed to representing black lives, theatre became a means to address under-representation and provide a platform for black voices to be heard, and their stories told. When challenged that he was “doing too many black plays”, rather than giving in to pressure, Kwame-Armah hired 10 writers to go into the poorest areas of Baltimore, talk to people and write plays about their experiences.

He was also determined to change the demographic of the audience; 65% of Baltimore is African American but only 11% of the audience was made up of this demographic. Now, 22% of the audience is African American. How did he do this? With innovative and relevant programming that made theatre an event. He put on a play called One Night In Miami about Muhammed Ali and, all of a sudden, people said: “Oh, I want to see that play about Muhammed Ali.”

This inspiring story provides hope, and the evolution of the theatre towards greater diversity and representation for minorities provides a Petri dish of experimentation from which business and wider society can learn. 

What does the McGregor-Smith Review tell us?

It points to a direction of travel that requires us to take decisive, tangible actions to strive towards greater diversity in the workplace. The McGregor-Smith Review into Race in the Workplace considers issues affecting BAME groups at work. As well as identifying the opportunity to generate a further £24bn for the economy each year if a more inclusive approach is adopted, it points to practical actions to create and achieve greater inclusion.

The Government’s response welcomes the report, for the productivity gains, yes, but above and beyond that, because of the justice of the argument. “The Prime Minister [Theresa May] has made it clear that the economy must work for all. For this to happen, everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or background must be able to enjoy the same opportunities and get equal reward for their efforts. The fact that individuals from BAME backgrounds are less likely to be in work, and when in work, are less likely to be fulfilling their potential is wrong and must change.”

I would say that there are at least two other clear reasons for business to promote diversity. First, the diversity rationale is an argument in the name of the common good – the common good of the organisation and of wider society. It holds that a racially and culturally mixed organisation and community body is desirable because it enables people to learn from one another.

Homogeneity of race, ethnicity, and indeed, gender, would limit the range of cultural and intellectual perspectives. In a world of change, where there is a premium on innovation and understanding the needs of differing customers and multi-dimensional stakeholders, finding authentic and sustainable ways to hardwire diverse perspectives and voices into your workplace is a truly Darwinian requirement.

Second, a just and healthy society requires a strong sense of community and solidarity between all of its diverse citizens and constituencies. In his legendary Harvard course on ‘justice’, Professor Michael Sandel articulates his belief that society must find a way to cultivate in citizens a concern for the whole, a dedication to the common good. It cannot be indifferent to the attitudes and dispositions that citizens bring to public life. 

At its heart, the healthy functioning of democratic society depends on the ability of its citizens to cultivate sufficient solidarity and mutual responsibility to ensure that people give a damn about each other, respecting their opinions and votes, even where they differ to their own. Without this, society fractures and retreats into ghettos and walled gardens. If these inequalities go unheeded, then the lessons of public protest votes across both sides of the Atlantic last year will become a constant, with the potential for seeds of social unrest to be sown.

Democracy depends upon all people buying into it, feeling that society welcomes and includes them.

Employers understand the strategic importance of engagement with their staff, as well as meaningful buy-in from those who interact with their supply chains, products and services. Achieving greater representation for minorities in their workforces needs to be seen as central to this. I’m convinced that D&I often becomes a PR exercise, with ‘figleaves’ and saccharine efforts to create real diversity accepted as noble gestures; tokenism applauded with complacent and patronising nods. 

The time is now

There is an urgency for renewed vigour to break through the glass ceilings in the way that Kwame-Armah is striving to do in his domain, because zeitgeist is showing signs of moving in a worrying new direction. Populism, nationalism and white supremacy are on the rise around the world. In the UK, as we move towards Brexit, we are in danger of retreating into a realm of ‘little Englanders’, with belligerent anti- immigration sentiments taking hold and fanning a fantasy that we can return to a mythical Elizabethan golden age of British society, characterised by an absence of cultural, ethnic, social, sexual and gender diversity. Think Jacob Rees-Mogg meets Catherine Tate’s ‘Nan’.

Our actions and voices can rather be agents of change.

Exclusion and marginalisation of citizens cannot be maintained as the status quo. Multi-culturalism cannot succeed when it is one-sided and static. In business, as in society, there is an urgent need and responsibility to engage in cultural dialogues, build bridges, and assimilate minorities into our communities.

As a future talent challenge, this requires employers to re-think traditional views on their rights and responsibilities, their attitudes towards other religions, cultures, and minorities. This is tantamount to our response to modernity, as citizens and stewards of a global and multi-cultural world.

Returning to the theatre, the mission statement of Tara Arts is to creatively reflect the “infinite variety” of modern Britain – Connecting Worlds.

Bringing together artists and audiences under the shade of our tree.

Exclusion and marginalisation of citizens cannot be maintained as the status quo. Multi-culturalism cannot succeed when it is one-sided and static. In business, as in society, there is an urgent need and responsibility to engage in cultural dialogues, build bridges, and assimilate minorities into our communities.

As a future talent challenge, this requires employers to re-think traditional views on their rights and responsibilities, their attitudes towards other religions, cultures, and minorities. This is tantamount to our response to modernity, as citizens and stewards of a global and multi-cultural world.

Returning to the theatre, the mission statement of Tara Arts is to creatively reflect the “infinite variety” of modern Britain – Connecting Worlds.

Bringing together artists and audiences under the shade of our tree.

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