Red Snapper, Belgrade Theatre (left to right) Cathy Tyson, Debra Michaels, Karlina Grace Paseda. Photo: Robert Day
Uncovering All the Tiles of the Mosaic Reveals a Bigger Picture
The Belgrade applied for the UK Theatre Award for the Promotion of Diversity last year because a number of Diversity initiatives that we were delivering across different parts of the organisation serendipitously came together in March 2016 with the production of a play by emerging playwright Liz Mytton, called Red Snapper. I say serendipitous because although there was deliberate work going on to promote diversity across participation, programme, artist development, audience development and recruitment (individual tiles in our mosaic), it was an element of chance that enabled us to pull them all together and so start to see a bigger picture.
Red Snapper was an extraordinary piece of theatre in its own right - set in Jamaica in 1962, the year it gained independence from the UK, the year of the Bay of Pigs and the year the first James Bond movie was made. It tells the story of a local council trying to curry favour with both Ian Fleming and Fidel Castro in order to attract more tourists to their tiny coastal town. As if that wasn't intriguing enough, the 5 male councillors are played by women, who also play the put-upon wives. The opportunities it presented for black actresses attracted actors of the calibre of Cathy Tyson and Dawn Hope to the roles.
This was the first play emerging from the Belgrade's Critical Mass programme for writers from BAME backgrounds to reach production on the theatre's stages. This long-running programme was part of a fairly radical 'Community & Education' programme focusing on engaging with those communities least represented in the arts. 'Red Snapper' became possible due to the emergence of an exciting piece of writing coinciding with money from the theatre's Catalyst funds (an ACE initiative) being available to support its staging - hence the serendipity. Suddenly there was a clear connection made between a 'community' project and a route through to stage - and the sense of ownership that this brought with it for theatre staff, participants and local communities.
Simultaneously, the theatre had been building relationships with BAME companies that would enable it to programme more work telling the stories of BAME communities - we had coproduced 'Blood' by Emteaz Hussein with Tamasha the previous year, were establishing a co-producing relationship with Curve to enable more South Asian work to be presented, were building a relationship with Eclipse Theatre, and had been supporting Midlands-based emerging company Phizzical to build experience and reach. A number of these relationships yielded fruit around Spring 2016, alongside 'Red Snapper', and it was decided that a season of four plays (2 'black', 2 'Asian') under the banner of 'Hidden Histories' would help demonstrate the theatre's commitment to this strand of programming to its local communities and audiences.
As the leader of the Community & Education programme that ran with Critical Mass, as the director of 'Red Snapper', and as a woman of dual heritage, I was asked by our Audience Development team to attend a discussion with key representatives in the black community to ask them to spread the word about the season. The initial response was quite hostile - the usual frustrations of not enough BAME work or faces on the stages. But as I spoke about our longstanding work (our black youth theatre, the diversification of Panto companies, the growing number of collaborations with BAME companies, apprenticeships & traineeships targeting individuals from underrepresented groups), one of them said to me, "Ah, so what you need from us is to spread the word about the work you are doing, not just criticise you for the gaps?". She suddenly got it. She too had needed sight of all the tiles in the mosaic to be able to see the bigger picture - for her, a Black Youth Theatre that supported the growth of the community's young people, was as important as a 'Red Snapper' in building that relationship.
Our experience bore witness to the inseparability of participatory activity, program, audience development & the communities that we serve, and to the importance of ongoing dialogue with our communities, not simply a broadcasting of a predetermined programme.
Winning the Promotion of Diversity UK Theatre Award reinforced our vision. New partnerships are already being built for the next NPO period, Critical Mass plays are a regular part of programming discussions, and interdepartmental communication about working with diverse communities is becoming more innovative, especially with the blue sky thinking we are doing to support Coventry's City of Culture bid.
Are you seeing the bigger picture, or are you still focusing on your own tile in the mosaic?
Submissions are now open for the 2017 UK Theatre Awards.
Our awards are open to UK Theatre members working in both the commercial and subsidised sectors of the performing arts. UK Theatre members can submit their own applications for several award categories, including Promotion of Diversity.
The deadline for nominations is 31 August 2017. Find out more here.