Every year for the last 13 years, Improbable has asked the question, ‘What are we going to do about theatre and the performing arts?’ Their invitation brings hundreds of theatre makers together at an event called Devoted & Disgruntled, and provides the liberating and inclusive format of Open Space to enable necessary conversations to happen. (Find out more at www.devotedanddisgruntled.com)
This weekend was my fifth D&D since moving to the UK in 2013. Every year it’s an invigorating, surprising, and affirming experience. Every year I meet new people and connect with old friends and learn something. D&D has had a profound affect on my work: finding collaborators for Home Is Where, getting the encouragement and practical advice I needed to start a company, introducing me to Open Space as a format for creating my work and facilitating the London Devised Theatre Intensive. And especially in the last couple of years, the conversations I’ve had at D&D have centred on themes of representation, inclusion, and who has the right to create theatre.
There were many sessions this year relating to BAME, LGBTQIA+, D/deaf and disabled, working class, and women artists. In short, everyone who is usually kept out of the mainstream theatre was talking about why they are kept out of the mainstream theatre and what we can do about it.
There seems to be an encouraging shift in this conversation recently, towards intersectionality. In other words, many kinds of ‘marginalised’ artists are talking about how we can lift each other up – recognising, for example, the connections between the system that discriminates against artists of colour and the attitudes that keep D/deaf and disabled artists from working. In one session, we came up with the hashtag #BeyondTheBox to keep these conversations connected. There’s also a facebook group here to coordinate future discussion and action.
One of the brilliant things that comes out of Devoted & Disgruntled events is a series of reports that extend the discussions out into the wider industry. Here’s a Twitter thread with links to about a dozen reports relating to intersectional representation. You can find more reports about many other topics on the D&D blog here.
I’m grateful to the artists who were part of the conversation this weekend. I learned something important: that my solution to being kept out of the mainstream (ie, stop knocking on their door and go make my own work) is not the right solution for everyone. In one session, there was a young black performer sitting next to me who said she didn’t want to become a writer/director/producer; it should be enough that she’s an actor. She wants to play Juliet, and she should be able to audition for Juliet. Why will her agent not put her forward for Juliet? Why won’t casting directors see her for Juliet? Why do we think audiences wouldn’t accept her as Juliet?
It doesn’t matter that Romeo & Juliet is not particularly interesting to me. I happen to think that there are better stories for this young actor that are just waiting to be written, maybe stories that don’t have so much patriarchal bullshit baked into them. But that’s not the point: this artist wants to play Juliet. Plenty of people think R&J is one of the greatest plays ever written, and she wants to be part of it. It’s outrageous and deeply unjust that this role is off-limits to her.
My tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater is not terribly helpful to this actor. I didn’t perform for 10 years because I did not fit the expectations of what a young woman should look like on stage. (People are now starting to talk more about size-ism and body positivity in theatre.) Juliet was off-limits to me, too. So I decided all those ingenue roles were boring and worthless and I didn’t want to play them anyway. I became a writer/director/producer. And in 2018, I am performing in my own solo show about Helen of Troy. So I win. Eventually.
But we shouldn’t all have to become writer/director/producers to be represented on stage. It took me 10 years and a whole lot of extra work. And there were several people in our #BeyondTheBox situations who expressed frustration that they were expected to make ‘culturally specific’ work in order to get support. (As opposed to straight, white, able-bodied men, who are expected to make ‘universal’ work about being human.)
I do think that making my own work and striving to create an inclusive culture in my theatre company is more creatively satisfying for me than freelancing as an actor. And I think creating new work with my company can make a difference – but it’s just one prong of the approach we need. There’s more to be done at every level. The more we speak out about the kind of theatre we want to see and create, the more gatekeepers and audiences will listen.
Join us #BeyondTheBox. All are welcome.