Dawn Walton on what needs to be done to fix British theatre's race problem

It’s not just the Oscars that has a diversity issue. Holly Williams asks artistic director Dawn Walton for an action plan

Following the #Oscarssowhite controversy, the issue of diversity in the arts has never been more high-profile. It’s just as much – if not more – of an issue in the UK: actors from Idris Elba to Lenny Henry have publically mourned a lack of opportunity for BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) actors, who often leave to pursue careers in America.

And the topic certainly causes regular hand-wringing in British theatre – to the extent that in 2014, Arts Council England started requiring organisations to report what percentage of their workforce is non-white.

In December, theatres falling below five per cent were publically named-and-shamed – including powerhouses such as the Almeida, the Liverpool Everyman and Sheffield Theatres.

Still, there’s one woman at that last venue who’s doing everything in her power to change the situation. Dawn Walton is artistic director of Eclipse Theatre, a black-led touring company who are based there.

I meet her just before the opening of their latest show, a revival of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry – a 1959 domestic drama that tackles racism, inequality, feminism and the failure of the American Dream, and which made history as the first play on Broadway by a black woman.

Fifty-seven years later, the UK has still never had a play by a black British woman in the West End. Which is a pretty sobering thought. “We are doing really badly,” nods Walton. “To me, the clue is new writing.” A self-confessed “new-writing girl”, Walton trained at the Royal Court after a radical career-swerve from the City; jobs followed at the Young Vic and the National Theatre Studio before she set up Eclipse, which she transformed from an Arts Council-funded initiative into a touring company in 2010. 

In the UK, contemporary black narratives are only allowed within “three spaces”, Walton says: slavery stories, immigrant stories, and teenage gang stories. And even with canonical (often American) works, attention is rationed to one or two black writers at any one time; August Wilson and James Baldwin are currently in favour, she suggests. “I just keep going, I know there’s more than this! And Hansberry is one of them. You don’t even have to put her in the context of ‘black’ playwrights – she sits right next to [Arthur] Miller.”

Eclipse has also recently begun an ambitious new project, Revolution Mix, to provide a new body of black British stories. Sixteen established and emerging BAME writers were commissioned; and their plays are to be produced in regional theatres over the next two years.

The impetus for RevMix was twofold: firstly, because Walton kept hearing regional theatres defending their lack of BAME programming by saying they don’t know any local black writers … “They will literally say to you: we don’t have any,” deadpans Walton.

Secondly, Walton was bored of hearing ineffectual chat about diversity. No more excuses. “People start gathering in rooms: let’s have a meeting, let’s have a conference, let’s have another meeting …. Actually, you just have to start doing things.” To which end, I ask Walton for some more actions that can – and should – be taken by the industry, so that things start to change right now: 

Find Your Audience

Ethnic minorities are as under-represented off stage as on – and attracting new, more diverse audiences is on almost every theatre’s wish-list. When Eclipse tour, a quarter to a third of audiences are new to their venue – but that doesn’t just happen by wishing and hoping. “You have to go out and make specific invitations to people.” Postcode marketing, sending flyers to certain areas, doesn’t work: they go in the bin, she reckons.

Instead, Eclipse has a principle of “forming relationships” with communities. “It’s an old-school technique: on the street, word-of-mouth. We build a network of people, who we know work in the community.” Those “cultural ambassadors” then put the word – and flyers! – out for them. Walton also often hears theatres saying they just don’t know how to market black plays. She points out the obvious solution: employ a more diverse marketing team. Paid internships help widen the pool. 

Increase Accountability

Walton welcomes the Arts Council’s new naming and shaming approach. “You have to put [these statistics] out there – it’s not to whip people, it’s to say: you need to think about it, it’s not good enough. How are you not attaining five per cent, [especially] in London? If you don’t put it on the table, you’ll never change it.”

To Change the Narrative, Change the Gatekeepers

“You’ve got to change the narrative, to change the writers who deliver,” insists Walton. But enabling BAME writers to tell the stories they want to really means changing who commissions the work. “You’ve got to make a management change,” argues Walton. “Artistic and associate directors and script-readers need to be drawn from diverse backgrounds too, otherwise black voices may continue to be seen as a niche interest – or simply misunderstood.

In script meetings, you hear people talking about a black play and you go: you really don’t get it. If something doesn’t fit into their thinking or world view, it [risks being] dismissed as not good enough … this won’t be easy: it’s obviously hard to acknowledge unconscious prejudice. Moreover, real change would essentially require white people in positions of influence to step aside … gatekeepers have to literally accept that they should not be doing that job.” 

Embrace Quotas

“You just have to do it: just say, ‘you’re not allowed to have an all-white cast’. Here [in Sheffield], they did Pride and Prejudice with a mixed cast, and nobody went ‘oh I can’t cope, Mrs Bennett is black!’.” 

Walton is in favour, too, of quotas for programming and commissions. “The [plays produced] should be reflective of the diversity of your city,” is her simple pronouncement. If 19 per cent of your population is BAME (as in Sheffield), at least 19 per cent of your programme should be by BAME authors. “I talk to artistic directors, and they don’t know what the diversity of their city is. That’s pretty horrendous. If your building inside doesn’t have anything to do with what’s outside, you shouldn’t be there; you need to go.”

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is on tour until 26 March; eclipsetheatre.org.uk