Yasmin Sidhwa, Artistic Director of theatre company, Mandala, writes about the desperate need – now more than ever – for theatre to stop ticking ‘diversity’ boxes, to stop relying on nepotism and for the very foundations of the industry to be deconstructed.
For too long I have kept quiet and not spoken my truth. For too long I have not expressed my feelings about a whole system that needs structural change. But in light of what has been happening – COVID-19 and the #BlackLivesMatter movement – I have reflected and decided that now, I must speak my truth.
Theatre comes from the soul. We tell our stories, reflect, challenge the status quo, and imagine a future of connectedness. Theatre heals – the art itself is about connection and truth. But the industry is one of power and control, nepotism and privilege and change is long overdue.
Theatre must be for everyone and should not be there to tick boxes. There needs to be change in who has access to funding, what stories get told, by whom, who gets to see theatre, who creates the stories that are told and whose voices are heard. Right now, the national news agenda’s focus is the impact on large/high profile venues, which cater to a white middle-class audience and subsequently, attention is taken away from the devastating impact on smaller organisations, which seek to make the arts both accessible and act as an instrument for change for some of the country’s most vulnerable people.
Theatre is my passion and I have been lucky enough to make a living from it for 30 years. I have experienced theatre from many perspectives: as an actor within various companies and theatres, including the National Theatre and in rep, as well as touring in London and nationally and internationally. I have worked in a senior management position and as a director of a venue for 17 of these years, I have freelanced as an actor and director and finally I have run my own company as Artistic Director and CEO for the last 5 years.
It is in this role that I have really seen the theatre sector show its true colours – the funding, the power and the lack of transparency with applications and no real feedback. The venues and who they choose to programme, their close networks, who you know and how the rules can be bent according to who knows who. I have seen this as a female person of colour, with 30 years’ experience. I have seen how the gatekeepers only let you in if you have a recommendation from past employers or some existing history with them. I have noticed this shift particularly, as Artistic Directors I know have left the industry.
I have seen, even as power has shifted and some concessions have been made – to let Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority people become directors of larger venues, that often these directors continue the same behaviours – of only supporting people they know and the power continues to exist in another form. I’ve found myself touring a show to a venue one year, with really good feedback and the next year emailing the venue 5 different times and no one bothers to reply. I’ve been told in another city that the director must see your work before they can go forward, even when you have invited them over the last 2 years, and no one has come to your shows. Where is the trust? If audiences have loved the shows and you have testimonies, isn’t that enough?
In 2015, I founded a company called Mandala and it is now one of the leading diverse-led touring and training theatre companies in the UK and one of only two in Oxford. The stories Mandala tells are current, vital, centred on justice, and co-created with and focussed on young people who are often invisible. We offer training and pathways for Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic & White working-class artists and young people through employment, creative training programmes and placements. I want all young people to experience theatre and for this to happen, their stories must be told, prices must be truly affordable, and theatre must be central to learning in school. But so often we can’t get in because the gate keepers prevent it.
It is time for justice, for the structures to change, for grass roots organisations and those from ethnically diverse backgrounds to be at the table. For honesty, for truth, for the theatre sector to be what it should be – a place of connection and humanity, for audiences and for those working in it, for how funding is given and assessed.
Justice has a price tag – the money must be shared equally, and the programming must be more daring and open. Trust must be given to emerging artists but also to those of us who have been doing this for 30 years + to be trusted to deliver. It is time for a more open, more equal, more honest sector, that truly shares the power, so that diversity is not a tick box, it is real. The sector cannot be run by the elite, we cannot go back to ‘normal’, there must be a new ‘normal’ – it is time for radical change.
Please support Mandala’s survival and sustainability through and post the pandemic – donations can be made here: http://www.mandalatheatre.co.uk/get-involved/make-a-donation/