Diversity in Welsh Theatre…once again

This piece was written for BBC Cymru’s blog in Welsh and is available here
A lack of diversity in Welsh arts is driving talent away from the country and severely limiting the work we make. But is this lack of diversity part of an underlying issue in Wales where the arts, and access to the arts, is controlled by a narrow inward-looking group afraid of change?
If we take a long hard look at ourselves we know that those working in the arts in Wales still feel like they are made by a narrow group, for a narrow group. Even those who demographically belong to the same group, it’s naïve to say that the white middle class (often male) isn’t still the default for leaders and makers in the arts.

There is much talk of Wales as a ‘cultural centre’ and much bemoaning of the ‘London Centric’ focus of the arts. And yet, anyone seeking a career in the arts in Wales will hear more than once ‘move away’. And even if they aren’t told it directly, for many it will swiftly become the only option. And for those who don’t fit the ‘standard demographic’ this push is greater.
If nothing else this push away from Wales is damaging our artistic output. We already have to fight harder and longer to get our work recognised beyond our own borders; why then are we further limiting ourselves by potentially driving our best and brightest away? Why does this narrow group at the top fear diversity in the literal sense of ‘anyone but them’ making work. And why do they fear so much people different to them?

An honest answer is a selfish need to hold onto power. And a fear or sense of being threatened. But this extends beyond those able to work in the arts. A vital and often overlooked point by those working in the arts is that diversity isn’t just about those working in the arts. It’s about those consuming the arts. Having a diverse group of people working in the arts needs to be symbiotic with those people coming into the building to engage with the work.

It should be a self-fulfilling prophecy- give people art that reflects their world, they will engage with it. But this can only happen if people know that the work is there and if our arts venues are welcoming to everyone. It is not enough to slap a sticker of ‘accessible’ on a building if you’ve installed a wheelchair ramp, accessibility goes far further than that. Accessibility should be replaced with ‘Welcome’ do we actually welcome people outside the small demographic that usually operates in the arts. The honest answer would have to be no.

The art suffers because frankly if you aren’t producing work that reflects society, what or who are you even making it for. Where is- to use an incredibly pretentious phrase- ‘the truth’ in your art if the cycle is so closed. And why on earth should people spend hard earned money, and time consuming it.
Real representation takes time. We have made progress in Wales, we have many women leaders in organisations, arts organisations have a comparative balance of gender across the board in Wales. Could we do with more women directors, playwrights and leading performers? Of course. And lest we forget we are overall talking cis-gender women. Our LGBTQA voices are lacking- because we need to include everyone under that banner. The arts may well be known as a refuge for the community, but that needs to stop being shorthand for ‘Gay Men’. We have a class problem in the arts, despite efforts to include Working Class voices, the loudest voices, and those telling the stories are still predominantly middle class. A handful of specialist companies putting disabled artists on stage quite simply isn’t enough. And neither is one Person of Colour every other production and calling that ‘diverse casting’.

It’s also not enough just to tick these boxes in performance. The audience from these groups must feel they can be a part of that world as well. They have to feel a theatre, or an arts centre is for them, not just ‘them’. This means a space that not only everyone can get to, and use but one they feel welcome in. Why do working class people not want to come to your venue? Why does the local East-Asian community never come to productions? Do transgender people feel comfortable in your spaces? All of these and more are questions every venue needs to answer. And they need to do it by engaging with, and more importantly listening to these groups. 

A lot of Diversity in the Arts talk is done by well- meaning people on the ‘inside’ who feel they should be doing their bit to help those on the outside. The control of the arts in Wales also rests with a small group of people for whom diversity translates as the fearful notion of relinquishing control of the sector. 

There are people in Wales more than ready to bring about change. There are people doing it. But for real change to leadership must also come from the top. Show those asking for change that holding onto control yourselves isn’t more important that an arts scene that is truly for everyone.
The people of wales inside the arts have started to ask for change- not even ask, shout for it. But nobody is listening. Sit around a table with the people this affects, look them in the eye and tell them you are doing all in your power. Better yet let them tell you what you can do better. And then just do it. Unless the arts really are just for the elite group at the top.

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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