Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF) Conference ‘Who’s Next’?

Posted: September 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

The Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF) conference ‘What’s Next’ was hosted at the Young Vic Theatre on 9 September 2015. The ADF Conference was made possible by Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway (Founder and Artistic Director of ADF).

Simeilia and web team

The conference explored diverse leadership in mainstream theatres. The event attracted a large audience of diverse theatre makers, including artistic directors, theatre board members, writers, actors and representatives championing equality and visibility of diverse creatives, including Joy Francis (Executive Director and Founder of Words of Colour. Support for ADF was given via video transmission from Kwame Kwei-Armah. Kwame (actor, playwright, singer and broadcaster) is Artistic Director of Center Stage in Baltimore, America.

Kwame Kwei-Armah

Panel Discussion with directors:

The conference begun with a panel discussion with diverse directors; Panel members included Gbolahan Obisesan and Ria Perry. The panel gave accounts of their journeys to directing. Gbolahan traced his journey from writing a play for the National Youth Theatre, directing it, taking part in Young Vic directing courses/ masterclass; and also writing a speculative letter to Richard Wilson, asking if he could be assistant director. The journey also featured stints at the National Theatre Studio, Royal Court Theatre, the Gate and Bush Theatre, which enabled Gbolahan to build experience as a director. As part of being ‘taken seriously’ as a director Gbolahan also applied for Directors’ Awards and secured them.

Director Gbolahan

As Co-Assistant Director of Iron Shoes Theatre Ria Perry also shared her journey. Ria was assistant director at both the National Theatre and the Young Vic. Ria was also able to produce plays as part of the 24 Hour Plays and produced work at Watford Palace Theatre. Through gaining experience as director, Ria was also able to secure a bursary at the National Theatre Studio and won a Fringe First (with her own Theatre Company).

Simeilia and panel of directors

The panel of directors spoke of the important need for opportunities for Black and minority ethnic creatives. This includes residencies and opportunities to direct on ‘Big Stages’. Anti-racism initiatives were also highlighted. This in recognition of the fact that ‘people running the industry/theatres’ are largely ‘all of the same background and experience’. This serves to form seemingly ‘impenetrable barriers’ for Black and minority ethnic creatives. All of which results in a ‘closed industry’ where Black and minority ethnic directors/ creatives are not nurtured, and not ‘routinely’ invited into theatres to explore particular areas of work/themes. This is not because of a lack of talent and ability, but purely based on the fact that they are not ‘the next bright white things’.

By way of solutions the panel felt it was important that Black and minority ethnic directors/creatives:

  • Be brave about asking for meetings with theatres
  • Be prepared to ‘blag it’ and learn on the job. (As white creatives within the industry often do).
  • Be prepared to ‘go out and grab opportunities, rather than waiting to be picked’.

The presence and negative influence of ‘institutional preference’, termed ‘institutional racism’ by one member of the panel, was recognised strongly. ‘Institutionalised preference and Institutional racism’ resulted in no or very few ‘people of colour’ as role models, no Black and minority ethnic theatres. Institutional preference and racism also serves to make Black and minority ethnic directors/creatives ‘invisible’ (with no presence on stage, or ‘behind the scenes’ in theatres). It also means that Black and minority ethnic directors/creatives have little connection with theatre leadership, which is predominantly white.

Questions to the Directors’ Panel:

Audience members raised questions about how institutional barriers could be challenged. There is also a pressing need to challenge the ‘single narrative/ single story’, which largely fails to include Black and minority ethnic directors/creatives. The need for diversity and inclusivity in theatre is also paramount, as a means of ending ‘institutional discrimination’.

Artistic Directors Panel Discussion:

Artistic Directors from leading theatres took to the stage to respond to questions.

AD Panel Discussion

The Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre, Vicky Featherstone, highlighted that 2016 will be the 60th anniversary of the Royal Court Theatre. Vicky expressed her hope that the next Artistic Director of the Royal Court would be from a diverse community. Vicky spoke of the deeply pervasive barriers to truly diverse theatre. Artistic Directors largely give Black and ethnic minority artists, ‘Black plays to do’; Theatre’s will programme international work, which is felt to be ‘exotic’, while ‘home grown’ plays about the experience of diverse British communities are viewed as ‘more difficult’. This includes because such work may ‘hold up a mirror’ to ‘colonialism’, which ‘white theatre/theatre goers’ may find it hard to ‘face’. Vicky spoke of the need for mentors for Black and minority ethnic directors/creatives; and also the need to get Black and minority ethnic people on theatre boards.

The Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, Madani Younis, spoke of his journey to becoming Artistic Director. This included undergraduate and postgraduate study in playwriting; following this, on graduation, Madani ‘faced a wall of silence’ after writing speculative letters to Artistic Directors and receiving no response. As a result, Madanis set up his own theatre company in Bradford; Asian Theatre School, coming to terms with 200 years of profound prejudice in British Theatre. Madani was able to secure the Artistic Director position at the Bush due to his experience as Director of his own theatre company.

Madani spoke of the need for British Theatre to explore the dominance of ‘white middle class, heterosexual privilege’. And also the ‘psychology in presenting plays through a dominate colonial lens and demeanour ’. Theatres should be encouraged to employ Black and ethnic minority associate directors from their core funds. This would represent an important step change.

Sarah Frankcom Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester was keen to see ‘clear, transparent pathways’ for Black and ethnic minority directors, with the creation of ‘associateships and mentoring’.

Introducing Quotas:

The issue of quotas was raised. It was felt by some of the Artistic Directors on the panel that quotas would serve to ‘describe the notion of equality in an acute sense’. Quotas were about ‘taking practical decisions about diversity and making diversity part of a contractual relationship’. This would help to address the ‘elephant in the room’ were Assistant Directors adopt the ‘default position of casting what they know’. The Royal Exchange Theatre is holding discussions about quotas in terms of ‘who is employed’ in theatres and ‘what gets programmed’.

Kerry Michael Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East felt that there should be ‘positive action’ and that ‘every London theatre should have an Assistant Director’ who is a ‘person of colour’.

David Lan Artistic Director of the Young Vic encouraged Black and ethnic minority creatives to ‘hang out’ at the theatre, ‘come in and talk’ to the theatre ‘leadership’ and ‘be apprentices’.

Madani reminded those present that theatres such as the Black Theatre Co-op and Asian Theatre movement, were borne out of a political movement (in the 1980’s) that ‘expressed the reality that exists beyond theatre walls’.

Theatre Board Members:

Board members, including from the Royal Court, Lyric and Unicorn Theatre, spoke of the importance of people from Black and minority ethnic communities becoming theatre Board Members. Board members have a passion for theatre, are well versed in the workings of theatres and are able to communicate that passion. Board members also have skill sets including financial and governance knowledge.

Board Members Panel

Theatres should reflect the community. Black and minority ethnic members of the community are paying for subsidised theatres, but are not seeing their communities reflected on stage. It is important that the ‘London pound, reflects London’. There is a need for a ‘deep exploration’ of theatre organisations and decisions made to change current practices that serve to exclude Black and minority ethnic directors and creatives.

Artistic Directors of the Future (ADF):

The Conference closed with an address from Simeilia about the work of ADF. Also thanks to all who supported the event and made it possible.

ADF brokers relationships, creates visibility of Black and minority ethnic artists/future leaders and provides artistic and managerial opportunities. Training sessions are provided with existing artistic directors, which take place in mainstream buildings across the UK. ADF also disseminates information to ensure employment, training, ticket offers and funding opportunities are received by ADF members. ADF advocates on behalf of its members, and promotes its members to boards and artistic directors. ADF hope that this advocacy will influence the recruitment of leadership roles in mainstream theatres. ADF also importantly provides a safe space where Black and minority ethnic directors can get support from peers and from ADF. This is in recognition that Black and minority ethnic artists/future leaders may be subjected to isolation and racial discrimination in the workplace.

ADF and Black Lives, Black Words:

ADF directors will be directing plays from ten leading black British playwrights, on the theme of Black Lives Matter. Featured playwrights are: Oladipo Agboluaje, Gbolahan Obisesan, Firdos Ali, Mojisola Adebayo, Max Katz, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, Trish Cooke, Isaac Ssebandeke, Somalia Seaton and Theresa Ikoko.  The plays are part of a joint Black British and American playwriting initiative, ‘Black Lives, Black Words’.  Artistic Directors of the Future with the support from the Bush Theatre will present the UK premiere of Black Lives, Black Words at the Bush Theatre on Tuesday 27 October 2015 at 7.30pm. More details will follow.

A link to the Black Lives, Black Words Chicago play readings is here:

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