'Power has to be grasped': British theatre is battling its class problem

'Power has to be grasped': British theatre is battling its class problem

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In 1979, giving a talk at Cambridge University, the theatre-maker John McGrath insisted that “there is a working-class audience for theatre in Britain which makes demands, and which has values, which are different from those enshrined in our idealised middle-class audience”. His manifesto for making popular theatre for the working classes, later published as A Good Night Out, was hugely influential. Yet almost 40 years later, McGrath’s observation that the theatre’s values are “firmly those of acceptability to a metropolitan middle-class audience” rings as true as ever.

Within theatre – and within the arts more broadly – class continues to separate and exclude both artists and audiences. “I think it’s embedded and it won’t move,” says Rhiannon White, co-artistic director of theatre company Common Wealth and author of a recent report on class and the creative industries. “I think class is massive; it’s at the centre of the profession.” The statistics back her up: the Warwick Commission’s 2015 report found that the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of the population were still the most “culturally active”.

This class problem has a long history. Hassan Mahamdallie, who worked on Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, traces discussions about working-class engagement back to the second world war and the efforts of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (Cema) to take culture across the country. After the war, when Cema morphed into the Arts Council, emphasis moved from art for the masses to “high art” for a metropolitan few. “I think what happened was the middle classes rushed into the opening up of public subsidy of the arts and very quickly came to dominate it,” says Mahamdallie. “That process, that trend, has basically been consolidated in the years since.”

‘There is a working-class audience for theatre’ … John McGrath.



‘There is a working-class audience for theatre which makes demands, and has values, which are different from those in our idealised middle-class audience’ … John McGrath. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

Theatres today often feel like middle-class enclaves. “I felt my class for the first time in the theatre,” says White. “I felt what it meant to be an outsider, to not have the language, to not feel good enough in that space.” Rod Dixon, artistic director of theatre company Red Ladder, says something similar. “I still feel it as a working-class Liverpudlian,” he says, “and I’ve worked in theatre for 35 years.” Theatres are spaces in which, as Mahamdallie puts it, “class distinctions are played out”.

Common Wealth and Red Ladder counter this by putting working-class experiences, artists and audiences at the centre of their work. “For me it’s all about language and the power of language and who gets to use language,” says White. “Narrative is extremely important, especially when we’re talking about class.” She’s damning of working-class stories that show an endless roundabout of drugs, benefit scroungers and domestic violence. “I’m sick of the dominant narrative being one where we’re the baddies or we’re the ones that need help and need saving,” she says. “It isn’t true. So I guess with my work what I’m trying to do is to turn that dominant narrative into something else.”

Red Ladder, meanwhile, began as a socialist agit-prop group 50 years ago. Today, a major strand of its work involves taking shows to community venues, following in McGrath’s footsteps. These non-theatre circuits bring challenges, but the company is adamant about maintaining artistic quality. “It needs to have high production values,” insists Dixon, “because you’re bringing people to the theatre for the first time in their lives. If they have a second-class experience of it, they’re not going to engage.”

Brits have a reputation for being at once obsessed with, confused by and embarrassed about class. This messy tangle of emotions is perhaps part of the reason why class is often absent from discussions about diversity in the arts. As Dixon notes, “class is a very difficult thing to define”. He identifies as working class, though he’s aware that his career might lead others to disagree. He adds that “there are a lot of working-class people who do not define themselves as working-class”. White feels a similar tension. “It’s hard, because I am part of the system,” she pauses to reflect. “Everything’s a contradiction.”

Adelayo Adedayo and Tsion Habte in Charlene James’s Cuttin’ It.



Adelayo Adedayo and Tsion Habte in Charlene James’s Cuttin’ It. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

There’s also a lack of discussion in the theatre sector about how class and race intersect. The Bush Theatre’s artistic director, Madani Younis, notes that class has recently re-entered political rhetoric in the wake of the EU referendum. But politicians – and, to an extent, those in the arts – tend to define “working-class” narrowly. “It’s become almost a default,” says Younis, “that a very well-educated, middle-class MP doing a Newsnight or a Question Time will say, ‘We’ve forgotten about the white working class.’ The notion of class is so rarely used when it comes to people of colour – you don’t hear it in the same way.”

As a result, artists of colour from working-class backgrounds are doubly excluded. “I was very aware that I was an exception in terms of the spaces I would be in,” says Younis. “And that was interesting, because I think you can feel a bit like an outsider.” Playwright and actor Charlene James, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, can identify with that feeling. She jokes that she plays “spot the person of colour” when she is sitting in the theatre, adding “I’ve always been a minority in the audience”.

We’re Still Here, a play about steelworkers in Port Talbot, created by Rachel Trezise, Common Wealth and National Theatre Wales.



We’re Still Here, a play about steelworkers in Port Talbot, created by Rachel Trezise, Common Wealth and National Theatre Wales. Photograph: Dimitris Legakis/Athena Pictures

Worryingly, there’s a shared sense that things are getting worse rather than better. All the theatre-makers I speak to highlight barriers that have risen even higher since they broke into the industry, blaming the slashing of arts education and the hiking of tuition fees under the Conservatives. Labour’s recent Acting Up inquiry into access in the performing arts gives weight to these fears, finding that audition fees are locking working-class actors out of drama schools.

“I felt like when I went to drama school it was quite an accessible thing to do,” James says. “Ten years later, a lot of those people who I went to drama school with probably wouldn’t be able to do it. I would never be able to.” For those now unable to go to university or drama school, the points of entry to the industry are almost non-existent. “There are limited pathways,” says White. “If you’re 19 and on a council estate then you don’t know how to get an assistant director job at the National or the Young Vic.”

What, then, needs to change? The solutions are as complex as the problems, but they all revolve around who is represented, both on stages and on leadership teams. Based on her research, White poses a series of crucial questions for the cultural sector: “Who programmes the theatres? Are they listening to the communities that are around them? Are they embedded? Are they telling the stories of the city? Are they representing the city on their stages?”

Go Home, a Brexit Short written by Charlene James

I ask James, whose play Cuttin’ It addressed the issue of FGM, whether playwrights have a responsibility to tell a wider range of stories. “Definitely,” she responds. “A lot of the writers that I know who are writing those stories are from different backgrounds, a different class, but there’s only so much you can do. You can write as many of those plays as you can, but then it’s down to the theatres to put those works on.”

Mahamdallie stresses that it’s about more than just giving a platform to working-class voices. He describes the arts as “the rehearsal of ideas about the possibilities for our future”, arguing that working-class audiences are being shut out of that vital process. “So yeah, it’s about voices,” he says, “but what’s the point of having working-class voices on the stage just playing to a middle-class audience?”

Though they are wary of what they call a “missionary” mindset when taking theatre into communities, Red Ladder and Common Wealth have addressed the problem by going out to meet working-class audiences in their own spaces, from working men’s clubs to boxing gyms. Both companies stress the importance of building lasting contact. “The last thing we want to do is be like a dipstick,” explains Dixon, “to come in, go out and leave them wanting more”. Backed by funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Red Ladder is now exploring how to make these non-theatre touring circuits more sustainable going forward. That means building relationships with local, community-based promoters and touring in a wider range of companies throughout the year.

Tony Bell and Andrew Lancel in Red Ladder’s production of The Damned United.



Tony Bell and Andrew Lancel in Red Ladder’s production of The Damned United. Photograph: Malcolm Johnson

Similarly, Common Wealth’s practice is built on the principle of developing long-term relationships with communities, rather than parachuting shows in and out. Their productions are driven by the stories and experiences of the people they work with, from female Muslim boxers in Bradford (No Guts, No Heart, No Glory) to steelworkers in Port Talbot (We’re Still Here). “For me, it’s bigger than theatre,” says White. “It’s not just that we’re going to drop in and do a show and then piss off, it’s actually seeing these as people’s lives and people’s journeys. How can we all be part of the journey to reclaiming our narrative?”

That’s not to say that this approach is necessarily a model for engaging more working-class audiences with traditional theatre venues. Dixon cautions that shows in working men’s clubs and other community venues are not always a “gateway drug” to theatre. “It’s not as simple as, ‘Let’s just take theatre to the masses,’” he says. Theatre buildings are, Dixon argues, “quite impenetrable” for many people – and that’s not going to change overnight.

For Younis, the basic principle is simple: “The inside of our building should reflect the outside of our building and vice versa.” He makes a cursory reference to audience numbers and demographics, but he’s suspicious of purely quantitative approaches. “I really struggle with that shit, because what does that really mean?” he says. “Does that mean those people have now become core audience members, or does that mean you just had a two-hour engagement with those people?” The Bush, he insists, is more interested in “depth of experience”.

Madani Younis, artistic director of the Bush theatre.



Madani Younis, artistic director of the Bush theatre. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

This depth of experience needs to be across theatres’ full programmes. While James has noticed an audience engagement drive around shows made by and targeted at specific demographics, she questions whether theatres are serious about sustaining contact with working-class audiences of colour. “What are you doing to follow up on that?” she asks. “Are you then trying to get them into the other shows, or is it just the ‘black’ shows that you’re getting them into?”

It may be that the best thing white, middle-class artistic leaders can do is take a step back. “I think we are at the moment all nodding in agreement that we need to do more,” Younis says, “but I am very excited to hear how we redress that historical, systematic imbalance that has taken place in our sector, because in order for things to change I think some people have to give up power.” Mahamdallie agrees. “At the end of the day, it’s about power,” he concludes. “And I think the problem that we face is, as everybody knows, power is not easily given away. Power has to be grasped.”

The message from all the theatre-makers I speak to is that there has to be major, structural change if the British theatre sector wants to finally address its class problem. Talk is not enough; there needs to be a seismic shift within the industry. “Imagine if the centre changed,” says White. “So the centre wasn’t opera, it was the Creative Case for Diversity, or it was community-led performance. Just imagine what would be different.”



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