There has been some discussion about proving the use of diversity in the arts to gain to funding from the Arts Council, as well as funding cuts from government, topped with how hard it is to fund new works.
Surely there’s a link between these issues that almost make it a catch 22 situation. Most of the work that is well known has been around for many years and their characters and stories are defined by a certain period in history. In rare cases like the works of Shakespeare directors can try new ways of modernising the perception in an aim to reach a much younger audience but the language and script will always be of Shakespeare’s day.
An example of a well-known work that was written to tackle issues of the day and quite comfortably cover diversity was the published in 1960 and was later adapted to the screen (1962) and stage (1990), To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, it dealt so beautifully with racial injustice as well as those of rape and social inequality.
By contrast just 60 years earlier in what became one of the worlds most loved films was first published in 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s first adaptation in 1939 saw producers and directors have an almost all white cast, with the young lead character played by a white girl from Minnesota (Judy Garland). As the comedian Stephen K Amos once said, ‘There were black people in rural Kansas in 1939 they just weren’t allowed on the yellow brick road’
Recently Steven Berkoff said ‘White actors should be allowed to play Othello’. And he is probably right, but to me this suggestion seems a desperate far cry in helping the issues surrounding diversity since Othello was written as a way to show the inequality of black people in the 16th Century. Whilst a white actor could easily play Othello it would mean having the rest of the cast as coloured actors, but we did this would it still seem authentic? As the time and place in which it is set a white men had never experienced the corruption and unfair treatment of a black men.
But diversity is not about what story the play is telling, it’s about those performing as well. In the Stage (28 May 2015) Maria Friedman speaks of older actresses going into directing simply because there isn’t much in the way of roles for them to play as actors. Whilst directors today do their best to accommodate the sexual, gender and colour origination of actors when auditioning, they are still restricted by what is demanded of the script. In well-known productions they can’t just go changing the gender of a character or all of a sudden make them a wheelchair user, because it’s not what the audience expects. But why do they use the well-known material? Simply because it’s lower risk higher chance of gaining the funding needed to stage the production.
I am sure there are lots of writers that have addressed today’s issue, but unless you’re a well known writer then getting funding to get work commissioned is hard. You may be able to get the funding if you have a household name performing in your play, but would funding stretch to cover this cost? But does using well known household names really deliver a solution to the diversity problem as there are still hundreds of very talented working class actors who would be missing out on a opportunity to forward their career in the arts.
So for theatre to experience and show the full length of diversity and the problems that come with it in today’s society new material needs be written and funds made available for it to come to life.