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As theatres reopen, I’m worried smaller ones won’t survive

How do we create theatre that reaches communities and is truly representative in a cash-strapped post-lockdown world?


17 May 2021

Run It Back, a Talawa Theatre Company / TYPT Production 2018, image by Saana Abstrakt

It starts with the gentle buzz of the crowd in the bar beforehand – some people are getting bags of sweets while others stock up on wine for the first interval. The audience is excited and eager. The air seems to cool as you’re ushered to your seats and there’s a sharp collective intake of breath as the lights go down. Everything before is in anticipation of what’s to come in the next few hours.

You lose yourself in a mass of strangers just to focus on the performance. In a world of distraction, theatre demands attention. Phones are switched off, silence is expected, and you can’t request a break to escape the room. Unlike when you watch TV, remote in hand, theatre insists on true observers. And the opportunity to discharge from the stresses of the everyday is a welcomed gift.

The last time I went to the theatre I knew I had to relish it. It was December 2020, in the short period when they were allowed to open, and I had tickets to see A Christmas Carol at The Bridge in London. We were given entry time slots to make sure foyers didn’t get too crammed – the space where bodies used to be felt cold and sparse. I remember hoping that it didn’t have to stay that way for long, but something happened that was much worse – theatres were forced shut for half a year.

“As I’ve grown older, it’s being part of this silent community that has made me feel most seen in low moments”

Of all the loves in my life, my love for theatre has been the most consistent. As a six-year-old in the early 2000s, I was enticed by West End’s glittering bright lights and began to wish away the months between each December, just so I could cry out “he’s behind you” at the Christmas pantomime. Much like in the early phases of romance, I was addicted to the feeling of excitement to the point of boring my classmates talking about my favourite shows. But each time I sat in a soft and velvety folding chair as an audience member, I truly believed that nothing else could feel as great.

As I’ve grown older, it’s being part of this silent community that has made me feel most seen in low moments. While lost in the immediacy of drama, theatre has forced me to consider aspects of my own life in a way nothing else has. Watching Zia Ahmed’s play about an interracial couple, I Wanna Be Yours, at the Bush Theatre last year, I was jolted back to memories of my own relationship and a recent breakup. Each argument sparked by culture clash, race or identity the couple had reminded me of our own ultimately damning disagreements. Through the shedding of cathartic tears, I left feeling lighter than when I first walked in.

I counted down the days until the smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton found a home in London’s West End. The first non-white Hamlet I saw felt revolutionary. After watching the surprise ending of Fairview, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that challenged the white gaze, I was glowing. Still, I shouldn’t have to wait so long between each visit for me to feel this way.

“As theatres reopen, we must make sure they actually survive”

When the government announced that theatres could return from 17 May, I tried not to get too excited. In a year of constant let downs and turmoil for the industry I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. But just because theatres can now reopen, it doesn’t mean all of them can.

The cost of a year of darkness has been great. Theatres up and down the country have suffered, with some, including the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, having to close their doors permanently. With many freelancers slipping through the net of the government’s furlough scheme, the industry has lost much of its needed racially diverse talent, while many smaller theatres and art centres, such as the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park had limited access to funding and can’t even consider opening at lower capacity.

The worries aren’t over. Another lockdown would cripple what is left of the industry. Without a state-backed insurance plan, producers are forced to make the tough decision whether opening is even worth the financial risk. Though the government has recently offered £400 million to try to help the arts in its fight for survival, it’s still only a limited sum available to a limited number of theatres. As theatres reopen, we must make sure they actually survive. 

It would also be inaccurate to portray the theatre world as an industry without its own challenges. More often than not, I can count people of colour in the seats around me or on stage on one hand. This isolation and difference make me feel lonely in crowds full of white people. Also, many shows are expensive and inaccessible, and have been for a long time. 

And there’s even more progress to be made behind the curtains. The results of a 2020 survey showed that 92% of the country’s top theatre bosses are white, while many students came forward last year about the racial discrimnation they were forced to endure at drama schools across the country. The problem is systemic – a 2017 study revealed that only 6% of teachers at the UK’s leading drama schools come from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background, and the industry is still overwhelmingly dominated by people who went to private school or can be supported by their parents.  The industry’s problems with diversity start long before the opening night of a show. 

“I want to come back to a theatre of difference –one that reaches out to communities, is forward-looking and truly representative”

As things reopen, these are all aspects of theatre that have to change. But if the industry continues to support and appeal to mainly white, middle class audiences and already known talent, it will be a long wait. We need to support smaller theatre companies such as Talawa or Kali Theatre and shows like My White Best Friend (And Others Letters Left Unsaid) which focus on diverse stories that aren’t given the appropriate funding. 

There shouldn’t just be one token ‘other’ show a year, like The Barber Shop Chronicles, which got enough support to fund a world tour. The industry is desperate for more schemes like The Black Ticket Project that offer young black people access to theatre.

Even though there is now some hope for theatre, the pandemic means it can’t be the same. I want to come back to a theatre of difference – one that reaches out to communities, is forward-looking and truly representative. Then, I’ll have the chance to fall in love with it all over again.