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Jun 04

Can We Achieve True Diversity on our Theatre Stages?

How do our theatres ensure their stages reflect the complex picture of British society?  In Part 2 of of my republished The Stage piece, I explore how casting processes align with discrimination laws and modern attitudes to diversity, speak to Spotlight, CCP, The National and the Arts Council, and wonder if it is time for greater transparency.

Michael Wharley on Diversity in Casting, for The Stage, June 27, 2013

Michael Wharley on Diversity in Casting, for The Stage, June 27, 2013

Diversity issues in the business scarcely seem to be out of the news, and even in the week or so since I republished the first part of this piece, there have been several more high-profile stories demonstrating how our modern understanding that public-funded bodies have a duty of transparency and equality conflicts with the way casting often functions.

Casting Diversity in the news

The Independent reported on the Equity’s call for the BBC to open up its casting processes a perceived narrow circle of favourite agents, and then The Stage followed up with news of Equity’s campaign for ACE and the BBC to carry out and publish equality monitoring of casting and funding processes.

Finding practical ways to bring accountability and greater diversity to casting is particularly pertinent to this piece.

In Part 1, I looked at how specific exceptions to the Equal Opportunities Act 2010 allow the industry to advertise for stage roles in ways that would be discriminatory in ‘normal’ recruitment. But found that these exceptions also mean its performance on casting diversity and equality goes largely unscrutinised.

[important]Put simply: theatres – and their sometimes freelance casting professionals – effectively police themselves on diversity issues. (Read the full piece here)[/important]

How can theatres practically achieve diversity?

So – it seemed reasonable to ask – how do they practically integrate such priorities into the casting process? And can casting, itself subject to programming and commissioning priorities, really play a genuine part in a theatre’s promotion of equality and diversity?

To explore those questions, I spoke to participants across the casting process: to breakdown distributors like Spotlight and Casting Call Pro, to Wendy Spon, Head of Casting at the National Theatre, and to the Arts Council itself.

My conclusion is that despite many positive efforts, greater transparency is the best way to change a reactive industry – which does respond to and accommodates diversity issues slowly – into a more proactive, more accountable one.

04/06/2014 MW

 

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Casting off Division

(first published, The Stage, June 2013)

How do our theatres ensure their stages reflect the complex picture of British society? In the second of two Insight features exploring how casting processes align with discrimination laws and modern attitudes to diversity, Michael Wharley wonders if it is time for greater transparency.

The first of these pieces, looked at how specific exceptions to the Equal Opportunities Act 2010 allow the industry to advertise for stage roles in ways that would be discriminatory in ‘normal’ recruitment. But these exceptions also mean its performance on casting diversity and equality goes largely unscrutinised.

Put simply: theatres – and their sometimes freelance casting professionals – effectively police themselves on these issues.

So, how are they performing? How do they practically integrate such priorities into the casting process? And can casting, itself subject to programming and commissioning priorities, really play a genuine part in a theatre’s promotion of equality and diversity?

Well, transparency on these counts is not the theatre sector’s greatest strength.

By way of simple illustration: all the UK’s top-ten subsidised theatres have careers or jobs pages on their websites for broader recruitment, most explaining their Equal Opportunities and diversity commitments. But only three have any kind of web-content dedicated to explaining casting policy, or to publishing breakdowns outside of traditional channels. And none publish casting diversity statistics as standard. Meanwhile, the Casting Directors’ Guild does not have a publicly available policy on equal opportunities and diversity in casting.

Speaking with participants in the process, it seems the day-to-day reality of such priorities sees them either subsumed into broader artistic programming and commissioning concerns, or effected through what might be called ‘soft’ policy.

Breakdown distributors regards themselves primarily as messengers. “Responsibility for complying with Equal Opportunities legislation lies in the hands of the final employer,” says Phillip Large, the CEO of Casting Call Pro-owner Blue Compass Ltd. “We can’t change the script,” agrees Pippa Harrison, Head of Client relations at Spotlight, “but we do try to give our members access to as many casting opportunities as possible, for those opportunities to be open to as many members as possible and to give casting directors as many options as possible.”

And that’s a good example of ‘soft’ policy. For such efforts do involve small seeds of practical change, particularly as internet-based casting software has come to dominate pre-audition casting processes, changing the ways actors present themselves to, and are assessed by, the casting community.

Playing ages are a case in point. Categories like Spotlight’s“Leading & Younger Leading” of days-gone-by have been replaced in consultation with the industry by 5-year age-band categories that help casting directors define roles on a breakdown, but by broader, roughly ten-year playing range bands for actors.

Meanwhile, Casting Call Pro asks actors to select a single year age (though it need not be their actual age), but, says Phillip Large, presumes a roughly “five-years-either-side playing-age margin” when presenting search results to employers.

Mechanisms like these, plus the other demographic information and portfolio of mixed-media resources that actors can provide to describe and shape perceptions of their appearance, help offer, in Pippa Harrison’s words, “a balance between the industry’s need for specificity, and an actor’s need to present the full range of their potential casting.”

Perhaps more significant is a tiny detail: create a role in breakdown on the Spotlight link software and the default ethnic background option today is ‘Any Ethnicity’. It’s a gentle nudge towards equality in casting a specific role, but, says Pippa Harrison, the greater implications are important. “Colour-blind casting should be the norm” she says, “though some roles will be ethnicity-specific, if you’re looking for a doctor, for example, often their ethnicity should be irrelevant.”

Such subtleties might seem insignificant. But fighting inequality and discrimination in the long term is often about challenging subtly ingrained attitudes.

As Wendy Spon, a widely-experienced casting professional who now heads up the National Theatre’s casting team, observes: “you do have to nudge people to think outside traditional ideas, perhaps to get agents to submit ethnic minority actors for leading roles.”

And, she admits, insidious prejudices can be some of the hardest to challenge in a casting process. “It’s difficult, for example, when a director – and it is often a man asking the question of an actress – wants to know how old an actor actually is. Perceptions can change if they find out, so you have to stick to your guns and say ‘how old does he or she seem?”

Naturally, changing attitudes to equality and diversity do, in part, come with time. At the NT “most of our directors have an awareness of diversity and are good about it,” says Spon, and there’s “constant endeavour” in the casting team and across the wider institution.

Within the specific setting of a production that might mean thinking outside the box of traditional casting ideas: “saying, ‘Let’s change the gender’ or ‘Let’s open up the playing range.” Indeed, Spon cites the colour-blind casting of a mixed-race child to white parents in the first Warhorse cast “because we could” as a typical example of how “Nick [Hytner] has always been very strong on diversity.”

The most recently available statistics for NT casting between 2009-2012 do show that 20% of roles went to black and ethnic minority actors, including in geographically/ethnically specific plays like Fela! but also colour-blind-casting for leading roles in British or European classics.

On the one hand, that figure is healthy and representative: the most recent census data shows the white ethnic group making up 86% of the UK’s usual resident population. But in their limited form, such statistics do frustrate more in-depth analysis. And indeed, Rufus Norris, currently directing the all-black cast of NT’s The Amen Corner, has recently suggested that the UK industry has a long way to go to match the US in colour-blind casting terms.

Of course, as Spon wryly notes “as a casting professional you have influence, but not actual power.” Specific decisions are often made by directors, and casting, whether in a specific show or across a season – is an important facet of an theatre’s equality efforts, but subject to wider programming and commissioning issues

Doubtless, big public-funded theatres like the RSC, The Royal Exchange, the Court and the NT feel a responsibility to lead the way on equality and diversity in the industry. “Diversity is incredibly important in what we do as an institution, and in casting” Spon emphasises, “particularly as the National Theatre, we have and feel a real responsibility to reflect the full diversity of the community.”

But as to how such casting efforts are monitored or maintained across a season or year, Spon feels that they sit in a balance with a theatre’s creative aims. “[At the NT] We do monitor roles and ratios, but we are not big on quotas,” she says “really, everything is led by the repertoire and the leadership of the Artistic Director; if the repertoire is reflecting the complex picture of British society, then casting will follow.”

Accurately reflecting that evolving picture, inevitably means adjustments along the way. Witness recent protests by the community of British East Asian actors about their lack of visibility in the industry, centred around perceived under-representation in an RSC production of Chinese classic The Orphan of Zhao.

The pressure arising has resulted in general casting days for East Asian actors with the RSC, The NT and a number of freelance casters, not to mention a change in Spotlight’s demographic categorisation, so that ‘Oriental’ has been been replaced by ‘East Asian’ as an appearance/ethnicity descriptor.

It’s a laudable reaction, showing the industry evolving in response to advocacy from a specific group finding its voice. And as Spon says, in some ways a casting professional’s wider role is to be “conscious of listening to specific communities; trying to create opportunities and role models.”

But it also illustrates how the industry can be reactive on equality and diversity in casting, perhaps lacking centralised leadership.

Such leadership could come from Arts Council England: the organisation is subject to the Equality Act 2010’s public duty clause, which requires that ‘due regard’ be shown to ‘protected groups’ and good relations and equality of opportunity be fostered.

And indeed, an ACE spokesperson explains that equality and diversity aims are monitored by requiring funded institutions “to produce an equality and diversity action plan which is agreed via their Relationship Manager and must be compliant with all equality legislation… this is monitored as part of our funding relationship with the organisation”

But while ACE expects such performance to extend to “the employment of performers and creative staff for the work the organisation produces,” it prefers to view “an organisation or company’s approach to diversity overall when making funding decisions and monitoring performance,” suggesting that deciding “funding on the detail of this [diversity in casting]… would restrict the artistic choices of our partners.”

Of course, a theatre’s repertoire choices and artistic prerogatives are important, but can they be entirely privileged if performance on equalities is less than unimpeachable? The problem is assessing sector performance is difficult, and where assessment takes place, the results suggest work to be done.

In the last year, ACE has faced calls last year from Equity’s Women’s Committee to introduce comprehensive and transparent monitoring of casting in subsidised theatre to address gender imbalance, based on extensive research. And the even-more-recent Freestone report on gender in theatre has highlighted a continued inequality across all aspects of the theatre profession.

And that’s just gender. From her position, Spon does believe, for example, that “race is in the conscious of the profession,” but admits “I think we – and the industry – could do a lot better at disability inclusion.”

Moreover, prominent industry figures have recently spoken out on the basis of personal experience about perceived industry inequality on grounds of ethnicity (Rufus Norris, Lenny Henry, David Oleweyo), and even class (Brian Cox). Are these unrepresentative anecdotal experiences that could alienate would-be entrants to the profession, or real challenges to be met?

Despite the sterling work that is being done on equality and diversity across UK theatres, perhaps it is time for all participants in the process to make clearer statements about their equal opportunities practices and policies in casting. And for the publication of demographic statistics concerning casting and even audition processes, to become standard in the theatre, whether voluntarily, or through ACE requirements.

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