Bringing black British histories to the theatre: an interview with Dawn Walton

by Sabo Kpade 

The Artistic Director of Eclipse Theatre Company talks about the Arts Council-funded project Revolution Mix, and reflects on her eighteen years in the industry.

 

Revolution MixTell us a bit about Revolution Mix. What does the project hope to achieve?

It’s about inclusiveness. It’s about legacy. It’s about trying to tackle the sort of cyclic return of the debate about diversity. This year, I’m celebrating 18 years [in theatre] and this conversation has come about at least three times in a big way in my short career. Revolution Mix is my response to the D-word. An attempt to do something as opposed to talking.

 

How did theatres respond when you first came to them with the idea of Revolution Mix?

Interestingly, I didn’t meet anybody that objected to the idea. Every theatre at the moment is engaged to a greater or lesser extent with the notion of diversity. Let’s not forget the Arts Council announced the creative case for diversity. This is core to funding. There is a sort of dictum from the Arts Council, where all these organisations are funded, to look at diversity. Part of their funding agreement is to do that, but how they do it and how successful they are varies.

 

What makes Revolution Mix different from other ‘diversity’ initiatives?

Revolution Mix isn’t just talking about who writes the plays, who tells the stories; it’s also engaged in what stories are being told – there’s a landscape of stories that we are looking at. We are also engaged with audiences, so we are going to deliver the largest audience development programme that’s being delivered across the country. At the same time we want to achieve some impact, a small impact, on training and workforce.

Eclipse Theatre 3So I think it is really important that these major employers in cities, such as the main theatre, have an inclusive employment policy, not just on stage, but in their offices, in their administration staff, in their development staff, in their PR, marketing departments. I think it’s really important that there is that representation going on in those departments, as well. Currently, it’s not even close, and recent figures released by the Arts Council, shows that a number of theatres have less than 5% [BAME representation in their workforces]. In London, there was one theatre that doesn’t have any [BAME staff] at all which is astonishing when you consider the diversity of the cities involved. I’m really engaged with a conversation that’s about the demographic of the city versus the employment in the buildings. The idea that you can’t diversify your workforce is rather ludicrous to me.

 

What type of stories do you like to see told on the stage?

I don’t want to dictate the stories. Let’s get that clear. I think there’s been a problem historically with where the black narrative has been allowed to exist in the British institution certainly of theatre. I think the stories, and I’ve said this on many occasions, have sort of lived in three domains. They’ve lived in stories of slavery, then the black population somehow seems to disappear completely out of the stories, re-appearing around the Windrush, and then subsequent to that, people landing in that country have since become gangsters and sort of gun crime exponents. Of course, there are exceptions to this and, of course, we can name those exceptions and can think of the writers that have managed that. But essentially, that is what the English experience has been in terms of the stories that are allowed into the mainstream.

Other than that, the stories have been all about new arrivals, so we’re just getting here all the time, refugees, or it’s about us off these shores. It’s the RSC’s all-black Shakespeare, Julius Caesar in a sort of unknown African state or an anonymous Asian state. That’s where we are. The sum total of all of this is that black British culture is not recognised. It’s about otherness, about somewhere else, which is pretty hard from a girl from South East London to hear. That’s pretty hard to constantly know, and know that’s not true of my history. The stories that are missing from the canon of British theatre, all the missing stories are, I would say, black and Asian stories. They are black stories in the broadest sociopolitical sense.

 

The theme behind Revolution Mix is black British history. How did you get your writers thinking along these lines?

[These] are not stories of race, they are stories that go back some five hundred years, so our jumping off point for Revolution Mix is five-hundred years of black and Asian British history. That is our landscape. That’s what we’re taking on and that has been the inspiration for the plays that are in development now. Now, what the writers write is entirely up to them. We invited Professor Robert Beckford to come and spend some time with us. I asked him to come and spin us through five-hundred-plus years of black and Asian British history and I gave him two hours to do it.

It was awesome. He did brilliantly. He didn’t even bat an eyelid. He went, yes, that’s easy, and went for it. Because, of course, there’s so much material; what we have to wonder is how much more there was. When we gathered the writers together in the room, they worked really well with that, were incredibly inspired and used that as a jumping-off point to look for stories across Britain. The stories are British; we insisted on that.

And the stories must be stories of [black] agency. We know there are stories where black and Asian people have been front and centre in creating social change in this country. So we want to tell those stories and that’s what they’re doing. They’re either telling those stories literally, as a sort of social exercise, or they are stories that have those stories as a backdrop, that’s it.

 

What makes a story ‘British’ by your definition?

It’s really about it happening on these shores. So I know there’s a British story that marches across the world. I understand colonialism. I understand the relationship with Africa and with Asia and that whole empire story. I’m less interested in that, actually. I’m interested in what happened on these shores. Because the debate is always, if you have the recent story with Trevor Nunn and his company, his argument was [that] it made no sense to have black people in the Wars of the Roses and I was like, oh, my God, this is an educated man, how can he say that? How can someone stand up and say it’s not possible to have a black actor in a costume drama? Why is it not possible? The idea and the thinking and the revision in it; the history has said that black people didn’t exist on the shores at this point, that’s simply not true. I mean, it really is not true. And not only were there black people, there were black people doing extraordinary things. They were actors. We recently had Red Velvet, and we’ve talked about the work of Ira Aldridge, there were black actors up and down the country.

I find that level of ignorance quite disturbing. I went to a thing at the BFI and someone [from a broadcasting organisation] said, “We’re very keen to diversify our work…of course, there are sections where it’s not possible”, and when he was asked when it’s not possible, he said, “Well, obviously not in period dramas”. Why not obviously in period dramas? You know, there were so many black people per capita in London [during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I], that she was being lobbied to remove black people from in London.

That’s how many black people there were in London. And this sort of stuff has been written out of history. We didn’t just arrive five minutes ago. We’ve been here a very long time. Apart from anything else, they’re really wonderful stories, but we’re not telling them. I think people would appreciate a really good story. The difference is it would be from a black or Asian perspective and that’s it.

 

Eclipse Theatre 2You’ve selected fifteen writers from the three hundred writers who responded to your call-out. How did you make that decision?

I did a call-out for writers outside of London because I’m aware of the black talent that exists outside of London, and that talent is currently underutilised.

It’s a selection process, like any other. It’s horrible. You have to work your way through the applications; you have to build a team of people to help you do that. I met fifty writers. It was a casting process, in a sense, because it’s about people that I think can work together, as well as work individually. So I wanted a room that was a mixture of gender, that was a mixture of ages, that was people of a mixture of experiences. Some were TV writers, some were theatre writers, some had written some radio, some had come from some music backgrounds. It was interesting to me to mix and match the people in the room.

 

What about the writers that weren’t selected?

Some of them are working in the industry, they’re just not known. What I was more concerned about was a body of writers, particularly outside London, that don’t currently have a relationship with the theatres that I wanted to partner with. And I was concerned about that. I was concerned about why those writers are not coming through those theatres. The problem that was presented to me was that those theatres were unaware of writers to work with. Those writers are presenting themselves to me as I tour and saying we don’t have a relationship with those theatres. Eclipse already has an awesome reputation for brokering relationships between theatres and audiences, so I was using a sort of similar principle, if you like, to broker the relationship between theatres and black writers.

 

This is all very exciting! What stage are you at now? And how do you plan to proceed with the productions?

We’ve just announced the first two commissions. Originally, we had enough money to commission eight pieces. We’re actually commissioning ten pieces. The writers are all paired up with regional theatres and they’re all developing [their work] with support from our partner theatres.

I will direct some [of the productions]. In an ideal world, I’d like all the directors to be black, I’d like all the participants on this and their assistants to be black or Asian if possible, which will be quite unusual.

 

Over the next three years, ‘Revolution Mix’, created by Eclipse – Britain’s principal Black-led national touring company – will challenge inequality in theatre, television, radio and digital media. 15 writers and 12 partner venues across the country are currently working on new theatrical pieces of work with the first due to tour next year.

 

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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel Anyone’s Ghost. His story Chibok has been short listed for the London Short Prize 2015. You can find him on Twitter at @Sabo_Kpade

This interview was edited for clarity by Henna Zamurd-Butt

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