I was asked to give a keynote address to the graduating class of Central School of Speech and Drama’s Theatre Practise and the school’s alumni. This event took place as CSSD faced massive scrutiny for systematic and institutional racism. Rather than pull out from the event I decided I had to take the issue on. Here are my words, with additional writing from Adam Young.
Good evening, thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.
You are all graduating at one of the strangest times in history. The shape you find the world as you take your first steps into practice is nothing you could have imagined when you first set foot at 64 Eaton Avenue, 3 years ago.
Being in lockdown with theatres closed the world over has provided ample time for the personal and professional reflection that the pace of our old world had not allowed. We have spent the time streaming theatre productions that could not be live, and discussing whether something so live can ever be virtual. A lively debate about the future of theatre has begun. And most recently a vital conversation about race in society, the theatre industry and drama schools, this one included, has also started.
Recent events have opened my eyes to my ignorance. I recognise my current position in the industry is, in part, due to white privilege. I have been reflecting on how representative theatre is, how fair theatre is and how supportive the theatre industry is. Since I graduated 20 years ago, there has been some progress. However, I am concerned with what I find now, on stage, off stage, in management and leadership.
Much of the debate has so far focused on acting. However, there is a massive problem with diversity and representation in the technical and creative communities too. Part of this is the problem is access, a more significant part of it is systemic. All of it needs to change.
In my years I have found myself compelled to silence when I find something wrong in our industry because there is a culture that encourages me to feel I am lucky enough to be working in the first place, so what right do I have to complain. "Be a good boy, be quiet, accept it. This is the way". I am told the show is more important than I am, that I should suffer to make it happen, and I have. I've signed up to entirely white, male creative teams and kept my head down, and not said anything for fear of losing work. I've done show after show where actors of colour are cast as tokens to diversity, and I have said nothing. I have watched a theatre industry only let voices of colour make shows about race and nothing else.
I have been complicit in the preservation of the status quo, and I have reached a tipping point. I have had enough. Enough of accepting ‘traditional’ values. Enough of tokenism. Enough of a lack of diversity. Enough of being bullied. Enough of affecting my mental health for the sake of a show. Enough of staying silent about things I know and keeping quiet.
You are the next generation of practitioners, and as you leave Central, you are a generation that can affect real change in our industry. You do not have to accept your tutors’, principals’ or school’s stance on issues. You should not be afraid to speak up on a production when you know something isn't right. Attitudes and working practices in theatre need to change. I intend to use my voice to do everything I can to make change happen. And I want you to use your voices too.
I want you to know that you have value as a person as well as a professional in our industry, and that gives you the power to change that industry.
I've looked through the virtual exhibition. You have a brilliant and talented network of people in your fellow graduates to help you do this. You and your fellow students have a great connection and you can use that connection to shape our industry for the better. You can use it to challenge authority. You can use it to bring a great idea to life, You can use it to find work for yourself and others. You can use it to have a collective voice. Looking around this place, I can see so many people I studied with and it is always brilliant to know that they are all there.
One day you will be the voices of our industry, you will run the institutions currently under scrutiny for systemic failures. With that comes great responsibility but also an excellent opportunity to build on the change that has begun and take it to the next level. You have the chance to make incredible shows and more importantly make the process of making the shows incredible for everyone.
And society will need those shows. As the world begins to dismantle systems of institutional and cultural racism and comes back from Covid-19, we will all need to find a new way to understand the world and ourselves. Theatre will be there to help. We will need a place to reflect outwardly and inwardly. Theatre, like no other art-form, can do that. We can hold a mirror up to society and ask it tough and uncomfortable questions about itself but also offer hope of a world that can change.
However, to do this, you have to be conscious of yourself and of the shape of your industry. Your job goes beyond your immediate production roles, you have a more significant, broader responsibility to our community. You have to ask yourself what you can do to improve it.
And you cannot stand back when you can lead.
Central’s statement on systemic racism can be found here