Now, straight off the bat, this isn’t a dig at Rufus Norris. No, that’s not what this blog is about. Rather, it’s some comparably small suggestions that I think could bring about real meaningful change both at the NT and at other producing theatres. Whether the institutional barriers at the NT specifically could be broken to introduce these, who knows?
But I’m deadly serious about these.
First off though, you won’t find specific quotas or diversity-based programming ideas. Now, in an ideal world, I’d be doing entire seasons of new writing – not just in the Dorfman, either – and I’d even be introducing limits, such as ‘maximum 50% male playwrights’, and ‘min 50% people of colour’, etc. Perhaps I’d even have a season solely for creatives who had never previously worked at the NT.
However, that is a tall order. I appreciate programming at the NT ain’t that straightforward – and I cant imagine dealing with the Board is an easy state of affairs.
Rather, I am using this article to demonstrate that other non-programming explicit suggestions could bring about important change for creatives who simply are not getting a look in, and could bring in new audiences. And that there are other changes that can be made to demystify theatre and the commissioning process.
Meet five new writers/directors/creatives every week
The NT needs to open up to new writers, but new writers are increasingly frustrated with a closed-door response. Many are struggling to get meetings, or to receive feedback on submitted work, let alone get a commission. And these are stellar writers with much-produced work and rave reviews in their portfolio. These are writers who have shown at other stages and have the success to prove it but just cannot even get a coffee at the National, let alone a foot in the door.
The National does have a dedicated Literary Department but specific names are rarely circulated, making the creation of networks and introductions almost impossible.
Now, a critical impediment to diversity is the prevalence of old boy networks, of shows created and commissioned in pubs and chats over drinks. When new writers from diverse backgrounds are excluded from these networks – often based on privileged connections from University or similar backgrounds – the issue does not rectify itself. It needs structural change.
So, how do we do this? After all, Literary Managers and Assistants are busy enough without going to see a few dozen shows every month.
But how about 45 minutes for coffee? There is always time for a cup of tea or an afternoon break from the desk. Why not charge the Literary Department with having five meetings every week – meeting up over coffee downstairs – with new faces?
This helps both the theatre and the writers – the creatives get to put names to faces, hear what the NT is currently interested in, and creates a new connection; whereas the theatre is able to convey the current mood and interest in the theatre to those very creatives who could create a work perfectly suited to the NT.
Note: I can’t take credit for this as a friend suggested this but I think it’s amazing so I’m sharing it. Please bring it about!
Increase Transparency into the Commissioning Process
We have no idea how many new scripts the National Theatre receive, how many are read, and how many are rejected. And beyond that, I’m not aware that the demographics of the writers behind the submitted plays are analysed to consider the diversity of work commissioned compared to the diversity of work received.
I know this because I too have submitted work to the NT, with varying degrees of success, but even when one of my plays was considered for a while, never once was I asked to provide details of my sex, gender or ethic background.
For those thinking that this is OK, hmmmm…. Beware. None of us read ‘blind.’ None of us. We all have preconceived ideas of taste, ‘correct’ theatre, and craft. We are all blind to our own bias. And when a theatre is not producing a variety of work, when the same style and views come out again and again, this is evidence of both institutionalised discrimination and/or unconscious bias not being addressed.
To address this, data should be produced on the demographic of all plays received, and then follow this through the pipeline to final commissioning. This data not only shows up where the blocks are, but should also convince the NT to bring in a skew where needed e.g. if 60% of submitted plays are from White able-bodied middle/upper class men, greater effort needs to be made to consciously support work from the other 40%.
Similarly, if 60% of submitted work is from people of colour and/or women, then we need to work out what the hell is preventing these percentages being reflected in those works that are staged.
Introduce Pay-What-You-Can/£10 Mondays/Relaxed Performances
There’s this wonderful initiative at Theatre 503 of ‘Pay What You Can’ Saturday matinees, where the audience contributes what they can afford to see these performances. Similarly, the Royal Court does not put any of its Monday shows on advance sale, instead these are all sold on the day – first come, first served – at £12 a seat.
The NT has the Friday Rush but few of us like it. There are scant tickets for popular shows, the seats are never the best – the odd ones in the gods and circles here and there – and availability is scattered amongst shows where most seats have already been pre-sold.
Yet the great impact of the two initiatives I mention above is that they often have a radically different and more diverse audience, which creates its own atmosphere, with often more informality and a more relaxed mood.
Why can’t the NT do the same? Maybe not for every show each Monday, if money is a worry, but why doesn’t, say, each stage have a Monday performance in turn entirely ring-fenced for cheap day seats? The NT audience is, by and large, a wealthy one, and one that prefers exclusivity and pre-planning. In the nicest possible way, a free-for-all on a Monday night is unlikely to appeal to many stalwarts.
But it will appeal to others. And it will appeal to a new audience. And if all these new people on, probably, lower incomes sit together in the same audience to watch the same shows, they will have a markedly different – and likely more collegiate – experience then if they were scattered amongst the usual crowd.
Charge Less for Ice Cream
This isn’t a joke.
When people who don’t go to the theatre are asked why that is, ‘it’s not a place for me’ or similar is a common reply. And they are not just referring to the narrow appeal of many productions – the vast majority of plays are White, privileged stories told by White, privileged creatives to a White, privileged audience. What this reply also includes is the building itself.
They are intimidating spaces to people who’ve never been: unwritten rules of conduct, an evidently certain audience – the NT reeks of privilege – and also prohibitive pricing of snacks and drinks.
How is charging £4 for a sandwich or £1 for a Twirl bar signalling that the NT is the nation’s theatre? It doesn’t. Not only are these prices exploitative but it is subliminal signalling that if you can’t afford this, the theatre is not a place for you.
When it comes to bringing in a new audience, first impressions matter. New visitors won’t come again if they’re uncomfortable and intimidated. So, why not piggy back on the idea above of special nights with cheaper tickets by also pushing down the prices for snacks and drinks at the same time? A lot easier to ring fence at the Dorfman, I know, but think about it. Fifty pence for hot drinks, one pound for ice cream at the interval, display the free water more prominently. Maybe even have the paper cups (no plastic please!) and jugs at the doors where the staff check the tickets.
Basically, don’t make people feel like shit for having no money.
Introduce Sensitivity Reviews
There is an interesting new phenomenon emerging in publishing and journalism – that of sensitivity readers. A sensitivity reader reads through a manuscript for issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page, allowing authors, agents and publishers to not unintentionally offend audiences and put off targeted audiences.
Now, in this era of hysterical response and misrepresentation, some have (often willfully) misconstrued what these readers do. They’re not there to change plot or character, and they are not censors. It’s not as if a sensitivity reader would, for example, look to water down the language in an Irvine Welsh novel. That is categorically not what they do.
Rather, they are there to look for unintentional offence. To pick up instance of institutionalised bias, or use of discriminatory and inflammatory language that is not in line with equal representation and respect. Basically, they’re there to make you not make a public dick of yourself. (Hell, I could probably do with one, tbh.)
Too often, season announcements or shows are getting to the public without clearly concerning issues with shows not having been identified or addressed. We then end up in a cycle of Twitter outrage, and theatre belligerence or rectification, leaving everyone more exhausted and annoyed.
Too often I have watched shows and thought, Jesus Christ, how the hell has that made it through without someone raising the alarm? I’ve seen a few at the NT though what jumps out to me most is Raving at Hampstead, where the sexual assault of a young girl was used as a comedic plot point. But I know we all have others. And they range from the severe – racist, misogynistic, ableist slurs and problematic plots – to the continued use of disappointing tropes, all-white casts and white-facing of characters based on people of colour.
Bringing in internal sensitivity reviewers of both shows and season could work wonders in heading off a lot of these issues. Even if a production decision was made to override any concerns raised by these reviewers, at least the theatre would be aware of the decisions it had made, and be prepared for any criticism.
Unless we start really challenging what we produce, theatres are always going to be behind their audiences, increasingly out of touch and grasping for relevance. Sensitivity reviewers would help theatres get on the front foot and assist in preventing bad publicity.
And these would be for whole productions, not just language. Looking at the diversity of the cast, looking at which parts are given to non-White actors (no more the small role of maids given to Black women please), considering any need for production enhancements to enable access for those who need more support e.g. sign language.
Moreover, they would also audit an entire season – where are the gaps in representation? What attempts have been made to include creatives with special needs etc.
I appreciate change at the NT is like turning an oil tanker but, hey, change has to come. These are my ideas. What have you got? Come on. Let’s get our ideas out and make sure there are few excuses left to be heard. Small changes can lead to big results.