Putting diversity Centre Stage

Last month the Conservative Party held a conference about diversity in the creative industries. Every single speaker was white, male and able-bodied. Understandably, those in the audience from diverse communities were not impressed.

The Tory Party is not the only industry where 'diversity' has proved more a buzzword than a state of play. Today sees the publication of 'Centre Stage', by Mel Larsen and I for the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation. It aims to do for theatre what 'Writing the Future' – the report co-authored by Mel and me for Spread the Word – did for books.

At the heart of our research was the desire to know why theatre productions struggle to find black and Asian talent.  We also wanted to know why does walking into a London theatre often feel like time travel? On the street you are in the most diverse city in the world. In the auditorium, the sea of middle class white faces has barely changed since the 1950s.

Both theatre and publishing are fully aware that their pale and male image at the top level risks them being seen as stale by audiences and readers. Diversity is key to survival in a country growing more not less diverse. Already 40 per cent of Londoners are BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) and by 2050, one in five of the population will have mixed heritage.  

In 'Centre Stage' we have made four recommendations: for Arts Council England to develop a national database of opportunities, grants and best practice for aspiring BAME talent, educators and theatres; for drama schools to offer 50% of assisted places; for production companies to take a lead with colour blind casting and training to address the specific needs of black and Asian actors; and for philanthropic organisations to include diversity as key to funding applications.

It could be argued that the changes the foundation hopes will follow 'Centre Stage' are close to those brought in by the publishing industry since 'Writing the Future': changes that I believe will make a lasting impact unlike previous initiatives. At the centre of past failures was a lack of buy-in at the top: as soon as the economy hit the buffers, so did management commitment to diversity. Perceived wisdom was that feeling good is not about the bottom line?

Yet what has made a difference now is not the recognition by companies that diversity has a material impact on profits. Nor is it that three biggest corporations, Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins, have led on the issue and are investing in recruitment and training of diverse talent.

No, what has made the difference this time is trust. You can see it in employee empowerment initiatives introduces by HarperCollins and Hachette. Boardrooms have opened their doors to staff and trusted them to find solutions to the problem.

Of course, there remains much still to be done – as The Bookseller’s recent report revealed.  Though more novels by black and Asian authors will appear next year, writers of colour remain under-represented – the fact that an analysis of BAME winners of the Man Booker reveals recent ones are all from overseas. As for genre publishing, writers of colour are even more rare.

Here publishers can learn from the stage. Because where diversity happens in theatres is in musicals, the theatrical equivalent of commercial fiction. Fuelled by American imports such as "Dream Girls" and "Motown the Musical", productions are drawing in audiences that defy stereotypes. Proof if needed that what consumers respond to is not the race of the cast or the writer, but the quality of the storytelling.

Danuta Kean is editor of 'Centre Stage', a report funded by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, into pipelines into theatre for black and Asian talent. She also edited 'Writing the Future' and writes for the Guardian, Mslexia and the Independent.