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Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward

The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner wrote last month, “In the second decade of the 21st century, British theatre is still predominantly white and middle-class, and its leading figures educated at elite universities,” mostly Oxbridge. It’s what she says Nicholas Hytner, Nicolas Kent, Erica Whyman, Tom Morris, Josie Rourke, Natalie Abrahami, Thea Sharrock, Rupert Goold and Dominic Dromgoole all had in common.

And it goes beyond the inner circle of those already in the top jobs: the future is also going to be drawn inevitably from it, too. As she also points out, “Since it was established in 1998, no fewer than five out of the 12 winners of the influential James Menzies-Kitchin award for young directors have been Oxbridge-educated. At least seven out of 30 of our regional theatres are run by Oxbridge graduates.”

Nick Ahad, theatre critic for the Yorkshire Post, recently pointed out, “Nicholas Hytner (Trinity, Cambridge), the man who runs the National Theatre, also levelled the charge that UK theatre critics were ‘dead white males’. So, our theatre is essentially the product of white middle-class Oxbridge graduates which is critically evaluated by exactly the same sort of people.”

And yes, I am guilty as charged. In fact, I was at university with Dominic Dromgoole, as well as Tom Morris (who runs Bristol Old Vic, and co-directed War Horse and directed ENO’s current The Death of Klinghoffer) and Roxana Silbert (new artistic director of Birmingham Rep), as well as Tim Supple (one-time director of the Young Vic).

But it isn’t an entirely closed shop. As Ahad went on to point out, “Step forward Madani Younis, the Bradford based director. On January 1, Madani stepped into the top job at London’s Bush Theatre, becoming the first Asian artistic director of a London theatre building.”

By coincidence rather than design, he has taken over the Bush at the same time as Indhu Rubasingham has been appointed to take over from founder artistic director Nicolas Kent at the Trike, where she was one of his protégées and from which he is departing after 28 years at the helm.

As well as their Asian family origins, both Younis and Rubasingham have something else in common: neither were Oxbridge, though both are educated to post-graduate level: Younis did David Edgar’s Mphil in Playwrighting at the University of Birmingham, while Rubasingham went on from a drama degree at Hull to a postgraduate course at a London drama school, which she left after a term when she got a bursary from the Arts Council to be assistant director at the Stratford East’s Theatre Royal.

Stratford East has made more headway than most in developing black and Asian directors and writers; I am always fond of quoting Clint Dyer, who directed Stratford East’s The Big Life, telling me when that show transferred to the West End and he became the first black British-born director to have a musical on in the West End, “The wonderful thing about being black in this country is that you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things!”

That was in 2005; it is now seven years later, and there are still hardly any black directors being given mainstage exposure (though tonight, as it happens, the National has Michael Buffong directing Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the Cottesloe, the first black British director at the National for some time; Fela! of course was directed by Bill T Jones, an American).

As Younis told the Yorkshire Post, “I think my appointment is a bitter sweet moment. Yes we should celebrate this as a first and that it is happening, but the bitterness is that it should have happened so much sooner. We look at other sectors in our country and we can cite examples of the children of immigrant parents who have gone on to achieve and to work in positions that 40 years ago would have been unheard of for our parents. Within theatre it has been a slower burn in us achieving those positions.”

When Younis first arrived in Yorkshire ten years ago, he was mentored by the late Geraldine Connor, and he tells a chastening story about advice she once gave him. “She sat me down and said there are two things I should never forget. The first was that as a black artist I can never fail and that secondly theatre remains the last bastion of the white middle classes. I subsequently discovered the first of those things isn’t true - you can fail and you can come back on top. The second thing Geraldine told me remains to this day a constant.”

As Lyn Gardner points out, “Plenty of professions including law and journalism have an Oxbridge bias, and theatre criticism in particular has been, and continues to be, dominated by people who attended those universities.” But, she goes onto ask, “Why should the same be true of directors - particularly when you’d assume that it is creativity, not academic prowess, that counts on stage?”

And she answers it by writing, “Theatre directing is a profession in which it is immensely hard to secure a foothold: connections and networking play a major part, as does the ability to be supported during the crucial early stages of a career - freelance directing, unpaid internships and the rest. What concerns me is that if the funding situation gets tighter - as it surely will - we will end up with a theatre culture that is even more dominated by people who have a particular set of backgrounds.”

In that context, it is particularly encouraging to see that the mould is being broken, in colour and background, by Younis and Rubasingham. Let’s hope that it is just the start of a new era in British theatre, and not just a new era for the Tricycle and Bush.

9 Comments

I am not sure why there appears to be such a flurry of annoyance at the Oxbridge crowd for their disproportionate presence in the Arts. I was Cambridge-educated, and as an actress and writer, I feel that some of the confidence that the University instilled in me - go for what you want, don't let anyone hold you back, etc. - has helped. But I don't feel I left University with an abundance of connections; I don't have an upper- or middle-class background (I am a very working class Yorkshire girl who has a completely different outlook on and experience of life than your 'typical' Oxbridge student - and, in fairness, those in the industry whom I have happened to meet who are Oxbridge-educated, also seem to have so much more about them than their University education, such as a difficult upbringing, a wealth of experience from other arenas (say, the National Youth Theatre) and so on to aid them in their quest to work in theatre. True, some did have money - but then, a lot (myself included), didn't, and I think that people 'with money' are present at almost every University, so I am not sure how much this contributes to the disproportionate number of Oxbridgers in theatre); and I can't do anything about my Caucasian, British race.

If Oxbridge gives people confidence, a can-do attitude, and some connections, then that isn't something Oxbridge should be lambasted for. It is something that other Universities and courses should note, and emulate, making links with relevant organisations, and doing more to promote theatre (Oxbridge had a thriving theatre scene - something that should inspire other Universities and establishments, not provoke disdain).

Creativity can't be learned (although it can be honed and nurtured), so that the stories of every individual that wants to tell them through the medium of theatre can strive to do so. I don't think Oxbridge particularly helped me; I think my stories, experience and background are of far more importance, and Oxbridge really didn't help me there.

What Mark Shenton seems to be implying is that the theatre remains conservative, elitist and resistant to change. He's well placed to know what he's talking about and I'm sure he's right. It seems ironic, though, in a profession that claims to pride itself above all on liberal, left-wing values.

The idea that Oxbridge presents you with a ready-made abundance of connections, implying some mystical Masonic conspiracy amongst former Oxbridge students to exclude anyone who didn't go there, is naïve, in my experience. It misrepresents the intensely (lamentably?) competitive culture at those universities. It also seems rather patronising to former students from those places who have succeeded. It's like saying to them: "You're not actually any good, you just know the right people."

By continuing to focus on the so-called Oxbridge / non-Oxbridge divide, we only perpetuate it. Much better to see people for who they are, rather than attach a label to them that gets in the way of doing that.

Interesting blog. The Oxbridge influence is undoubtedly true, but it sometimes irritates me that these arguments never extend to people's backgrounds. I may have gone to Oxford but my life didn't start there. I went to a state school and was the first of my immediate family to go to university.

Diversity in the theatre should always be encouraged, but to overlook going to Oxbridge as an achievement in favour of seeing it only as a sign of privilege or denoting a homogenised outlook can be short-sighted and not a little unfair.

Well said, Amy Barnes and others.

But I think we tie ourselves in knots with diversity analysis. I do not think things really change by debate. I think they change by people of all backgrounds and cultures defying the odds.

The liberal mindset on this is not entirely helpful. I have recently been involved in a music charity, where some were bemoaning the lack of classical musicians from Muslim faith schools as something that could be rectified from outside - when the 'problem' is that such schools tend actively to discourage classical instrument learning and dance as being contrary to their beliefs.

I cite this an an example of how those who break through to mainstream success may have to contend with their own sets of values as much as with any hurdles set by the so-called Oxbridge set.

Us non-Oxbridgers are always muttering darkly about Oxbridgers... it cheers us up while we're contemplating our gloomy futures.

It's not that Oxbridgers aren't talented and wonderful and deserve their positions - it's just that in the case of directing - most other people genuinely don't have a chance no matter how good they could be.

The opportunities don't exist - and where they do (in am-dram) they're not taken seriously.

There's greater diversity in writing, acting and stand-up because there's greater access.

And that does make it unfair.

Though the underlying problem is money, not cronyism.

Apart fro pointing out what most people who have worked there way up with no real network or nepotism already know too well, what is interesting is how funding cuts will effect this dynamic.

Yes when you begin you need connections, if you have none as I did, you need luck and hard work and then it may still take years before you can start having a real career.

talent will eventually rise, regardless of background, it might just take a lot longer and you will need a lot more luck.

However if funding goes the playing field will be leveled somewhat, although some smaller under represented voice will suffer, other smaller under represented voices will grow.

Why? Because they have, as I have, always had to rely on their creativity and commercial abilities. They have always struggled and therefore are more adept at coping with the cuts.

So i for one dont care where someone comes from, talent will out if you work twice as hard and are twice as lucky

As someone who knows them well and has worked with both Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham I'm sure Indhu would object to being described as Nick's protégées!

I've been reminded by the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell that their artistic director Jasmine Cullingford has beaten Madani Younis to the title of Asian artistic director of a London venue, so am happy to put the record straight. Though of course the Bush is in a rather different league to the Blue Elephant....

There is also Talawa Theatre Company, of course, but that's a company, not a theatre.

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Although in fairness we'd be the first to say we reckon Jatinder Verma pipped both Jasmine and Madani to the post as Tara Arts opened a theatre in 2007!

Congratulations to Madani for what seems to be a very exciting first season - we were delighted when the acclaimed Theatre Ad Infinitum was announced as an associate company of the Bush, as they're part of our 'alumni'. Their first show was a co-production here in 2007. It's not always possible to start out in the big leagues so that's why a theatre like the Blue Elephant is important because it focuses on supporting emerging companies and artists and giving them chances they may not get otherwise.

Maybe you'll write a blog about us sometime, Mark - Stuart's offering to update you on all our goings-on!

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Although in fairness we'd be the first t...
Mark Shenton on Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward
I've been reminded by the Blue Elephant ...
anon on Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward
As someone who knows them well and has w...
Adam Morley on Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward
Apart fro pointing out what most people ...
karen on Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward
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max on Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward
Well said, Amy Barnes and others. But I...
Tom Wicker on Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward
Interesting blog. The Oxbridge influence...
Robert Shaw on Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward
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Amy Barnes on Taking a (non-white, non-Oxbridge) directing step forward
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