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.