As much as I love being a part of Cambridge Theatre, I know I am not the only person who feels stifled by the lack of variety in the shows programmed. Although I adore Shakespeare, the fact that there are three of his plays (two and a half, depending on how you count Cymbeline: The Musical) at the ADC or Corpus this term points to all of the writing that we’re leaving out of our theatres. Student theatre should be about pushing boundaries and testing possibilities, and whilst all that definitely doesn’t come down to diversity, it does point to a predictability around Cambridge theatre and a lack of innovation.

Although I don’t want to put this all on diversity, because there are a lot of things that make theatre exciting, there simply isn’t enough variety of perspective at the ADC. I took a look on Camdram at all shows programmed in 2019 between weeks 0 and 8 of every term, excluding student-written pieces, and the results are depressing. In that year, one work by a BME man was programmed, versus three Shakespeares. There were two plays by black people programmed that year. 73% of plays programmed were written by men and 91% by white people; when that was reduced to ADC main shows, 79% of plays programmed were written by men, and 95% were written by white people, the only exception being The Convert. In one term, every Corpus main was written by a white man. Frankly, this isn’t acceptable. Student theatre should be exciting, but ours is using old patterns and traditional perspectives whilst excluding the stories of most of its theatre-makers. The theatre scene in Cambridge is so large that we have the possibility to create an exciting and varied dramatic landscape – but we haven’t.

"I have never seen genuine genderblind casting in Cambridge theatre."

Bias in programming theatre is recognised to be a problem in the world outside Cambridge; one study showed that although women make up 65% of theatre audiences, male-heavy casts and male-directed shows still tend to dominate the biggest theatres and get the best reviews, which research suggests is due to a correlation between the reviewer’s gender and the shows they support. Such a gap is only wider with BME people. In Cambridge, where female actors outnumber female roles, we pretend this problem doesn’t exist by saying we cast genderblind. I have never seen genuine genderblind casting in Cambridge theatre. Genderblind casting means that gender is not taken into account as a casting decision. What it means in Cambridge is using female actors for male roles because of the imbalance between the gender of actors and the gender of roles. This is only a half-baked solution; it gives women more roles, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals of the theatre we are producing. What it actually means is that female actors have to conform to male storytelling in order to perform; we cannot tell our own stories on our own terms.

In a similar vein, I find the designation of roles as Male/Non-binary and Female/Non-binary in audition rooms as a sticking plaster on the problem of representation, and one that may have harmful implications. I preface this with the caveat that I am not non-binary; nevertheless, it strikes me as problematic. Whilst as an initial gesture of inclusion in plays that don’t feature non-binary characters it is really important, if this is our only gesture of inclusion and we don’t programme plays that contain non-binary characters, we are erasing non-binary identity into the gender binary by implying that it is interchangeable with male and female. I believe that non-binary inclusive role labelling is really important, but by itself it feels like a half-hearted gesture as opposed to programming plays that look at the wider gender spectrum.

There have been lots of great initiatives to address this problem – Bread Theatre and Film Company has already done a lot to improve the theatrical landscape here, and groups like Stockings, of which I am a member, and Comic Sans Men are trying to counter the gendered imbalance of comedy. Yet there is always the concern that this puts the onus on BME and female students, and whilst we all enjoy theatre-making, the fact that such groups exist suggests that students in the majority are not doing enough to disrupt an exclusive set-up. A lot of people outside the theatre scene here regard the theatre scene as inaccessible; part of this is due to a cliquey culture that is often critiqued, but I suggest that the preponderance of one kind of story is another reason. Our theatre is white and male, and so it seems as though the value system of Cambridge theatre is weighted entirely in that direction. For students whose backgrounds are not in this cultural tradition, this can feel exclusive and close-minded, and it is easy to see how people are discouraged from taking part in an activity which shows little interest in their stories.


Mountain View

Not just a Fringe issue

Many of us persist, but the labour is all ours; someone once told me how she noticed that doing an RP accent in auditions improved her chances of getting the part, and female auditionees frequently complain that they have to audition twice as hard as male auditionees to get smaller parts. This takes time and energy and is part of the unseen efforts that we constantly put in to keep going at the art we love. It is a disappointing indictment on student theatre; but, with such a fast turnover of shows in Cambridge, we have an opportunity to change this culture like nowhere else.

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