The Marlowe Showcase has, for years, been considered one of the most prestigious events in Cambridge’s theatrical calendar, giving graduating actors an opportunity to be seen by industry professionals. The 2021 cast, directing team and producing team were entirely white. And then, after some drama and conflama, it was cancelled. Let’s talk about it.

First, some housekeeping. I’m writing as a BAME ex-student, who graduated in 2020. I performed in the showcase in 2019, as one of two BAME performers, which kick-started communication with the agency I now work with. As someone who didn’t audition this year, and is no longer in Cambridge, I am distant enough not to be construed as bitter for my writing. A sad thing to have to consider in these discussions – but one that, unfortunately, BAME performers have revealed to me time and time again as a concern.

“The Marlowe Showcase is not an anomaly. Racial inequality is sewn into the fabric of the way that Cambridge theatre is run.”

I was rattled in a way that I didn’t anticipate when the line-up for this year was published. In the interest of clarity, what follows is not an attack on the ability or talent of the cast. Benefitting from an infrastructure that is systematically weighted in your favour doesn’t make you undeserving, less talented, or specifically at fault – it’s just problematic that the system is biased at all, and it’s everyone’s job to fix it. The issue isn’t about those cast not deserving their places – rather, that others who are similarly deserving are not afforded equal opportunity; in the showcase, but also throughout their Cambridge theatre careers.

It feels imperative to state: The Marlowe Showcase is not an anomaly. It is not a shocking injustice in the face of otherwise equal opportunity; racial inequality is sewn into the fabric of the way that Cambridge theatre is run, however unconsciously. Please – hear me out. Especially if you are still at Cambridge. Especially if you are involved in casting shows. Especially if you are white.

Consider that the prologue. Right, gang, here we go.

The flyer for 2016's Marlowe Showcase.Twitter/@mustardgravy

The first question to ask is this: is the issue of access one that exists at the threshold of The Marlowe Showcase? What conscious or unconscious biases are at play in this particular audition room? To present actors in this context is, in many ways, to present a series of products to agents, who will try and sell them to an industry that has a heavy focus on appearance. Of course, ideally, an actor will be valued entirely based on their talent. But, naivety aside, you are often more palatable if you are white. We’re all familiar with the ideal image of the ‘leading lady’; button nosed, doey-eyed, just big time capital-C-Caucasian. I mean, look at the Golden Globe nominations this year (I’ve also listed some reading below, if you need convincing). Putting aside those who hold these views consciously, we cannot underestimate the insidious way in which this bias is ingrained and sustained unconsciously – in the industry, but also in Cambridge theatre.

Given the lack of racial representation in theatre and film, and that the showcase is laurelled as a stepping stone to the industry, isn’t it all the more important that we platform already underrepresented voices? Those who might be overlooked in an agent or casting director’s inbox? To be absolutely clear, I am not making an argument for positive discrimination or advocating for tokenism. Rather, I’m saying that given all the barriers already in place for BAME creators in the industry, the least we can do is not add another.

“There’s something troubling in the idea of the ‘Cambridge actor’.”

There’s something more specific at play here, too, beyond the whiteness of the industry as a whole. There’s something troubling in the idea of the ‘Cambridge actor’. The likes of Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, David Mitchell, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Emma Corrin. I don’t want to paint with broad strokes, but what I’m trying to get at is that these successes have created a certain idea of what kind of actors come out of Cambridge – what they look like, how they speak; one that is absorbed and subsequently upheld by the people casting shows in student theatre, consciously or otherwise. In this instance, for example, maybe the directorial team didn’t even clock the overwhelming whiteness of the cast and crew until the backlash – which would be disappointing.

Having said all of this, it’s important to understand, and work to change the fact, that the issue starts much earlier than this audition room in particular. I’ve heard that there were only a handful of BAME auditionees this year. So let’s, for the sake of argument, put aside any bias that may have been in the audition room. Let’s say the 12 members cast were the 12 best auditionees. They’re a talented bunch – this could be the case.

Which begs the question – where are the BAME auditionees? There are plenty of immensely talented BAME actors in Cambridge. Obviously. To even have to verbalise that is obscene. So, why aren’t they auditioning for the showcase?

“I can confidently say that student directors are more likely to cast a white woman as Juliet or Desdemona than a person of colour.”

The first thing to note is that participation in the showcase usually follows a certain amount of experience, and the opportunity to learn through performance; casts tend to have an ADC repertoire. So – let’s consider what the face of the typical ADC mainshow looks like. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty white. Taking the last 3 Michaelmas Shakespeares, for example, of the total 46 cast members there were only 2 BAME actors. The statistically worst of the 3 also had an all-white directorial team.

I have no doubt that it is largely unintentional, but I can confidently say that student directors are more likely to cast a white woman as Juliet or Desdemona than a person of colour. We cannot underestimate the influence of ‘looking the part’. We’re used to seeing white leads, and it affects our perception of an actor’s suitability to a role. (Again, reading below. I would in particularly recommend Jami Rodgers’ article, and Season 6 of The Globe’s ‘Such stuff’ podcast). If you are a student director, I encourage you to think about this. Don’t just say your casting is race-blind – this is not only too passive, but also impossible. Be active in your self-reflection.

“Don’t just say your casting is race-blind – this is not only too passive, but also impossible.”

Look at the astounding quality of BAME productions like ‘The Djinns of Eidgah’, or ‘The Convert’. The incomparable talents of these casts are underrepresented in spaces that aren’t specifically BAME. And these shows aren’t given the same attention, they’re not revered in the same way. Ask yourself why. Because I can tell you, it’s not because the quality of performance or production is any less.

So – perhaps BAME performers are not given the equal opportunity they deserve in non-dedicated spaces (in part due to some of the issues outlined above). And, bringing me to my last point in this whistle-stop tour of theatrical racism; perhaps some of these same talented actors are reluctant to audition for non-BAME shows because of an unwelcoming or even hostile environment. For example, the experience of a Bengali actress recalled for a casting call specifying a ‘black woman’ in Ghost: The Musical, who after expending energy processing and explaining how inappropriate it was, was instead offered a Hispanic part.

There are further questions that I feel unqualified to address, so I will refrain until I’ve done my research. For example, what is the impact of pre-university privileges (opportunities in school, nurturing of theatrical interests in childhood etc.) on who shows up to audition, on who can ‘get their foot in the door’? And in what ways does this overlap with race? I will also acknowledge the impact of poor diversity in the wider university – though, even accounting for this, the lack of representation in theatre is still disproportionate.

“Acknowledging the problem does not grant you freedom from the responsibility to act.”

Enough questions, I hear you cry – what’s the solution? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could round this off with a nice step-by-step guide? Sorry to disappoint. I don’t have a clean answer. And I’m not the voice of the entire BAME community, which is, in itself, dangerously homogenised. I’m one person who frankly, in the right lighting and with some suspension of disbelief, could pass to the untrained eye as a spicy flavour of white.

What I will leave you with is some closing thoughts.

I don’t think that the BAME community, on the whole, are actively enthralled by the cancellation of the showcase. I can understand that it may have seemed the only route, and it’s unfortunate that we have reached the point where that is the case (though I will also note, the showcase this year consisted of self-tapes – nothing’s stopping anyone sending self-tapes to agents). I sympathise with those under fire, who had no part in casting. But, in the interest of nipping any undue resentment in the bud, or the potential for this cancellation to be deemed as a sort of noble self-sacrifice, let’s not forget; the BAME community didn’t put them in this position. They did.

“Noise without nuance is futile, self-immolation is pointless.”

I feel it necessary to address the frightening narrative I see brewing – one of potential bitterness, suggesting that BAME students are somehow responsible for ‘costing’ the cast this opportunity. Remember, the cancellation was a decision taken on the part of the showcase team and The Marlowe Society, and was not requested by BAME performers. It feels strange to have to say this, but the BAME community are not at fault.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Target Oxbridge helps 71 black students gain Oxbridge offers

To those who are rebutting by saying that casting should be based on merit, not ‘diversity quotas’: we literally want the same thing – a system based on merit. And to have that, we need to address the biases that pervade the theatre scene.

And, finally, to all student theatre-makers; acknowledging the problem does not grant you freedom from the responsibility to act. Interrogate your own practices, do the work to dismantle the racial barriers in student theatre. No more lip-service. No more retroactive apology. No more complicity through passivity or ignorance. And for the love of all that is good on this earth, please no more ADCbridges. Noise without nuance is futile, self-immolation is pointless.

If you’re white and this article has made you feel uncomfortable, or even defensive – sit with it, and think about why. And if you are a BAME creator – keep going. I’m sorry that it’s tiring. I’m sorry that it hurts. Don’t give up.

There’s so much more that I didn’t have space to get into. But there’s a start, I suppose.

(With thanks to members of the BAME community that have shared with me their experiences and thoughts.)

Reading:

(2019) Backpages 29.2, Contemporary Theatre Review, 29:2, 215-228, ’Why Would you Want to be in Charge of a Dying Industry? A Conversation about Change. Chris Sonnex: Artistic Director of The Bunker Theatre in London

The Shakespearean Glass Ceiling: The state of Colorblind Casting in Contemporary British Theatre – Jami Rodgers

The Globe ‘Such Stuff’ podcast, Season 6 Episode 4: ‘How Whiteness dominates our Theatres’ (The rest of the season also addresses race, transcripts available online)

Theatre is default middle class, white and male. We must diversify or die.