In the first part of this investigation, I discussed tokenization, fetishisation, audition panels and self-editing, among a plethora of other racial issues present in the Cambridge theatre scene. This time, I’m asking: what next?

Unsurprisingly, all of my student theatre interviewees had plenty of suggestions for ways things could go better. Comfortingly, they also had lots of praise for initiatives that already exist.

“Being in Bread spaces makes me feel like I can breathe out”

One such initiative is Bread. Bread exists to push new narratives in Cambridge theatre and film, and has an important role in supporting the creative projects of artists from minoritised groups. It runs socials, provides funding and boosts publicity for works that fight for progress. “It’s good to know that they’re there, making space,” says student actor Irisa Kwok, “being in Bread spaces makes me feel like I can breathe out. Everyone deserves to relax on the theatre scene”. Actor Ebenezer Boakye echoed this sentiment, calling it a “fun, safe space”. He suggested that members of the Bread committee should be permanently installed on the ADC pitching committee as a pro-diversity voice that could be held accountable to a community more easily than ADC representatives.

Bread also offer help and guidance through the pitching process - and anyone who’s ever pitched a play could easily tell you why this is necessary. “Pitching is too opaque,” Ebenezer tells me. He says it needs to be better advertised so that not only intensely involved “theatre kids” know when it’s happening. As he points out, if only the generally disproportionately white ADC regulars know when pitching season is upon us, and how to write a pitch that will stand out in the cutthroat selection process, we’ll get stuck in a feedback loop of majority white, western works of theatre.

“A huge number of people in Cambridge theatre want change”

That being said, interviewees were keen to emphasise the lack of bad blood. “We don’t need blame, we need dialogue,” says Kwok. They feel that white production teams are frightened of making mistakes, and that there isn’t training available to them to combat these worries and to confront the ingrained biases that lurk beneath their undeniably good intentions. “I’ve met so many people who want to combat racism and open the space, and obviously some people feel differently, but a huge number of people in Cambridge theatre want change” says Rishi Sharma, the man of a thousand Camdram credits. The message is clear: we’re here, we have ideas, and we want to talk. And yet, the floor for these discussions is all-too-often limited to Facebook and Varsity, where open-ended, two-sided conversation can be difficult and the human element feels more distant. Forums for discussions like these could represent a great step towards addressing these concerns in a transparent and creative way. I’m sure many would love to see the ADC, or the university’s various dramatic societies, look at stimulating this type of open and constructive conversation.

Rishi suggests building stronger relationships with societies, especially ones based around ethnic minorities, like African Caribbean Society, India Society and Chinese Society, to name just a few. “Perhaps they don’t want it - it should be totally their choice - but they should be given the option to be included in this outreach,” says Rishi. As he points out, BME Shakespeare reached out to a few of these societies to publicise auditions and performances, with a high degree of success. “It could be so transformative for combating racism, for selecting shows, for getting people onstage and backstage and in seats that normally wouldn’t be there,” he says. Reaching out to societies primarily made up of international students should be a particular priority, since, as I discussed last time, international students seem to face more hurdles to get involved, be it accent-based discrimination, not having their past work recognised, or cultural reservations around the stage.

“The biggest problem of all occurs before Michaelmas even begins”

Of course, in a space like Cambridge, the problems begin well before casting ever begins. “The Cambridge theatre world is so tiny, so many steps you have to take to get in - you need to have the right A Levels and school experience, you need to have the spare time, which working people may struggle to find, you need Western cultural capital that you may not have access to,” says Ebenezer. Even more than that, the biggest problem of all occurs before Michaelmas even begins: “you can’t just change Cambridge, you have to change everything, because even to get here there’s so much to be done,” Ebenezer points out. In this highly elite institution, privilege greases the gears significantly, and underprivilege can not only keep you out of the theatre scene but from the university in its entirety. Grim stuff.

This time, though, I don’t want to leave you on such a sombre note. In Varsity’s previous series of articles on race in theatre, the last article was dedicated to ending on a rallying cry, and it seems only right to return to the author of that series, Naomi Obeng, to continue this pattern. “Students can either be ahead of the industry or behind it,” she says, “and they can choose where they fall. Creative people can imagine a better world”. Her biggest piece of advice from her work in the professional theatre scene is to allow people of colour to create, control and define their own spaces: “if you go into a pre-existing system then you can spend the whole time trying to catch up, or you can abandon tradition. Good spaces come from power, not powerlessness.” The question of whether we need to found new spaces entirely outside of the ADC, which is so steeped in history and tradition that it’s practically the definition of a “pre-existing system,” remains up in the air. Currently, some students work within it, like those participating in BME Shakespeare, and those pitching and creating more diverse pieces of theatre in the ADC and Corpus, where others opt to create new, separate spaces that can interact with what already exists or ignore it howsoever they please - like Bread, for example, or the Chinese Society Variety Show.

Most importantly, according to Naomi, people of colour should get to have fun in the theatre scene, just like everyone else. “That’s the point, isn’t it? The theatre is a place to play. You can feel like there’s a lot at stake, but student theatre is a place to fail - as long as you learn and grow. It’s worth a try, even if it doesn’t go how you want it to.” Students should get to shuck their long-held ambassador roles and constant worries about having their existences, presence in casts and crews, and performances, politicised against their wills.

“They should get to have fun. Isn’t that what student theatre is there for?”


Mountain View

A Raisin in the Sun embraces identities cast in shadow

With that, I think she cuts to the heart of the problem and the solution. As we’ve discussed over the last two articles, tension around race relations is everywhere in theatre: thrumming through audition packs and panels, pitch meetings, rehearsals, performances and even reviews. People of colour in the theatre scene must be constantly aware of their position as the Other. Some choose, with great success, to make incredible art out of this othering by confronting it face to face.That’s a viable, interesting and worthwhile option. But artists from ethnic minorities should get to choose whether or not to do that, rather than exhausting themselves constantly worrying about how race impacts every step they take through the practice rooms and auditoriums of this city. They should get to make art about their experiences of race that aren’t about racial tensions, they should get to make art that centres on people of colour that aren’t about race at all, if they so please. They should get fair opportunities free of discrimination and tokenisation. And they should get to have fun. Isn’t that what student theatre is there for? To let us play. To let us relax. To let us breathe out. Here’s hoping for a collective sigh of relief soon. People have been holding their breath for far, far too long.

With thanks to Theo Chen, Irisa Kwok, Ebenezer Boakye, Rishi Sharma, and Qawiiah Bisiriyu along with the rest of the BREAD committee for all the time they put into making these articles happen