The headline in London Sunday Times was certain to make anyone who advocates for diversity in the arts sit up, take notice and get quite upset. It read, “Lack of diversity not a problem, says RSC boss.”
Since headlines are written by editors and not reporters, it was possible that the statement was deliberately hyperbolic. But the article by David Sanderson began with three paragraphs that seemed to support it entirely.
“The head of the Royal Shakespeare Company has said he is not worried about the lack of diversity in theatre audiences, adding that he did not want the white middle classes sidelined.
“Gregory Doran said that while it was important that theatres reflected society, he wanted to ensure that the traditional audience had equal rights.
“Doran, artistic director at the RSC where he has worked for nearly 30 years, said that black people would feel that they did not belong when they saw that the entire audience was white.”
That’s as far as people who haven’t subscribed to The Times online, or who couldn’t pick up a print edition could read, thanks to the paper’s paywall. But even those first few paragraphs, deeply troubling though they might be, perhaps should have given all readers pause, since they weren’t quotes, but rather paraphrases constructed by Sanderson, sans context. Even reading the entire piece, as photographs of the rest of the article circulated quickly to defeat the paywall, seemed to support the headline and the first paragraphs.
It turns out that Sanderson hadn’t conducted an interview, but rather had been cherrypicking a handful of statements from a talk Doran had given at The Hay Festival, and indeed all came in response to a single question from an audience member. That isn’t acknowledged at all in Sanderson’s piece.
Through the RSC, Doran has issued a statement in response:
The Times headline not only willfully misrepresents my view, but entirely reverses it.
Lack of diversity is a huge challenge and one which we at the RSC have taken to the very heart of our programming. There is much more we need to do to address it, but we are at the forefront of efforts to do so.
I made the point that just as Hamlet holds the mirror up to nature, if we hold that mirror up and large parts of our audience do not see their community reflected on our stages, then we are not doing our job.
I want to see the whole of society represented on our stages and in our audiences and I don’t want anyone to feel excluded, whatever their age, class or ethnicity.
The RSC has championed inclusion for many years and I want our theatres to be as welcoming as possible for everyone.
For those who view at this as after the fact spin, it’s worth looking to the same material from which The Sunday Times drew selectively. The actual exchange with an audience member begins by Doran being asked “the recent black production of Hamlet” and the fact that “most of the audience was white. Does this worry you?”
“Does it worry me?” replies Doran. “No, I don’t think it worries me, but it is a really important thing. Hamlet, in the speech we were just talking about, talks about holding the mirror up to nature. Now if we, a national Shakespeare company, are holding the mirror up, and the audience see their reflection and that audience is entirely white, then a black kid watching that might go, ‘Well obviously I’m not meant to be there.” He then relates a story about a friend who had recently taken the train to Stratford, sharing a carriage with a group of black students who were “buzzing with excitement” to see the Hamlet, “Because somehow their faces were being reflected on that stage.”
“I think it’s really important that we have the whole community, that we reflect that community. That’s not just black actors. Actors of British East Asian origin have very much less visibility than the black actors do. But it’s growing and it’s really important that it does continue to grow.”
After noting the casting of Ayesha Dharker as Titania in Erica Whyman’s recent RSC production of A Midsummer NIght’s Dream, Doran continued:
“I think it’s important that we reflect the communities that we want to enjoy our productions as well. That is not to say those of us who are white and middle class, or whatever our education backgrounds are, don’t have the equal right or shouldn’t feel that we’re somehow being sidelined, because it’s very important to make sure that the whole balance of the community is addressed.”
The moderator, unidentified in the video or on the BBC iPlayer site, wraps up Doran’s comments by saying that, “Cultural ownership belongs to everyone.”
Was Doran’s statement in support of diversity on stage and in his audience as definitive as some might like? No. He might have said that he was in fact worried about diversity, rather than parsing words. Should he have invoked the term “equal right” when speaking about sustaining his traditional core audience as he advances diversity? Those important words do not speak clearly to a wholly inclusive audience, but suggest that the existing audience has some ownership that they might be losing in the push towards diversity, playing to those who want to advance a racial divide. Could he have cited more examples of diversity on stage than the Hamlet production or the casting of Dharker? That would have been helpful, especially in light of his own 2012 production of The Orphan of Zhao, which saw an almost entirely white company performing an Asian story.
But the entire exchange on diversity took less than three minutes, because the event was only an hour long; the question came 56 minutes in, and on balance, it was supportive of diversity at The RSC. There’s no question that if Doran is committed to diversity, he needs to be better at expressing that commitment unequivocally every time it comes up, planned or by chance, in addition to demonstrating it at every turn with the choices he makes for the company, both in developing the audience and through the artists he chooses to create the company’s work.
In this case, it seems clear that David Sanderson and The Sunday Times were out to make trouble for Doran and The RSC. While they might have raised a stir, they spun it out from the thinnest of material and their insinuations and misrepresentations shouldn’t be allowed to stand as the final word on the subject.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College for Performing Arts and interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.