Only for ‘black’ shows: Black audiences on standby

by Simeilia Hodge-Dallway

in Audience & Community Engagement

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(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

There is something quite disgraceful about the audience engagement process in some of the leading theatres in the UK. I have been approached on more than one occasion by reputable mainstream theatre establishments to increase their audience capacity for ‘specific’ productions. These ‘specific’ productions tend to be classified as ‘Black plays’ which arguably or inarguably calls for a ‘Black audience’.  Suddenly, their predominately ‘white’ audience is not good enough.  This radical act of staging a ‘black play’ written by a contemporary Black playwright, triggers the realisation that their audience does not reflect the writer, characters on stage, and/or the ‘race’ theme depicted in the productions. So, in pops me, a young thirty-something black female who has a longstanding relationship with the Black, Asian and Multi-Ethnic (BAME) community.  As I enter the main artistic office, on the contrary to the diverse faces of the Front of House and bar/kitchen staff, I immediately become the token black person in the room. There is no genuine interest or effort made for formal introductions or light conversations, we all know why I am here and that this is a temporary measure – I am employed for as little time as possible, to create as much temporary change as possible.

Instead I am confronted with either overly politically correct conversations or the crudely put inquisitions “What do you people want?”, “How much would you people pay for a ticket”’, “How can we get you people into the theatre” from the head of marketing.

Ironically, the two most important questions are never asked, which are ‘How can we work together (with BAME theatre companies and audience development consultants) to build a sustainable BAME audience’ and ‘How can we make our audience engagement process more inclusive throughout the year?’  It is assumed that black people will only see black shows. Or perhaps, this is a way to control the number of engagements with the BAME community. Irrespective of the rationale, the fact remains that BAME audiences are treated differently on a show to show basis.

I have a strong passion to support my artistic practitioners and to encourage more people from my community to feel a part of a building that as tax payers, we keep alive. However, this tokenistic gesture of community engagement leaves me feeling completely disgruntled, pondering why such an important aspect of theatre making is unashamedly allowed to continue in this way. I have articulated the necessity to make audience engagement inclusive for every show, to deaf ears.

This dismissive approach is not lost on the audience. One theatre in particular has lost their BAME audience altogether. The local BAME community recognised the theatre’s ‘game play’ and refused to be used in this way.  I have heard numerous times by marketing departments that “it’s too difficult to engage with non-white audiences” concurring with the recently suggested attitudes of white South African actor, Janet Suzman who boldly stated that “Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare… they [black people] don’t bloody come. They’re not interested. It’s not in their culture, that’s why. Just as their stuff is not in white culture”. Let me start by addressing the notion that theatre is a white invention, perhaps one should dig a little deeper than Shakespeare, it like believing that Christopher Columbus discovered America, one should acknowledge the ancient Egyptian Theatre – in particular the Egyptian Mystery Plays or the Griot tradition in Africa. My mind wanders to Ridley Scott’s whitewashed cast in his Exodus film.  I digress. However, this inherently racist attitude is far deeper than the number of BAME audiences; it feeds into the programming and employment of the decision-makers in mainstream theatre buildings. But I ask the question, if I can single-handedly increase the audience by over 100 people from the BAME community in a limited number of days by applying basic marketing and networking techniques. What is the skillset of those who are permanently employed in the marketing departments of mainstream theatres?  Why do they fail so miserably?


Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway is former Manager of the Black Play Archive at the National Theatre of London, Author of monologue books for Black and Asian Actors, Theatre Director, Producer, Audience Development Consultant and Founder & Manager of the Artistic Directors of the Future initiative. Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway’s work has always demonstrated her passion and commitment to increasing diversity and equality in the arts.

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Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • http://www.cuttime.com/ Rick Robinson

    As a black classical musician I understand how you feel Simeilia. However, I think a constructive approach will be to keep in view the two sides of the same coin and the awkward ways we try to communicate to each other. Whites tend to value technical accuracy in language and blacks tend to value emotional exaggeration. (Yes, I am generalizing on purpose.) Whites want diversity, up until they grow afraid of being artistically compromised or overwhelmed by inclusion. Blacks largely don’t know why they’d want anything to do with classical art forms, and so experiencing black creators in the classical arts can be an entry point to the larger genre. The hardest position to hold is the middle, what is truly universal (humanist) in the arts. People largely expect us to choose one side or the other, rather than forming the fabric of the middle. Let us continue to be part of the center of the bridge, by which each side of the gap crosses temporarily to the other side.

  • Karen Layne

    An excellent piece Simelia. I graduated from university in 2002 with BA in Drama and Theatre Studies. I remember having a group discussion about theatre and its accessiblity. Janet Sozman’s comments didn’t shock me because many in that said group had the same belief. I being the only black woman in the group had to educate my white counter parts about black writes and EgyptIan writers before their great seminal Shakespeare. I think once the stereotypes of black people are dissolved theatre will have a resolution for “our people” to attend.