Britain’s leading theatre companies must appoint more people of colour and from working-class backgrounds at senior levels to drive real and lasting change in the sector, a British Asian artistic director has said.
Pravesh Kumar, the founder of Rifco Theatre Company, which stages productions aimed at British Asian audiences, said: “The leadership is what we really need to look at: it’s the big jobs where we need to have more diverse voices, more representative voices.
“The boards need to change and the senior executive roles need to change. Then you’ll start seeing creative change.”
Kumar, who was awarded an OBE in the new year honours, said: “Change is starting to happen, but it’s not going fast enough. The pandemic will make it more difficult because [organisations] will be even more risk averse and sadly people of colour are often seen as risky.
“We haven’t reached anywhere near equality yet. Theatre remains a mostly white and middle-class-led industry where voices like mine are still rare.”
Many theatres did not attract audiences from minority ethnic groups or working-class backgrounds because most plays and productions did not reflect their experiences and interests, he said. “Even when there are people of colour on stage, it is not authentic. It’s not how we see ourselves.”
Kumar, who grew up on a council estate in Slough, trained and worked as an actor but never felt acting was his calling. After a spell as a British Airways check-in agent in the late 1990s, he and some friends staged a show called Airport 2000: Asians in Transit, at the Riverside Studios in west London.
He said: “It was a series of sketches, and I was writing, acting, producing and carrying the set. Everything went on my credit card. We had no marketing budget, it was all word of mouth. We had three shows, and they were all full. We were just flabbergasted that we’d hit upon this audience that not only came [to the theatre] but looked like us. And that was the accidental birth of Rifco.”
The touring company focuses on accessible new plays and musicals that reflect and celebrate British Asian experiences. About 30,000 people saw Britain’s Got Bhangra, a musical about racism in the UK music industry, and more than 50,000 saw The Deranged Marriage, a play about honour and arranged marriages set in a “chaotic, ridiculous, over-the-top British Asian wedding – which they all are, by the way”.
Kumar said: “What we make is authentic and entertaining, which is often a dirty word in theatre now. We are talking about issues within our community – honour, LGBTQ issues, arranged marriages – but we’re doing it in our own voice, through our own lens. It feels like you can have a good night out, but we can also talk about all those issues that are important.”
He said the Black Lives Matter movement had given “real impetus to [the arts community] to sort things out, but my fear is how long will this momentum last.” Venues that he approached for his productions “often want to book me into the ‘diverse slot’, and I’m saying we’re a British theatre company and I know there’s a huge audience because we’ve proved it every year. And it’s not just people of colour, it’s everybody.”
Kumar said he was still reeling from being awarded an OBE. “My mother has not got off the phone. When I left British Airways to commit myself to the arts, it was: ‘How dare you give up a good job?’ For a lot of British south Asian families that’s still the case. Hopefully, people like me getting awards, being recognised, will change that.”