ILT Festival 2021 – Symposium

Acknowledging intersectionality in performing arts

ILT Festival 2021 – Symposium “Let’s talk about diversity: Moving beyond representation and into the difficult structures of change”, 27 & 28 May 2021

By: Josephine Egebæk Hansen

In collaboration with the research group Paradigms of Dramaturgy: Arts, Institutions and the Social at Aarhus University, the 2021 ILT Festival hosted the seminar Let’s talk about diversity at Teater Svalegangen. Over two days, a group of local, Danish and international theatre professionals shared and reflected on different topics concerning artist and audience development, institutional dramaturgies and cultural leadership, theatre devising and creative processes. At the heart of the debate, which was co-hosted and co-organised by ILT’s festival director Malene Cathrine Pedersen and the dramaturg and PhD candidate Lise Sofie Houe, were reflections on intersectional social categories such as age, race, gender, and sexuality. The dramaturg and PhD candidate Tanja Diers moderated the presentations and discussions. In her welcome, she invited the participants to fail and make mistakes, and to feel anxiety and discomfort, emphasising how these emotions are important to notice and learn from.

APPLAUS: Audience Development Strategies in Denmark

In the first presentation, Lene Struck-Madsen, project manager at the Danish audience development organization APPLAUS, noted that among the Danish theatre leaders her organization had interviewed most affirmed the importance of diversity for their institutional agenda. However, many did not have a clear strategy on how to achieve their aims to ‘diversify’ their institution. 62% of the interviewed sought to strengthen their audience development strategies in order to reach new and underrepresented groups. Yet 73% reported back that, during the theatre season 2019/20, they did not succeed in that. Struck-Madsen went on to emphasize the need for long-term and sustainable engagement with potential future audiences; audience development does not happen overnight, but takes time, practice and sustained effort. Furthermore, 65% of the interviewed theatre leaders admitted not to have any audience development strategy; theatre, Struck-Madsen emphasised, is not a must for everyone, and it, therefore, needs to communicate why it is important. So for her, no matter the location or size of a theatre, it is a must to have a clear audience development strategy in order to define whom a theatre wants to speak to. If you are speaking to everyone, you are only speaking to yourself, she argued. One needs to understand whom one is speaking with, and therefore it will not work either to simply copy existing strategies from elsewhere. What may work with Svendborg audiences would not automatically work in Aarhus. According to Struck-Madsen, theatres need to prioritize audience development regardless of their size, budget, and location, if they aim to diversify audiences and take the serious social responsibility they have. Such a strategy should then distinguish between the aims for widening, deepening, or diversifying a theatre’s relation with its audience. But for what and in what way? There is no specific task of theatres phrased by the government upon social responsibility in performing arts (Kulturministeriet, 2020). So this responsibility is a motivation the individual theatre institutions must become curious about by themselves.

Struck-Madsen also outlined research insight into the theatre-goers perspective. 18% of those who answered an APPLAUS questionnaire responded that they would participate more in their local theatre if they related more to the presented stories and themes dealt with on stage. Struck-Madsen highlighted again the need for theatre leaders to understand and communicate who their potential audience is and what they are looking for in going to the theatre, rather than attempting to be a “theatre for everyone”. Much impact can be achieved by targeted initiatives, for example by contacting people engaged in political fights for equality and diversity through Instagram or other social media. Genuine curiosity and an interest in the audience for her are the key pathways to successful audience development.

Z-Arts, Manchester: Being a Developing Organization

The second presentation was held by Liz O’Neill, the chief executive and artistic director of Z-Arts in Manchester. She considers Z-Arts less as a conventional theatre but as a developing organization, as their work focuses on artist development and theatre productions aimed at children, young people and families. They aim at inspiring young people to use their creativity to maximise their potential. For O’Neill, the focus is therefore on strengthening existing skills and enhancing a belief in oneself, whereas the usual distinctions between youth and elderly people, race, gender, sexuality, or class do not play such a prominent role. This shift in perspective added to the debate the suggestion that in order to achieve greater diversity in audiences, one may not need to thematise diversity in the first place, but, as Z-Arts, focus on making theatre accessible, for example, for entire families. Another core value at Z-Arts is to develop talents and focus on creating theatre for and with people with differing abilities, as O’Neill discussed with her example for the play Aleiah’s Adventures. The stories about the city, told by Black women, are told through sign language, but rather than being only or specifically for deaf people, the production uses sign language as its artistic strategy. Sune T. Sørensen, the manager in the pedagogical department at Teater Filuren, and Astrid Guldhammer, director of the Børnekulturhuset in Aarhus, responded to O’Neill’s presentation, picking up on some of the differences between English and Danish youth theatre contexts. They perceived a wider distance, in Denmark, between various communities and also between school districts, so that Sørensen struggled with establishing connections of his theatre, for example, to the large Muslim communities in western Aarhus. O’Neill recommended workshops with the families that should take place in these communities as a means to establish contact – but she stressed that it would take years and a long-term commitment to establishing trust and relationships. Importantly, one should not think about such work as charity or social work, but take these communities serious as active and equal contributors. A short debate between the Aarhus and Manchester theatre-makers about colourblind casting, and apprehensions to invite parents to their children’s performances showed their notable differences in thinking and working in youth theatre in the two countries.

Zinnema, Brussels: Decolonisation in Belgian Theater

Next followed the presentation of Audrey Leboutte, artistic coordinator at Zinnema in Brussels, and founding member of the artist collective Mangoo Pickle. Their work questions power dynamics between spaces framed as ‘artistic’ and those framed as ‘public’, considerations that are also key for Leboutte’s work at Zinnema, the former “Flemish Centre for Amateur Arts” transformed into an “open talent house” with the new name in 2007. A key issue of Zinnema’s work is to challenge related perceptions of  ”amateur” and a ”professional” artists. The theatre, for example, dedicated efforts to supporting Hip Hop artists, who a few years ago were not recognised seen as “real” artists worthy of subsidies and professional development, just like other predominantly non-White and Western art practices that are present in a diverse global city such as Brussels. Leboutte focused on how we have to deconstruct to reconstruct our institutions, giving her own example, as she joined the then all-White institution of Zinnema initially, along with other local artists of colour, as an advisor for the theatre’s 2016/17 season. Under the title I Have a Dream, it invited projects dealing with black history, complex identities, and dealing with white supremacy. She outlined how Zinnema understands decolonisation as an everyday practice, not a mere artistic project, thereby achieving to transform the formerly exclusively white theatre into a place where many from the diverse neighbourhood now feel at home. For her, an important factor is to openly acknowledge blind spots and to actively find out what one does not know, while not being afraid of confrontations that can become a tool to develop new ways of thinking. The discussion stimulated by the response from Naja Lee Jensen from HAUT in Copenhagen brought to the foreground the often small steps that propel organisational development towards greater diversity: Leboutte told about the awkward situation of having attached new gender signs to the theatre’s toilet doors after a major renovation in 2018, just as queer artists were working in the building for a festival dedicated to gender diversity. Questions about giving up one’s own power and sharing it with other voices stood out as central issues after the first conference day.

Manchester International Festival: Political Change in Cultural Institutions

On day 2, Julia Turpin expanded the discussion of the diversification of cultural institutions as a slow and holistic process, introducing her work as engagement director at Manchester International Festival (MIF) that was launched in Manchester in 2007. Similar to other international festivals showing the work of high profile artists, they work closely with venues, festivals and other cultural organizations around the world, also driven by commercial considerations as the festival needs to be financially viable. Yet, over the years she observed a slow change that gradually aligned ambitions of equality and diversity with good business modelling and the acknowledgement that an organization is stronger with diversity in mind. She shared her own struggles to navigate between funders, press and politically active youths volunteering in her organizations, who ask her to position herself politically as the institution’s spokesperson. She discussed, as an example, MIF’s cooperation with My Festival, a diverse network of creative people who take part in public projects that connect the Festival to their communities and join the programmes of training activities, workshops and other events. Micha Schaarup, the producer of Aarhus Festuge, in his response to Turpin, expanded on the concern for many white theatre professionals to engage with topics of diversity for the fear of saying and doing the wrong thing.

Contact Theater, Manchester: Young People in Arts Organizations

This was followed by a conversation between performer, arts facilitator and filmmaker Josh Wilkinson and Suzie Henderson, head of creative development at Contact Theatre, also based in Manchester. The theatre’s focus is particularly on young people and how to include them in arts organisation and management. Many of their projects start by asking young people about their ideas on how to improve their communities, rather than foregrounding the making of art in the first place. Thereby, young people experience agency in their everyday life, not just in an art context. Wilkinson, now a board member and trustee at Contact, joined a Contact project in his own youth and told how he was able to develop his own artistic practice and his self-understanding as an artist as he grew up with and at the Contact. Once more, the importance of sustained efforts and long-term relationship-building between arts organizations and individuals became clear. Wilkinson and Hendersen also discussed how they seek to enact antiracist practices, being aware of their privilege as White people who are not constantly being confronted with their ethnicity. The recommendations were again to give up and share power, and not to be led by a sense of ownership, but instead of understanding the position as artistic manager as one of a caretaker and facilitator. This is then rewarded by seeing how one is able to give young people from less privileged situations confidence through their work in an artistic context.

Schauspiel Dortmund: Theatre For the City

Next, artistic director Julia Wissert, the first Afro-German Intendant of a German city theatre, and dramaturg Christopher-Fares Köhler from Theater Dortmund reflected on their work with intersectionality within their theatre. They understand their theatre to be one for the city, an approach that leads their dramaturgy, creative processes and internal organization, starting from an intention to try and introduce new and different practices within the traditional city theatre institution. Auditioning her new ensemble, Wissert was not only interested in their artistic skills, but also in their motivation and visions to come to Dortmund, and on how to change practices in German theatre in the 21st century. Dortmund, a postindustrial city formerly defined by coal mining and by a long history of labour migration, is today a polyphonic and diverse city, which Wissert wants to reflect in her theatre. Köhler emphasised that rather than emphasise diversity, they prefer to take an intersectional perspective, one that is not constantly reducing debates to ethnic backgrounds and cultural heritage – an approach with they exemplified discussing some of their recent productions, such as the performative city walk 2170. Connecting the perspectives to include not least the dimensions of class and ability, their theatre strives to become a platform for a plural society. Combining Wissert’s intention to question the hierarchy afforded to her own position as artistic director, for example in decisions on programming and the repertoire, with the imperative to engage with the city, she installed the position of city dramaturgs. Along with other initiatives, such as salon talks as a platform for debate with, and not just about people, Theater Dortmund thereby tries to ask itself and identify who is not there, and why. In order to create the plurality and polyphony they aim for, Schauspiel Dortmund’s work intends to avoid speaking about those who are absent but to integrate their knowledge and practice to extend the work of the city theatre institution.

Teater Grob: Postmigrant Dramaturgy in Danish Theatre

The two days concluded with a conversation between Diers and theatre director Sargun Oshana, the new artistic director of Theater Grob in Copenhagen’s culturally diverse neighbourhood of Nørrebro. Oshana shared his vision for the theatre, to focus on who is telling the story and how it is told. For him, it is also important to talk about the past before discussing the future, and he started with his personal past. He had come to Denmark aged 8 with his family from Iraq and then trained as an actor. Yet, he repeatedly found himself in audition situations where was either considered as too ‘white’ to play a stereotypical refugee or foreign criminal or as too ‘dark’ to play a main character who was considered a ‘white’ role by the theatre-makers. This resulted in his confidence as an actor vanishing. In a self-determined countermove, he decided to study directing and change such casting situations and the systemic violence of white institutional power through his own work, even though this meant starting from scratch and eventually creating his own space. Oshana focuses on undoing social borders and representing diversity in a broad sense, as his performances deal with ethnicity, sexuality, gender and class. For example, Teater Grob is the only theatre in Denmark to have a drag queen in its ensemble. Oshana particularly engages with the situation of a postmigrant society that struggles to acknowledge the presence of migrant generations as part of the society, beyond the old imperative to ‘integrate’ migrants so they blend in seamlessly, having to give up their own cultural roots entirely in order to be accepted. With his work, he also seeks to explore how one can free oneself from stigmatizing categories, and also how theatre can foster collectivity and shared action.

Let’s Talk About the Future

Throughout the whole seminar, there was a sincere curiosity in the room where participants shared experiences, and there was an interest in learning instead of teaching, which made it possible to talk about diversity, and also about mistakes and how to learn from them. Listening to the debate, I was struck by the feeling of discomfort when talking about diversity in a Danish context. I experienced it as a privilege to learn about other perspectives and life experiences. Yet, from a position where one is safe, heard and represented in society, it can be easy to be satisfied with the status quo. One of the many things I took from the seminar was an increased awareness of my own privileged position in such debates. I was reminded, as Layla Saad phrased it in her book Me and White Supremacy (2020), that people of colour who share their insights into practices of antiracism and diversity are too readily reduced to be perceived as mere ‘tools’. So it is important to be critical, and honest, about one’s own reason, as a theatre institution, why we seek diversity, what we mean by ‘diversity’, and not least who is that ‘we’ that was at times also evoked in the discussions. It can happen quickly to tokenize ‘diversity’ to improve one’s public image and one’s conscience, without really engaging with the plurality of contemporary society, let alone with structural change in the institutional power dynamics. Moreover, sharing some of one’s power and making other voices heard might merely be perceived as a charitable act, thereby further reiterating the power imbalances in society, and in access to culture, leading to an imbalanced meeting ground when doing diverse theatre work. The seminar offered in its introduction to different approaches and facets of the question of theatre and diversity, an enriching insight. Both genuine curiosity but also an active reflection of differing access and opportunities, and the privileged position of performing arts institutions themselves, stood out as common recommendations in the conversations of these two days so that diversity is not only shown on stage but also becomes an aspect of the organization and institutional work of theatre-making. As a member of the audience mentioned in the debate, diversity is not something you have to create because it does already exist in society. The task is to build it into our organizations and institutions as well, understanding, as Leboutte had pointed out, diversity not as a project but a practice, and therefore also a commitment.

         Thanks to all the facilitators and participants at the seminar for creating a platform where we were able to discuss this important matter and challenge each other’s ways of thinking.