Equality, Diversity, Artistry?

By Donald C Stewart

The last season of Silent Witness was again heralded by the appearance of Liz Carr in a central role. Such a mainstream win for a disabled actor and activist was seen as evidence that the tide was turning; we were becoming more inclusive.

She decided to pursue other challenges at the end of that series and many of us able bodied people may have thought, what else could she do… Prejudice is a tough act to let go.

She is not the only example of diversity in the arts.

For years on the Archers on Radio 4 there has been an actor who is both blind AND Scottish. It may seem like an easy win for the disabled community that an actor who is visually impaired gets a radio role but it is one which does not depend upon his inability to see but his ability to act – that’s the point.

Increasingly, the issue of diversity is one with which we have tried to find a way of ensuring that our art reflects the society in which we live. That, however, is only half the point.

Art has the ability – and I use the term advisedly – to influence and set trends. We have a tremendous opportunity as artists to show the world not just a mirror up to it and reflect itself upon itself but also to show how we ought, we should, we do benefit from being more inclusive.

Through such inclusivity we thrive. We develop not just into a better society but also into a society that can build better foundations and results for itself – at least that is the evidence.

In Scotland we pride ourselves in such inclusion as we point to the way in which document after research report after investigation into how our institutions promote the inclusive nature of progress – wha’s like us indeed!

We were the first in the UK to produce an acting degree which is designed for actors who are d/Deaf. We have Lung Ha, an award-winning disabled actors led project that performs a couple of times a year and do so not just charmingly but, more importantly, with great artistic merit.

We have Sounds of Progress where the Artistic Director, Robert Softley Gale is himself a disabled actor, writer and director who has made his own way using his abilities in the artistic world, rather than relying on the sympathy that comes to someone with cerebral palsy.

We also have Solar Bear, the ones who drove and maintain the professional contact between the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s d/Deaf acting degree and the profession to which it was supposed to serve.

Of that degree, in June 2018, the first 10 acting cohort graduated and become professionals for whom Equity dues were ready and the professional world was primed.

In Scotland however their thrusting into the world was followed by tartan silence…

The success of each of them has been palpable – admirable even.

The vast majority of them are working; and working in the arts. Given that 20% of them come from my hometown of Ayr and that is a note of which we are especially proud. Given that one of them is my very own son, that is indeed our symphony.

With roles in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Wales we are exporting this group of high achievers. Unfortunately, and not for the first time, home grown audiences shall be denied the pleasure.

That is almost criminal.

We have invested in the degree, the training, the leaflet and the publicity. The hoo hah and the hurrah when it won awards reverberated around the globe; and we aint talking Shakespeare’s former home.

We are now looking to cohort 2 going into their final year, at the tail end of a pandemic that has seen them lose a huge proportion of their second year. I hope they are able to get into the Conservatoire and get training again by their third year.

But will they come out to a world that is different to the one faced by the first cohort? The only good news that we have seen recently with regards to Scottish theatre finally taking on their artistry has been first cohort graduate Bea Webster writing a National Theatre of Scotland Scene for Survival.

It is undeniably a difficult time. We hear talk of coming out of this pandemic and building something new, of refusing to go back to the way that things were and being radical in our thinking.

The arts have one of the biggest challenges.

Can we finally now build a world with diversity at its heart? Do we finally have the blank canvass upon which to write large that we are all different and diversity is the generous key? As Liz Carr has shown, there are opportunities out there and nobody should fear the risk – do we have the foresight to reward it though?