Ana Peralta takes a look at the Black Ticket Project, a new initiative that is helping young black people to engage with theatre, and what it could mean for planning trips.
The issue of representation on British stages has long been a topic of discussion, with diversity being touted as the buzzword du jour. Yet very often theatre companies and venues struggle to properly engage audiences of different cultural backgrounds.
In their diversity report for 2016-17, Arts Council England acknowledges that “those most actively involved tend to be from the most privileged groups; engagement is heavily influenced by levels of education, socio-economic background and where people live.”, and that Black, minority ethnic people are consistently under-represented in their audiences.
However, what happens when theatre finally showcases black stories onstage? Do the same audience dynamics still apply?
When the National Theatre presented Barber Shop Chronicles (BSC) written by Inua Ellams, they could not have predicted its immense success. The play itself, an exploration of black masculinity and African diaspora, told solely from barber shops across Africa and London, saw the characters working through their personal struggles as they tended to their hairlines.
After a sold out first run, it returned to the Littleton for a second time, later going on tour in Australia. But it didn’t stop there- Fuel Theatre the team behind BSC announced earlier this year that the critically acclaimed show would go on a tour of North America and Canada in autumn. This play and its success proved that there is a fervent appetite for black stories told by black writers, on both British and international stages. However, when producer Tobi Kyeremateng saw the show for the first time and looked around, she didn’t see the diversity onstage being reflected in the audience.
“I got bored of looking around spaces and thinking, this could have been so different, and then not really knowing what to do with that.”
So instead of letting this observation pass her by, she decided to matters into her own hands: “I sent out a tweet out asking if people knew any young black men who would want to see something like this, and people got back to me. We managed to pay for about thirty tickets.”
Making a change
When Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night, a play about the traditional rituals followed by a Jamaican family after a funeral came around, Tobi and her business partner Damilola Odelola contacted the educational department at the National and launched a crowd funder in order to make the entire idea a more formal affair. But once they had set up their crowdfunder, they realized that had really hit a nerve with the initiative and donations soon overtook the initial £200 target.
“The change was very tangible. [People] knew that, ok I can give my little £10 now and in few months this is what’s going to happen. I think that’s what encouraged people to donate, otherwise it feels like you’re waiting for these subtle changes which won’t happen for a long time. I had no idea it would do so well!”
Well is truly an understatement- Tobi and her team managed to raise over £3,000, giving the opportunity for over 170 young black people to attend the theatre to watch Nine Night. An official website for the initiative was created, with the option for members of the public to become a patron, with monthly donations starting from as small as a fiver a month.
“In the climate that we are in right now, where a lot of black artists are being given the space and the agency, it’s important that young people see that and know that it exists. Whatever comes out of that experience is their prerogative. I just wanted to add another thing to their cultural palette.”
So far the team have taken young people to see three plays, including the revival of Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking at The Bush, with plans to see various productions this autumn, including Debris Stevenson’s Poet in da corner at The Royal Court Theatre. Tobi and her team estimate that this year alone, they will have taken over 1000 young black people to the theatre, with the overall goal of encouraging the participants to envision theatre as part of their everyday cultural experience.
“The ideal should be that these organisations are building relationships with these young people, so they seek out these experiences on their own. What I don’t want is- ‘oh this show isn’t selling well, let’s get this group in’. If that’s how they’ve been considered before they even come into the building, they will feel like an afterthought once they’re there. It’s about curating the entire experience so they feel wanted.”
The Black Ticket Project initiative proves that theatres and venues do have the infrastructure to connect with and encourage minority communities to expand their cultural horizons and invest in attending the theatre. Tobi agrees and sees education as a way to bridge the gap between the types of audiences who attend these shows.
“The kind of work they are exposed to in schools is really important. Schools need to utilise any alumni or organisations who are willing to come in and talk to the young people to make them aware of other roles in the arts like producing, technical etc., because they might not be aware of those things.”
With government cuts threatening to push out more and more arts based subjects for GCSE’s and A-levels, it seems that perhaps communities will rely on organisations such as The Black Ticket Project in order to do the ground work in encouraging young people to invest in the arts. As well as the cultural importance of allowing working class young black youth to exist in predominantly white middle class spaces, the initiative allows for a more recreational approach to the arts, one that comes without the pressures of grades or teacher’s expectations. If theatre’s want to expand their audiences to truly reflect the diversity of art they are showcasing on their stages, they are going to have to take a leaf out of TBTP’s book and take matters into their own hands with a more grassroots and personable approach.
For more information on The Black Ticket Project, please check their newly launched website: http://www.patreon.com/blackticketproject
This article was originally posted in the Teachers’ Guide to Performing Arts Trips 2018-19 issue of Teaching Drama Magazine.