Actors offer action plan over drama school racism

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Media captionShaniqua Okwok: “I really felt this weight on my shoulders”

A group of young BAME actors who have spoken out about racial discrimination they endured at a leading drama school have proposed their own action plan.

The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London has admitted it has been complicit in systemic racism.

Now, 240 former students have signed a blueprint letter which they hope could be a model for other drama schools.

They say “racism is real at Central and it scars the lives of its students [and] staff” as well as many alumni.

The group formed after being dismayed when the institution posted a message supporting Black Lives Matter last week.

‘Consistent and regular’ racism

Their letter says: “Words and actions of open and overt racism – primarily by staff towards students – have taken place on a consistent and regular basis without respite or consequence.”

Big names from theatre and TV, including Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and writer Russell T Davies have added their names to it.

Former students of other drama schools, including Rada, the Oxford School of Drama, Alra and Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, have also spoken out in recent days after similar messages.

Central’s acting principals have said they “personally commit to bringing about lasting and wide-ranging change”.

Slave comments

One former student has spoken about how she was told to accept she would play a slave in her career because she had “inherited this trauma”, and was silenced when she complained.

Others have said the school failed to take action about racism by directors and other students; that teachers regularly called black students by the wrong names; that they were stereotyped in the roles and comments they were given; and that there was a lack of diversity among staff and in the plays they studied.

Anna Crichlow, who graduated in 2016, said she didn’t work on a play by a black playwright until her second year, and none at all by a black British playwright over three years.

“I was told by a teacher that I would never work classically,” she told BBC News. “When I graduated, my first job was in a production of Pride & Prejudice. So it’s just simply not true.”

She added: “People are not getting the breadth of training that prepares them for this really quite diverse industry now. They’re not getting training that’s inclusive to them and their experiences.

“Everyone wants to help the school move on because there is great teaching going on, but it’s being detracted from because of this systemic issue and this racism which is running through the school’s centre.”

‘Very stupid’

Another black former student said Central is not racist, “just very stupid”.

The action plan calls for: A system to report racism and prejudice, and to investigate all complaints; more staff training; to restructure the curriculum; a more diverse workforce; and more people of colour on the board.

“We hope this is taken with the intention in which it’s being given,” said Chi-San Howard, who studied movement directing and teaching until 2016.

“We are never going to not read Shakespeare. We are never going to not enjoy the work of Pinter. They are brilliant. It’s just that there are other brilliant people as well who deserve to be heard and deserve to be seen.”

‘Positive step’

Crichlow added that the past week had revealed that people in other drama schools had been through similar experiences.

“These places are historical and we’re very lucky to have them here, but it does mean they’ve been operating in a similar way for a very long time,” she said.

“I certainly think the blueprint letter that we’ve been working on could be applied to lots of different schools and institutions. All of our hopes are for it to be a really positive step for everyone.”

The school’s principal Prof Gavin Henderson, who was due to retire at the end of term, has brought forward his retirement by three weeks to deal with a “personal, family matter”.

His acting replacements, Debbie Scully and Prof Ross Brown, said: “We have no way to fully understand the pain that many people will have gone through over the last week, and in the past.

“We are committed to forging a transparent course of action, and we will be reaching out to many of the people who have posted online, as well as meeting with current staff and students.

“We will learn from shared experiences and act upon them to effect transformational change.”

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