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Inclusivity in the performance arts

Inclusivity in the performance arts

By Professor Maria Delgado, Director of Research; David Harradine, Professor of Interdisciplinary Practice; and Ben Burrata, Lecturer in Applied Theatre at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London

A number of pioneering projects at the University of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD) are championing inclusivity and accessibility within the performance arts industry.

Supporting dyslexic researchers

One key element has been to create a sustainable ecosystem for all researchers with equality and inclusion at its core through Research England’s quality-related (QR) funding.

Nearly one in four (22.85%) of all teaching and research pathway staff at the CSSD have a declared neurodiverse disability - predominantly dyslexia or dyspraxia. Supporting research excellence necessitates the cultivation of a sustainable research environment which recognises diverse ways of processing and generating knowledge.

In considering what ‘reasonable adjustment’ might mean, we have not sought to provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ system of support for researchers but rather worked with them in securing a diagnosis and then identifying what structures might allow them to achieve their full potential as researchers. This has involved specialist one-to-one writing support from a specialist dyslexic tutor, enhanced support on grant applications from a research funding consultant with expertise in working with dyslexic staff, funds for copy-editing and research assistance, and boosted research mentoring from experienced researchers with a track record of work with equality and inclusion agendas in areas of health, housing, environment, marginalised histories, and trans and queer communities.

So, what difference has this made?

Staff feedback acknowledges that the support has been ‘revolutionary’. In total, 87.5% of staff with a neurodiverse disability have secured contracts for a first monograph, with one telling us that ‘being able to plan a set of writing tasks has really helped me to conceive of a way of writing a monograph [an indepth, subject-specific text] in its entirety’. In addition, staff have won awards for their research including the British Academy Rising Star Award, The Times Higher Education award finalist for Excellence and Innovation in the Arts, and for their research-led teaching.

Staff also reported enhanced wellbeing and self-assurance. ‘It has helped to ease my stress levels and enabled me to be more confident about the final quality of my work,’ one member of staff said. There has also been a commitment to taking on leadership roles in the discipline - as editors, working group convenors and other leadership roles in disciplinary research associations, principal investigators on funded projects, and conference organisers.

Inclusive storytelling

Outbox Theatre company, founded in 2010 by Lecturer in Applied Theatre Ben Buratta, brings LGBTQ+ people together to create innovative performance and participation projects. Funded by the University of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama through Research England funding as well as the National Lottery Community Fund, the project has at its heart inclusive intersectional practice. 

One of its flagship productions is And The Rest of Me Floats, which was first staged in London and then at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2017. Subsequently programmed by Bush Theatre as part of their 2019 season, and supported by Arts Council England, the show explores gender identity and expression and is accompanied by a series of UK-wide workshops, based on the devising methods of the play, for LGBTQ+ people aged 14–25.

The research project was driven by the lack of positive representation of trans and gender non-conforming people in theatre, TV and film, and the media. Consultation and collaboration with LGBTQ+ organisations have indicated that the trans community experience the most significant need yet they have the least access to support. Stonewall (Trans Report, 2017) states nearly half (48%) of trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide. Providing high-quality creative engagement for these young people, who are often marginalised and excluded, enables the participants to develop their performance skills and artistic voices, and project feedback reports an increase in their confidence and self-esteem.

Its programming at the Bush Theatre, which is an internationally renowned venue, enabled And The Rest of Me Floats to provide a significant platform for trans artists. Outbox have subsequently been consulted by the National Theatre and Spotlight UK around trans casting policies and inclusive practice. Noticing that 6 of the 7 performers in And The Rest of Me Floats were urepresented, Outbox producer Char Boden formed a talent agency, The Queer House. The Queer House now represent over 30 queer and trans performers who have been employed by BBC, HBO, National Theatre, and West End.

To date, 3,939 members of the public have seen the performance, and a total of 142 LGBTQ+ participants have taken part in 12 workshops and one three-day summer school that explored the themes of the play at venues including Southbank Centre, Royal Court (London), Leeds Playhouse, Birmingham Rep and Bristol Old Vic as well LGBTQ+ youth groups across the UK. The production has been professionally filmed by the Victoria and Albert Museum and will be held in their video archives for research and educational purposes. The play text has also been published by Oberon.

Taking a people-centred approach

Fevered Sleep is an ‘associate artist’ at CSSD, building a strong bridge between Central and the professional arts sector.  Fevered Sleep is an Arts Council England ‘National Portfolio Organisation’ and is currently in receipt of multi-year grants from Wellcome and from Paul Hamlyn Foundation. 

These grants support the company’s experimental, people-centred work in audience development, touring, participation, engagement and inclusion.  

Since 2011, with the support of Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Fevered Sleep has been developing new models for making and touring socially engaged performance work in the UK.  These new approaches put people and participants at the heart of the company’s work, and have been shared widely with others in the sector, influencing the practice of theatres, arts centres, arts producing companies and artists. 

With the support of Wellcome since 2016, the company has been creating innovative models for public engagement with science and health related research, leading to projects exploring subjects as diverse as intergenerational trust, inter-species communication, the importance of empathic touch for elders in dementia care settings, and grief.  Widely recognised for the people-centred approach it takes, Fevered Sleep puts diversity, equality and inclusion at the heart of everything it does. 

Whilst drawing on and celebrating professional research undertaken in universities and medical settings, the company also advocates for the idea that art is a key context for research, and that everyone – whether they are professional researchers or not – should be involved in creating and sharing new knowledges in all sorts of creative, experimental and collaborative ways. 

Through this approach, Fevered Sleep puts people from all backgrounds and all walks of life at the heart of the work it does.  The impact of this approach is recognised in the arts sector, through public and private funding, and in academic settings.  It has also influenced policy, for example through Fevered Sleep’s membership of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bereavement Support

To request copies of this article in large print or in a different format, please contact the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team at UKRI, tel: 01793 444000, email: equality@ukri.org.