Guest blog: Jo Newman from Salisbury Playhouse reflects on South West Theatre Symposium and promoting diversity and equality

“Fear of doing something ‘wrong’ must be replaced by fear of ‘doing nothing’ ” Jamie Beddard (Co-Director, Diverse City)

Theatre Fest west Symposium 2017 Photo credit: Simon Ward

Theatre Fest west Symposium 2017
Photo credit: Simon Ward

Jamie Beddard’s rousing provocation opened the South West Theatre Symposium at Salisbury Playhouse on 10th February 2017, alongside Paula B Stanic (writer), Cassandra Wye (storyteller) and Hannah Petley (director) who each shared inspirational and insightful words about their experience making work.  Jamie’s was a powerful reminder that in these times of political uncertainty “we must paint the world differently, shine lights in the shadows, understand and empower those on the peripheries, include and highlight the untold stories and ensure we are not playthings for the rich and powerful.   Our responsibility has never been greater if we are to ensure diversity, equality and fairness underpins the world we want to be part of” (Jamie Beddard).

When I was planning this year’s symposium and feeling the urgency of these conversations in the industry, it felt vital to facilitate a space to explore what we are doing in the South West to make sure there is diversity and equality (of all forms) in the arts. I’m aware that it is a HUGE subject matter and in no way wanted to ‘lump together’ the varied and nuanced work of artists who are currently under-represented in the industry, and in all honesty I was really nervous about setting up this event – terrified I would get it wrong. But I just blundered in anyway because I wanted to do something, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity and wisdom of the speakers, session leaders and symposium partners whose advice and input ensured that the day was informative, dynamic and practical. I learnt a huge amount from the process and was bowled over by the energy of the room on the day. Thanks to all the brilliant people who came along, it did really feel like a call to arms to DO SOMETHING.

There was a lot of celebrating the brilliant things people are already doing to drive change – Heather Williams and Nathan Bessel from Myrtle Theatre gave a presentation on their journey making Up Down Boy and Up Down Man, and Nathan reminded us that these explorations and conversations need not be limited to language, performing a beautiful movement piece and at another point in the day standing and raising his fist in the air, promptly joined by everyone else in the room – united, joyful and empowered.

Theatre Fest West Symposium 2017 Photo credit: Simon Ward

Theatre Fest West Symposium 2017
Photo credit: Simon Ward

Anna Coombs spoke about her journey setting up Tangle,  South West England’s African Caribbean Theatre Company as a response to the community in which she grew up, bringing the work of African and Caribbean artists to areas where there is little inter-cultural interface, about how collaboration is key to achieving artistic excellence.

Sarah Blowers from Strike a Light spoke with Sarah O-Donnell and Naomi Draper, who shared their stories about creating GL4 Festival on the Matson Estate, Gloucester. How, after Sarah B impulsively drove to the estate and gate crashed a Residents Meeting at the community centre, Naomi and Sarah O became festival producers, brought theatre to their estate for the first time and championed it for their local community.

Becky Chapman and Jamie Beddard from Diverse City Photo credit: Simon Ward

Becky Chapman and Jamie Beddard from Diverse City
Photo credit: Simon Ward

Jamie Beddard and Becky Chapman ran a session on Losing the Fear and Shame, exploring ways to overcome barriers to change, ran a What If session where we could break out and think big, and guided people to write pledges on postcards which were posted back to them a couple of weeks after the event. We had break-out sessions run by Mark Helyar from Take Art and Dave Orme from Salisbury Playhouse, Wendy Petitdemange from Activate, Richard Conlon from Blue Apple, Phoebe Kemp (Equity Deaf and Disabled Members’ Committee), Ruth Kapadia from ACE (who also ran surgery sessions throughout the day) as well as spontaneous sessions which came about as a result of the day’s conversations.

At the end of the day we gathered together to write a new manifesto for making work in the region. Here it is:


Diversity is integral to excellence

Leave the building/ silo

Have honest conversations

Don’t be scared of failure

Avoid assumptions

Hold each other

Communicate without fear or judgement

Trust ourselves that it will happen

Offer and ask for help

Create a space for us all

Create with integrity

Collaboration and co-operation over competition

Expand time

Bring whole self to each process

The overwhelming message from the day was just to start doing something, no matter how small, that it’s OK TO FAIL – we can learn something from our failures, that collaboration is key to artistic excellence, and that some things take time, so start small and keep going.

I’d like to close with some more of Jamie’s brilliant words, a reminder that equality in the arts is essential to its survival:

“The 2015 Arts Council Polling Report said that 45% of the population favoured a decrease in public arts spending, whilst only 9% wanted an increase. We have to become more relevant, both in perception and reality. The value of the arts needs to be understood more broadly, by people for whom the arts have seldom served.  We have to connect, listen and reflect with more care and ensure that we reach, welcome and engage those previously excluded” (Jamie Beddard)

Jo Newman, Associate Director, Salisbury Playhouse

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