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Theatre and Feudalism

Everyone is looking for ways to create structural change in the Theatre industry at the moment, structural changes that protect the industry from conscious and unconscious racism. In the hiring of freelance directors there is an obvious candidate for change.


Sport has been a relatively successfully vehicle for social integration over time.  Obviously there is still a huge amount of racism in sport, but for ignorant 90s white kids like me Rio Ferdinand was the first black hero in my eye line. This is in part because  the standard is high and football clubs need to win. Manchester City’s priority is on winning the league. There's a simple measure of success. A racist manager who only picks white players and doesn’t hire Raheem Sterling will end up losing matches. The system is an aggressive meritocracy. 


Theatre Directors are not as diverse a group as football players. Until just a few years ago they were predominantly white and male, and still remain so at the top levels. But then that's not surprising perhaps, because the process for choosing who gets to direct which play is not an aggressively meritocratic system. It's feudal. 


The King’s Court 


In a feudal system your permission is dictated by your social proximity to the King. A court is made up of people who the king likes. You carry court favour for a time and then just as quickly you might lose it. In turn you replicate this system to your subordinates, and them to theirs.

This is roughly how getting a job as a theatre director operates. At an a-typical coffee meeting the king has the power to accept you, reject you or give you no answer at all. You, as the applicant, don't really know why you're there - it might be a programming meeting or it might just be coffee. So you attempt to say things which will please the king but you don’t really know what they’re looking for. It’s like suggesting a wife for Henry VIII.

How did you get that coffee meeting? More often than not because a friend of yours with the ear of the king whispered a word in your favour. This connection might have come through school, university, your parents, your partner, your friends etc. In this way one-off directing jobs are not advertised. Instead they are bestowed, much like the duchy of Berwickshire or the third daughter of Count Rostov...

This socio-professional structure is like a seed-bed specifically designed to encourage unconscious bias. There is no oversight, no third party observation, no interview panel. There's no HR department involved, no board members asking AD's to prove their logic on a hire. Everything is conducted informally as a friendly 'chat'. Isn't it therefore obvious how races, genders and classes perpetuate their own? It's also not hard to see how sex and suggestion find their way into the process. 


If Manchester City did this they’d get footballers who are brilliant at flattering managers and shite at football.


The Football System

Let's imagine theatre worked like football. First of all in sport there is a scout at every game, watching for new talent, which is not true in Theatre. We don't have the money, the people and a cynic might say, the will, to improve coverage.


So if coverage cannot be radically improved what if, right at the very top levels, every programming slot at the National Theatre was a competition, subject to anonymous entry? A competition with parameters, and perhaps qualifications for entry, but a competition nonetheless? What if established figures with connections had to submit their proposals anonymously along with the rest of us, like any other job? What if every programming slot was a real and fair competition? 


In this structure there would be less opportunity for unconscious bias and prejudice. There would be no reason for young directors to feel beholden to older directors.  There would be no virtue to being somebody’s partner. There would be no virtue to being somebody’s child. There would be less disadvantage in being disabled or less mobile…you would be judged on the strength of your idea and your CV. Nothing else.


Not perfect, but better.

I am not saying that meritocracy would solve racism. I'm also not saying that lack of competition is the problem. Quite obviously racism is the problem. This is just a suggestion of a structure that could protect us from some of our worst instincts and unconscious prejudices.


Also I'm aware that competitions in their current form favour an academic approach to directing, based in written proposals and so on, which in turn favours middle class candidates with expensive educations. This is a problem I don't have answers to, and which likely needs to be solved via innovation in application methods. However even a flawed academic approach is better than one which favours personal connections over quality.


As it should, the final decision still resides with the Artistic Director. You can't judge directors like you can an NFL player, by hand width and their sprint time over 40m (though this would be fun to try). The final call is all about the AD's taste and is still influenced by all the good and bad things about that person - their prejudices and their virtues, their taste and their conceits. Just as the final selection of the Manchester City team is the decision of Pep Guardiola. It may be that Artistic Directors want to choose from a pool of people with specific experience, people who have directed in the space before. That’s fine. A competition structure is still flexible - a particular programming slot might welcome submissions only from women, or only from BAME candidates, another might only welcome production ideas on a particular play.


Whatever the caveats and limitations it would be inspiring to know that the door was open, at least in principal.

Like Every Other Job


The defence is that it is difficult to judge the best director. You can't just pick them based on goals scored. However this is completely undercut by the fact that competition structures are often used to discover emerging talent through organisations like the RTST, JMK or Genesis. Competition structures are also used for Assistant Director Residencies at the Royal Court, Almeida and Donmar where directors apply (like every other normal job). These structures have discovered talent like Nancy Medina, Caitriona Shoobridge, Matthew Xia, Bijan Sheibani, Roy Weise and many more.


So why don't Artistic Directors feel the same compulsion when programming the regular season? Imagine if the stratification of directors was based on merit, not contacts? Wouldn’t theatre be fairer to people from different backgrounds? Wouldn’t the plays and productions themselves be better? Wouldn’t the directing pool be more diverse?


It wouldn’t be perfect. But wouldn’t it be better?

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