Lloyd Webber: Theatreland must ‘stop wringing its hands and pay for drama diversity’

Impresario appeals for cash to support the training of young actors from the poorest backgrounds

Andrew Lloyd Webber is calling for wealthy individuals from the worlds of theatre, film and television to support the training of young actors from the poorest backgrounds through a far greater investment in scholarships.

His plea comes on the eve of a report to be launched on Monday by his philanthropic foundation that will lay bare the lack of diversity in drama schools and how this loss inevitably leads to a disproportionate number of white actors being given lead stage and screen roles.

“If the theatre community is to make a real difference, then it’s no use us all wringing our hands and saying somebody other than ourselves must do something about it,” said Lloyd Webber. “Let’s all join forces to provide scholarships to fund diversity in the theatre, now.”

Five years ago, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation (ALWF) published its first report, which investigated the absence of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in live theatre. Noting that the stage needed to reflect the nation’s diversity, it found that “representation of minority ethnic actors is as low as one student a year in some drama colleges”.

Now a 2021 survey of 15 of the nation’s drama schools (pdf) has concluded that, although the ethnic, cultural and socio-economic diversity of student intake has increased from 14% in 2016 to 21.5% in the 2019/20 academic year, “there remains a long way to go [as] diversity in some student cohorts is in single percentage figures”.

The 2016 report set a target of 50% of places to be funded by scholarships and bursaries, but the new research found that only three of the drama schools surveyed have since achieved this. Among key new recommendations are the need for bursaries, scholarships and other initiatives. It calls for investment by producers, including those from TV and film, “who demand diverse talent but fail to invest accordingly”.

In the report’s introduction, Lloyd Webber writes: “Five years ago, my foundation commissioned a report on diversity in the theatre, or rather the lack of it, with the conclusion that theatre was ‘hideously white’. Five years on there has been change, but not nearly enough.

“I asked my trustees how many theatricals had taken up the foundation’s offer to administer for free a scholarship in the name of anyone who wanted to fund one. I was flabbergasted that the answer was precisely zero.”

The new report highlights the struggles faced by young people who are unable to afford the average £30,000 in tuition fees for three-year courses. Since 2011, the ALWF has awarded £22m to arts education and related causes. It funds up to 30 scholarships a year. Seventy per cent of its funded scholars are people of colour. The report also notes that “the poor representation of people of colour in academic and management positions needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency”.

Idris Elba, star of Luther and The Wire, said in the report: “It is the responsibility of people who want change to force change.”

Idris Elba, here directing 2018 film Yardie
Idris Elba, here directing 2018 film Yardie, thinks the scholarship model could be more “innovative”, with corporations partnering drama schools, for example. Photograph: Studio Canal

Elba grew up in London’s East End and recalls a teacher pointing him towards the National Youth Music Theatre, for which he was awarded a £1,500 Prince’s Trust grant: “When I got my grant, I thought, there’s hope for me, massive hope right now, because my parents couldn’t afford to subsidise me.”

He suggests that the scholarship model could be more “innovative”, with corporations partnering drama schools, for example.

Sarah Miller, director of the ALWF, said that they can administer scholarships: “We know how to identify those young people most at need from the poorest backgrounds. It’s making sure the money goes to the talented students.”

Asked why the film industry is not doing more, she said: “Perhaps they just have not thought about funding scholarships. If they can pledge £30,000 for three years to support three scholars, it’s three scholars more who are going to come out the other end and be part of that richness of the film industry.” She emphasised that people could contribute whatever they can afford towards scholarships, rather than needing to cover the full cost.

Of the new report, she added: “What’s great is that it has shone a light on all those achievements that have happened. She added: “We’ve got some schools whose intakes are up to 50% of those from under-represented backgrounds. That’s a huge achievement. But that’s only three out of the 15 that we surveyed, so it’s not huge.”

Schools that have seen particularly large increases in the number of people of colour attending their courses include the west London-based ArtsEd (up 16% to 37% of the student cohort) and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (up 15% to 32%).

Lloyd Webber, whose new musical, Cinderella, opens later this year, said: “My apologies to all those who are doing great work in making the profession we love fit for our time, but to those who can afford it and perhaps aren’t, it’s time for a little less conversation, a little more action, please.”

A success story

Kojo, centre, as Jud Fry in Oklahoma!
Kojo, centre, as Jud Fry in Oklahoma! Photograph: Johan Persson

Emmanuel Kojo received an ALWF scholarship in 2011 and graduated from ArtsEd in 2014. He went on to appear in Oklahoma! (above) and Show Boat and to be nominated twice for best supporting performance at the UK Theatre Awards. “The scholarship changed my life,” he said. “My mum was working as a cleaner and the drama school fees were more than she was earning. Without the scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to attend; it’s allowed me to study and build a career.”

• This article was amended on 14 March 2021 to add a hyperlink to the Centre Stage 2021 report and text clarifying that Sarah Miller said people could donate whatever they can afford to partly fund the ALWF scholarships.

Contributor

Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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