Interview: STEF O'DRISCOLL on Fair Play, a Major New Initiative to Tackle Socio-Economic Inequity in Theatre

Stef O'Driscoll on being working class, and succeeding, in UK Theatre

By: May. 09, 2024
Interview: STEF O'DRISCOLL on Fair Play, a Major New Initiative to Tackle Socio-Economic Inequity in Theatre
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BWW's Gary Naylor asking the questions; Stef O'Driscoll, Co-Creative Lead for Fair Play (pictured above, right, with Co-Creative Lead, Caitriona Shoobridge) providing the answers. 

The wonderful play, Lit, that you directed, was one of my favourites of 2019. It was four years before I saw a play with the same youthful energy and authenticity on stage, £1 Thursdays at the Finborough. Why do so few working class stories make it on to the British stage? 

Ah thanks. I bloody loved making that play and telling that story. In answer to your question, there are very few working class people in the creative industries. In 2022 the Office for National Statistics reported that while people in “working class” social categories make up 44.1% of the UK working age population, just 7.9% of creative workers had a working-class background. 

The scale of this crisis is huge. The APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) report concluded that for the Creative Industries to catch up and become as socio-economically diverse as the rest of the economy, it would require 250,000 more working-class people to be employed in the sector. 

So, who is around to tell these stories? The economic model for making theatre is fundamentally inequitable and inaccessible. It is still about being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. It works on the expectation that people can afford to do it for the love of it and for free.  Becoming a creative freelancer and sustaining a career is virtually impossible for anyone other than those with privileged backgrounds and independent means. 

And just because you're working class doesn’t mean you only want to tell working class stories, but because there are so few out there told with nuance and authenticity, I feel like I’m forced to and it's my duty to tell them. Otherwise, you get middle/upper class people telling the story through their lens. I recently saw a production that centered a working-class protagonist, but all the lead creatives were middle/upper class, some with an Eton education. The working class tropes were offensive where working class characters were stereotypes and made the butt of the jokes. In working class hands this wouldn’t happen. It’s the age-old representation conversation when you are in the minority. Surely give those creative roles to working class people, yes there are less of them, but they are out there, and they are bloody talented.

Theatre is still struggling financially post Covid and it seems not many people are interested in building new audiences they prefer to ensure their middle class audience come back and spend money. So, they programme with them in mind.

Is it a case of either/or when it comes to diversity, with class being crowded out by issues concerning race, gender, disability etc that are more visible and, perhaps, easier to address within existing structures?

Class has always been the elephant in the room, the thing that no-one really wants to talk about because it is complex when you factor in social mobility, and it can be difficult to identify and measure. So, we avoid it.

I think in a predominantly middle class industry there isn’t an understanding about the financial, social and cultural barriers that exist for working class people.

This is what Fair Play is designed to do, we will tackle each of these barriers; it will test and prove practical ways of working which can then be rolled out nationwide to enable sector-wide change.  Fair Play will also raise awareness and advocate for change across the theatre sector.

A lot of working class creatives don’t want to lead with their poverty and the shame that comes with it, they just want to crack on and do the job. I think where we are going wrong is that class is often looked at as its own separate category as if it was its own protected characteristic however class-based discrimination also intersects with gender, race and disability creating a double disadvantage. For instance, working class women are almost five times less likely to secure a creative job than men from privileged backgrounds, and working class people with a disability are more than three times less likely than privileged people without a disability. 

How can the complexity, language and opacity of the process of bidding for funding be opened up to those without prior experience of that forest of bureaucracy? 

In the immediate future there should be free access support provided for working class people in the same way there is if you are neurodiverse when writing a funding application. Imagine being neurodiverse and working class doing a funding application.

Some people are thinking about more accessible application processes, so you are able to upload a video instead of writing something in similar length to a dissertation. However really the people creating the applications structures in the first place need some guidance on making them more accessible. 

Is Impostor Syndrome as prevalent as I believe it to be? What specific interventions work to overcome it? 

Of course it is. When you are part of the 7.9% it's hard to not feel that and not compare yourself to your middle class colleagues. I’m not sure when that goes away, whether it ever will. When I am in a space with other working, benefit, criminal class people I don’t feel it. So, networks with your fellows is a big antidote to imposter syndrome. I think about the incredible work that Open Door does with supporting young people from low income families to get into drama school. With each cohort a community is formed with people with similar backgrounds so when you are auditioning and when you go to drama school you already see your tribe, your people and the imposter syndrome lessens because ultimately you are not alone. 

Tell me about the aims of your new initiative, Fair Play, and how you propose to move the dial on this issue?

There are three interconnected barriers that artists from economically marginalised backgrounds must overcome: financial capital, cultural capital and social capital.

Fair Play will draw attention to and tackle each of these barriers; it will test and prove practical ways of working which can then be rolled out nationwide to enable sector-wide change.  Fair Play will also raise awareness and advocate for change across the theatre sector.

Fair Play will bring all RTYDS’ experience, proven processes and powerful networks together to support creatives from economically marginalised backgrounds and to empower regional theatres and companies to use their own agency to tackle inequity, working together to ensure the future leadership of British theatre is more reflective of our society.

How will you use your experience to advance the programme’s aims?

Cat and I can’t talk for all working, benefit criminal class people so are building an intersectional artist advisory group to assist with the programmes we will roll with Fair Play. 

What support would you like, in an ideal world, from the wider community of theatre professionals (eg artistic directors, journalists, educators)?

Money and financial support to make it happen and a commitment to putting class as a diversity priority and to join our programmes.  We know what we want to do we’re just in the process of raising the funds.

What will success look like in (say) 2030?

Organisations UK wide would have changed their practice to support arts from low socio-economic backgrounds to enter and sustain careers in theatre. 

Mid-career artists from working class backgrounds are able to work confidently with organisations and sustain careers. 

The governance, leadership and workforce of UK theatre is representative of the population. 

Which up and coming working class talents should we look out for in the next couple of years? 

I am going to ignore the ‘up and coming’ bit as often you can feel like you're perpetually up and coming as a working benefit criminal class creative. Some of these people have been around hustling doing their thing but deserve recognition for their craft and brilliance. 

Zakiyah Dean - most recently in the bad boi show Is Dt U Yh? By Dk at Brixton house. Zakiyah is a formidable performer, poet and writer. 

Masha Kevinova - writer and director and Artistic Director of OPIA Collective. I always love the way Masha blends artforms in her storytelling practice which create a thrilling theatrical experience. 

Zia Ahmed - legendary poet and writer! Soak up all he has to say. 

Florence Espeut-Nickless is an award-winning writer and actor from Chippenham in Wiltshire. She writes for both stage and screen about and with working class communities in the hope of making the arts more accessible to everyone, regardless of background and location.

Jimmy Fairhurst - head honcho of Not Too Tame who produce high-octane, heart-on-sleeve stories steeped in working-class culture and made by working-class artists.

BWW thanks Sue Emmas, Artistic Director, Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme, for her support with this interview.

Find out more about Fair Play 


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