Exeter Theatre Community open up about new “Opening Up” Initiative
Print Editor Kamila Bell reports on the new anti-racist initiative within the Exeter Theatre community, “Opening Up”.
The University of Exeter Theatre community is introducing a new collaborative initiative of inclusivity called “Opening Up”.
On 14 June, Chad St. Louis, fourth-year History student and incumbent Footlights Northcott Director, posted an open letter addressed to the Theatre at Exeter Community.
The letter highlighted perpetuated discussions that occur within the Theatre at Exeter Community.
Within the letter, Chad stated: “The narrative that we simply ‘do not have enough BAME performers here’ is often one perpetuated at predominantly white universities and within their theatre society circles.”
“Being on a creative team next year put me in a position where I realised I would now be the one making show choices, casting decisions, directing a large company.” Chad responded when being asked what his stimulus was for writing the open letter to the Theatre at Exeter Community.
“I had the means to create role opportunities for BAME students and begin working to engage disenfranchised performers that looked like me.”
The letter continues “If we do not even attempt to dismantle this system and promote accessibility, diversity, and inclusion at University level – a time when so many people discover new passions and interests – then we are part of the problem.”
The open letter proposes the new initiative ‘Opening Up Theatre at Exeter’ which is intended to “mobilise discussion and break down any barriers our community may face in regard to accessibility, diversity and sustainability.”
“I had the means to create role opportunities for BAME students and begin working to engage disenfranchised performers that looked like me.Chad St Louis
When asked what he thinks the Opening Up Exeter platform’s role is with relation to his open letter, Chad stated “The Opening Up Exeter initiative, through its discussion forum, will mobilise conversation and action; pushing and demanding change in regards to the issues that I laid out in my letter.”
The ‘Opening Up Theatre at Exeter’ Facebook page states under their aims “As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, 2020 has opened a previously inconceivable space for discussion within the international theatre community.”
This statement continues by addressing what this means for Theatre at Exeter “we all face the challenge of translating these digital discussion spaces into physical theatre spaces which are equally responsible and receptive to change. In this unique moment, we have the opportunity to reconfigure how our community works.”
Exeposé asked the theatre societies at Exeter their thoughts on the Opening up Theatre at Exeter initiative.
Theatre with Teeth stated “This group gives everyone an accessible and inviting platform to spotlight and provide education on different topics, which will hopefully create a ripple effect for the future.”
EUTCO responded “It has offered us a space in which we can discuss the changes we have committed ourselves to making and we are eager to see a collaborative effort take place within Theatre at Exeter.”
“We have the opportunity to reconfigure how our community worksOpening Up Theatre – Facebook Statement
Exeposé also spoke to theatre societies at Exeter University about their plans for the coming academic year following the issues raised in the open letter.
Footlights’ current President, Sam Thomson stated “This year, Exeter Footlights will be more inclusive, accessible, and welcoming than it has ever been before. Our creative style is diversifying, and we are planning to hold events and workshops to expand our horizons, bringing in a wealth of talented students, outside of the “theatre at Exeter bubble”.”
Shotgun Theatre committee explained “As Chad outlines in his letter, it is not a simple case of planning around the issues, but of addressing the question of why there is a lack of diversity, and why BAME students may feel disengaged, or potentially unwelcome. As a committee, we want to make lasting, sustainable change.”
Isabel Harrison, President of Drama Society, responding to the same question replied “We are working on ways to improve our society’s welfare systems so that we can support all members, we’re planning to have welfare drop in sessions and open communication with our members.”
Outgoing Footlights’ President Nikhil Bolton-Patel, when asked where he feels the Theatre at Exeter university community has failed in the past noted that “The student theatre community at Exeter has had a problem with inclusivity and an elitist image since long before Theatre at Exeter existed as a collaborative entity.”
“Inclusivity in the world of theatre both in and out of the university, has been limited with members often fitting a certain privileged stereotype and with BAME actors sadly not being given the respect or equal opportunity they deserve.” Bella Westlake, President of University of Exeter Opera Society responded to the same question.
An outgoing committee member from Exeter Comedy Society, Ben Pollard got in contact with Exeposé to say “In response to BLM, we have tried to and continue to try to use our social media to hopefully support the movement and to promote our favourite BAME comics in hopes to educate our white members and make our BAME members feel as though they are welcome and loved.”
Regarding the future of Theatre at Exeter, Pollard continues “I think a lot of work needs to be done in Theatre at Exeter and that the clicky nature of the beast is obviously a breading ground for racial discrimination.”
Responding to Exeposé’s question as to why he thinks these discussions have not previously been held in relation to Theatre at Exeter University, Chad stated “I would say that the realisation of Theatre at Exeter’s inaction regarding its lack of BAME members, and it’s complicity in furthering harmful narratives such as ‘not having enough BAME members to do that show’, comes hand in hand with the recent global awakening and call for active change following the death of George Floyd.”
Chad continues “I think one of the issues is that the discourse around the need to open and diversify Theatre at Exeter has actually circulated before, but nothing has been done to combat it.”
The ‘Opening Up Exeter’ initiative has already held a variety of online events via their Facebook page.
Including “We don’t have enough BAME performers for that – and other myths” on 2 July, facilitated by Chad St Louis.
The full responses from the Theatre at Exeter student groups can be found here.