An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs Jenkins was staged at the Abbey Theatre last year. Much like the challenging script that centred around race and racism, the production itself has been part of a catalyst for discussion on these topics in Irish theatre. It was groundbreaking namely as it was the national theatre’s first main stage show with a black director and majority cast of colour (eight out of ten actors). Staging the play demanded a lot from the team due to the racial violence and damaging stereotypes featured. It was incredibly well received by audiences and garnered numerous five star reviews, many highlighting performances from the cast.
On February 4th, The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards nominations were announced. An Octoroon received a Best Production nomination. Two of the show’s white actors were also singled out for nominations from the whole cast and creative team. All 16 acting nominations were for white actors. A week later, members of the creative team including myself as assistant designer, posted a statement highlighting our frustration at the news via the Black and Irish Instagram account. We were particularly disappointed by the lack of recognition for the extraordinary work of actors from the global majority. On February 20th, The Irish Times announced they were “pausing the judging to review their processes.”
As a Hong Kong-Irish person whose own theatre making often explores race, now feels like a rare opportunity for more open discussion. Irish theatre has numerous issues, some of which include accessibility, gender and class. I’m going to focus on race, yet it is only part of much needed change.
The Irish Theatre Awards are ultimately subjective, but I do think a starting point to improve them would be a transparent selection of a larger and more diverse panel, in terms of race, gender, class, etcetera. I also think that the awards shouldn’t be attached to The Irish Times due to the ongoing boycott called for by the Trans Writers Union. Some productions have been boycotting the paper’s reviews and awards in line with this. I think the more independent the awards could be, the better. If the awards are to have weight, wouldn’t it be of benefit to everyone if all productions could potentially be nominated? And if the panel was a group of people that were more representative of audiences and workers today? I’m not going to pretend that Irish theatre is inherently very diverse. It is mostly made up of white, middle class people. But it’s not entirely and I think in recent years we have seen a larger shift that should be reflected.
I cannot write about how the panel came to their decisions as it wasn’t transparent. I hope that the outcome of the review process will open this up. So I will turn my attention to what I think is ultimately a big question going forward: who makes it to the stage to begin with?
I think it begins with having better fees and financial support for marginalised artists to securely focus on theatre work. The fees in theatre are often so low that this is a huge barrier to most people. Being a person of colour or Traveller means this financial barrier is likely higher due to how class, race and ethnicity intersect. This root of the issue will keep theatre as an artform for only those who can afford it. Having more financial security for theatre artists would allow people to take risks, make mistakes, learn and continue on. Ideally I think that the Basic Income for the Arts should be expanded and continued beyond its pilot years. Anyone I talk to in theatre would like to see this happen.
Tokenistic diversity hiring and casting is not the long-term solution. I myself have been hired on certain productions to give a semblance of diversity. It was frustrating. Sure, it’s cool if there are actors of colour in classic plays where maybe the characters could be any race. But why can’t we have our own stories and classics too – made for and by people like us, with voices and lives like our own? I feel that living in Ireland as a person of colour is so different from experiences in the UK or USA, where more diverse texts are often imported from. There needs to be work from within the country that is reflective. I believe that this should be in the interest of the entire industry, as it will create the new audience that theatre needs to stay alive.
There is also a large legal issue with regards to who has the right to work here. The current Irish immigration system makes it very difficult for freelance workers to get a long term visa. Most theatre work is freelance. Designer Pai Rathaya has been outstanding since she came to study and work here from Thailand. She has won an Irish Theatre Award and is nominated again for her design work this year. She has worked on 32 productions since she arrived in 2018. She has recently had to return to Bangkok due to the fact that her visa application was denied. This is despite her extensive CV and an online petition with thousands of signatures supporting her application. Many other people who have come here to work from outside the EU will face similar systemic barriers in the immigration system.
Ireland has a huge problem with racism across the board, not just where it’s more visible. I hope we will continue to see work that is as groundbreaking as An Octoroon – and even more so. I hope that people of marginalised identities will have their talent recognised at national theatre awards. I hope that these people will also get to create meaty projects that showcase themselves in the strongest light. I hope that the immigration system will be reformed to allow international theatre workers to have careers here. This will all require challenging conversation, reflection and action to move the industry forward. It’s not the time for performative allyship or tokenism. We need to keep organising and speaking out. It’s better to say something messily than not at all.