Ali Pottinger, one of our Advisory Board members, reflects on why embracing diversity is so important in our lives, and central to Damn Cheek’s work.
Just over a year ago, as part of an introductory blog, I wrote the following:
“And so here I am, being invited onto the Advisory Board. Who, me? Wow! I am honoured and delighted to be of service to the company, whose ideals and aims are very much my own. Art is made not just for but most importantly *with* people, some of whom may not necessarily feel they are ‘allowed’ to be involved…
“I look forward to seeing us increase the access of shows for deaf and disabled people – which is already happening with our BSL-interpreted and audio-described performances.”
This year, I have been asked to share a few thoughts with you on the subject of ‘diversity’. No pressure then! It’s such a wide term, but it is a useful challenge for me to unpack that term, and see what it has meant and what it continues to mean to me – and for Damn Cheek too.
My heritage is Jamaican and English, so that puts me into the realm of the diverse already, I suppose. I was fortunate to grow up with parents who valued the arts, and who, crucially, were also able to afford experiences for my sister and me.
We went to the theatre for birthday treats, went on visits to galleries, museums and stately homes, and attended concerts at the Royal Festival Hall – rather begrudgingly I seem to recall! (How ungrateful, but that attitude lodged in my psyche!)
But also we heard stories told by a wonderful Jamaican storyteller, Gloria Cameron, and we had access to books, music and people from Jamaica.
This last point is, I think, very important. I had access to diverse stories – that is, not just ‘typical’ European ones.
Many years later, as I started my stage management and theatre career, I had the great good fortune to be employed as an assistant stage manager at Theatre Royal Stratford East, with Philip Hedley as the Artistic Director. The stage management team consisted of a woman of mixed Pakistani and Scottish heritage, another woman of English and I think Jewish heritage, and me. A veritable Benetton team! And all women!
Philip was absolutely adamant that new, diverse stories – or new takes on old stories – should be told from the Theatre Royal stage. What was also really important is that he gave voice and space to people of colour, both on and offstage, and in the audience.
I am really pleased that my father, not long before he died, was able to see a show at the Theatre Royal – and he loved it! It was called It’s A Great Big Shame by Mike Leigh, with a very talented company of actors – black and white – and an intriguing plot set in 1893 and 1993 (when the piece was produced). One of the black actors appeared as a sailor in the first half of the show, allowing for some historical accuracy – of which we see more and more of today in period dramas. And about time too!
The next phase of my working life has been as a British Sign Language/English interpreter, which has brought me into contact with another group of diverse people. Stories told by deaf and disabled people are also starting to be heard more and more, which is great.
I remember many years ago watching the film Mandy. If you don’t know it, it starred the 1950s heartthrob Jack Hawkins as a doctor who ‘cures’ a little girl of her deafness. I thought, as my mother did, what a wonderful film it was – and it is extremely well made and affecting.
Looking back, and because I didn’t really have any knowledge of deaf people – apart from a great aunt who had become deaf and who lipread – I remember thinking how marvellous it was that the little girl could speak.
But that was because the story was told from a hearing perspective. I had no idea how that little girl in the film – who was not actually deaf – along with countless deaf children had suffered through a movement called oralism – teaching deaf children to speak in order to ‘normalise’ them. When you hear deaf people’s stories it is heartbreaking.
This brings me back to diverse stories. By hearing from people other than ourselves about their experiences, by seeing the stories brought to life through theatre, poetry, song and dance, we gain a real insight into others and into ourselves.
This is why, for me, diversity is so important. But I also think it’s really important that we recognise that diversity is the norm, lest we fall into the trap of ‘othering’. In other words, diversity is something we are all the time, rather than something we ‘do’.
Thinking about the work of Damn Cheek and the people involved, I feel we are already a very diverse bunch and that’s great. But there’s always more to do.
Yes, let’s continue to offer space and time and voice for those who do not feel that they have had those things – and also offer the opportunity to use that space, time and voice as they would like to.
And let’s ensure that our embrace is wide so that everyone feels welcome at all levels of the organisation – performers, support staff, execs, volunteers, backstage and so on – be that in terms of ethnicity, neurodiversity, disability, gender or sexual orientation.
Lives are enriched, I believe, by exposure to all the many varieties of humans that we live with, speak to and pass in the street.
Viva diversity! Viva us all.