What stops culturally diverse artists in the UK from working internationally?

Tags: Cultural diversity Dance Soundbites Theatre

What problems do black, Asian and minority ethnic artists face when they want to work overseas? What steps can we take to address these problems? We asked you to help us answer these questions. In the first of a series of two blogs, read the rich range of responses we received from artists and producers

Image of Matthew Xia in amongst a croad. photo

Matthew Xia. Photograph: Royal Exchange Theatre

“Non-white artists are expected to be in a state of perpetual emergence”

Matthew Xia, Royal Exchange Theatre: 

There’s a kind of perception around what a British artist is expected to look like – that’s often a bit of a hurdle. I find that when I travel the world, just as a tourist, people are quite shocked that I’m from Britain, because they think that everyone from Britain is white and speaks in an RP accent. And then there’s a bigger problem that I often talk to a lot of my peers about: that black artists or non-white artists are expected to be in a state of perpetual emergence, having never emerged, so we will always be ascending but never quite reaching the top.

Matthew Xia is Associate Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Black and white image of Cheryl Martin speaking into a microphone

Cheryl Martin. Photograph: fotocad

“It’s about access and knowledge”

Cheryl Martin, artist:

I think for most of us it’s about access and knowledge. I’ve never worked internationally, and that’s because I haven’t got a clue about how to go about it. I’ve seen a couple of things taking people to networking events in Europe that have a few bursaries available, and that means a handful of people will get the chance to go and start meeting people, and I think that’s helpful. But that’s a handful of people, and it’s only every now and then. The other thing that makes a huge difference is when you know that somebody is actually looking for you – so if a programme says ‘we’re looking for BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] artists’, you’ll get loads more applying to that than a general fund, even if it would make sense for them to apply to the general fund. It’s a signal that you’re welcome.

Cheryl Martin is a director, writer, poet and singer. She is Chair of the Black Gold Arts Festival, Manchester.

Image of Tyrone Isaac-Stuart. Photo: Lisa Gilby

Tyrone Isaac-Stuart. Photograph: Lisa Gilby

“Mentorship is key”

Tyrone Isaac-Stuart:

One of the problems is learning how to get your own stuff out there, especially if you’re a dancer on your own without a team or that infrastructure around you. Also, you need to learn about that difference in culture – you can’t necessarily think, oh, I’ll take this out to Japan or something, without knowing how your work will sit there. I think it’s more about education. It’s about research and development. It’s always good if someone just says, go and do it. I think mentorship is key.

Tyrone Isaac-Stuart is a performing artist who is currently blending his skills as dancer/musician in a series of innovative dance theatre stories.


Image of actress (forward) and actor (behind) looking to the light. Kevin Murphy

Talawa Theatre in performance. Photograph: Kevin Murphy

“It is not enough to just be anti-discriminatory; it is important to be actively inclusive”

Talawa Theatre Company:

We believe that the single biggest factor is finance and that there absolutely must be realistic funding to support artists to deliver work internationally. We also believe that artistic environments need to be safe, welcoming cultural marketplaces, where individuals can barter, feel valued for the exchange of information and feel supported by the international creative industry in a way that allows the British artist (whether BAME or white) to truly engage in a culturally enriching experience. It is not enough to just be anti-discriminatory; it is important to be actively inclusive.

Talawa is the primary Black theatre company in the UK, with more than forty award-winning touring productions from African classics to Oscar Wilde behind it.


Image of Daniel York

Daniel York

“There’s always a heavy emphasis on promotion of traditional cultures”

Daniel York Loh, actor:

Speaking from where I am, which is being East Asian, and more specifically Chinese, I think the problem is that there’s always a heavy emphasis on promotion of traditional cultures. There’s this thing where you feel that if you want to make really good art and be radical and interesting and get everyone excited, that you can’t do that if you’re doing things that are East Asian or Chinese. It’s very, very hard to get people interested in that. I think we have to start here in Britain. We’re traditionally undervalued and not celebrated, and generally, the more kudos you’ve got, the more scope you’re got to do other things. And I think that’s where the problem starts, to be honest, that in Britain you’re relegated to minority interest all the time.

Daniel York Loh is an actor, writer, filmmaker and musician. He is one-third of the alt-folk trio Wondermare and he contributed an essay to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla. He has served on the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee, is a founder member of British East Asian Artists and has worked with Act For Change to promote diversity in UK media.

Image of woman blowing dust Afreena Islam's Daughters of the Curry Revolution

Afreena Islam’s Daughters of the Curry Revolution, a hÅb/Contact/STUN/Divergency commission. Photograph: Tamsin Drury

“What we’re really trying to crack is education”

Tamsin Drury, HAB and Word of Warning:

I think the problems start way before considering international work. I work primarily in live art and contemporary performance, and at the moment, not many of the artists that we work are in a position to consider working internationally. You can pinpoint that back to straight economics – if you come from any economically pressurised background, why on earth would you want to be working in the least sensible profession on the planet?! There’s been a shortage of interesting, good, diverse work to programme. That problem is going way, way back to education. What we’re really trying to crack is education, particularly higher education, and who’s going into that. The first thing we should do is to get more diverse artists making high quality work, and to look at opportunities at a much earlier stage. For the artists, it’s about a consistent level of opportunity and encouragement at a national level, before really feeling like the work is ready to be being seen at an international level.

Tamsin Drury is Director of HAB, which produces contemporary performance, runs development initiatives and puts on the Word of Warning programme of live work.

Image of Steve Marshall. Photo: Peter Japal

Steve Marshall. Photograph: Peter Japal

“Give more artists an influence in programming and selection”

Steve Marshall, State of Emergency:

The problem? Getting put in a 'cultural' box or judged according to alien aesthetic principles. Getting told what you can and can't do. The answer? Give more artists an influence in programming and selection. And guard against political motives – whether overt or covert.

Steve Marshall is Co-Founder and Director of State of Emergency, a company and producer that presents original choreography and music.



While we recognise there’s more to do, we have some opportunities coming up that BAME and other artists and creatives can get involved with:

Join us on 7 February 2017 in Manchester to find out how to do a show at the Edinburgh Fringe and how to work internationally with the British Council.

We offer bursaries for UK based BAME artists and producers to attend IETM, a key European performing arts networking event. Sign up to our newsletter below and follow us on Twitter @UKTheatreDance to be notified about future opportunities.

Apply for funding for UK creatives to develop skills and build relationships in a new country through the Artists’ International Development Fund and other initiatives.

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