Whose voices are valuable?

| by Adam Bennett-Lea

Tags: Theatre Interview Cultural diversity Arts and disability Contemporary dance Dance

Who's not here? IETM Hull begins on 28 March, exploring the reality of inclusion in society and the arts. Artists from IETM's artistic programme talk about what inclusion means to them, the barriers we face, and the importance of making space for everyone

Image of artist Keisha ThompsonKeisha Thompson. Photo: Drew Forsyth

"There's a long way to go to make sure people from the North have equal access to opportunities"

Keisha Thompson

I am grateful for the work that I've been exposed to and worked on, as it has allowed me to engage with people from a range of backgrounds. Inclusion is about genuine representation. It's about considering who could possibly be in the room, and making sure that they all feel comfortable in that space. It's not enough to just have different types of people in one space.

There can still be asymmetry. People can feel like tokens, or feel like they don't have the right to contribute, or not feel validated. There needs to be a mutual understanding from everyone in the room that everyone has a right to be there.

Channel 4 setting up in Leeds is super exciting, and the BBC Media City in Salford has been great. There's still a long way to go to make sure people from the North [of England] have equal access to opportunities — but it definitely feels like a step in the right direction. I know I would be a completely different artist if I grew up somewhere else, so I'm truly grateful to my city.


Nir George Ad Infinitum photo credit Tom Jamieson for The New York TimesGeorge Mann and Nir Paldi of Ad Infinitum. Photo: Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

"My nationality and my accent are still an obstacle" 

Nir Paldi, Ad Infinitum

Feeling included is something I've struggled with for a big part of my life. I grew up in an extremely rightwing Jewish settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories, as an outspoken anti-occupation, 'girly' little boy. In the UK I probably feel more included than I've ever felt before, but I am 100% sure that my nationality and my accent are still an obstacle. So is my sexuality, but to a lesser degree I think.

It's very hard putting yourself forward and engaging in this exchange if you've been told all your life in many, many direct and indirect ways, that no one cares what you have to say and that your experience doesn't matter.

The arts are about people embracing who they are and giving it an artistic form. Artists find ways of communicating their stories, feelings and perspectives with the world. We need to hear new stories, not regurgitate the same ones written hundreds of years ago.

The responsibility is upon the gatekeepers to open up the doors and invite new voices in.


Candoco Credit Yasmeen GodderCandoco Dance Company. Photo: Yasmeen Godder

"Disabled artists must lead this conversation"

Candoco Dance Company

We believe that working inclusively makes for richer conversation and more exciting dance. For us, working inclusively means creating an environment that supports diverse and different bodies, and unique voices and experiences to make the best possible work. That means expanding perceptions of what dance can be, and who gets to do it. Disabled artists must lead this conversation.

We've always pushed to remove barriers that face many disabled and non-disabled artists wishing to dance. We notice this particularly around access to training and to higher education. Whilst there may be provision for a disabled dancer to participate in dance at community level, there may not be an identifiable or available next step to advance their education and training at a professional level. There is an increasing demand for a diversity of artists and disabled leaders in our industry.

It feels so important for the IETM weekend to be taking place as the UK prepares to leave the EU, as a symbolic gesture of coming together to meet, converse and connect with our colleagues from across the EU and the world. It is what the arts and cultural sector does best; transcending barriers (whether they're geographical, linguistic or cultural), to expand different perspectives and experiences.


Shane Shambhu Credit Martin DewarShane Shambhu. Photo: Martin Dewar

"The word inclusion implies there's an exclusion"

Shane Shambhu

Inclusion in the arts is an integral part of increasing representation of marginalised voices that reflect the current cultural make-up of contemporary Britain. However, as a British born artist of Indian heritage working with the Indian performing art of bharatanatyam, the term 'inclusion' can be problematic.

The word inclusion implies there's an exclusion. What are you being included into? Is it the arts, into Britain, culture, society, a private club? If I am included, am I and others like me not seen to be part of the fabric of British arts and culture? Who decides who can and cannot be included?

I am also an artist coming from a working class background and recognise the difficulties of trying to establish your voice in the sector without economic backing. Trying to access the arts from a low socio-economic status is increasingly more difficult. More support structures and alternative guided career pathways are necessary to increase participation in arts, and to truly represent a cross-section of contemporary British society.


Ella Mesma Credit Nicola HunterElla Mesma. Photo: Nicola Hunter

"Sometimes the programming of work can be tokenistic"

Ella Mesma

I think everyone's voice should be valuable in the arts, but what is great is that art can be used as a tool to give those less heard a voice – to create change, to inspire, to show new perspectives, to educate.

The system of hierarchy is still a barrier to participation in the arts – in terms of the decision makers and programmers at the top not being representative.

I recognise that this is changing, but I think sometimes the programming of work can be tokenistic. What will really make a difference is when there is also more representation at higher levels within institutions.

Jackie Hagan Credit Nick FieldJackie Hagan. Photo: Nick Field 

"The arts are a social commentary of our time, anyone can take part in that."

Jackie Hagan

Inclusion is an exciting, important and creative process of changing how we do things so that no one is left out. That means we take away physical barriers but also concentrate on attitudes we put out there. Who are we excluding in terms of representation? Who aren't we getting on our stages?

We need to make theatre welcoming and relevant for people it currently excludes. I think right now, those that have experienced severe adversity and triumphed – those are the voices we can learn from in these important and terrifying times. The arts are a social commentary of our time, anyone can take part in that.


IETM Hull takes place from 27–31 March 2019. 

The artists were talking to Adam Bennett-Lea, a freelance writer based in Manchester, who has written reviews for several online publications, as well as theatre pieces performed regionally.  


Find out more:

Explore the IETM Hull line up 

> Watch Keisha Thompson talk about her city

> Discover Arts Council England's Creative Case for Diversity

> Read Marlborough Theatre's Tarik Elmoutawail's advice on how to avoid tokenism

> Meet Candoco Dance Company



Sign up to our newsletter