Arcola MARVELS at diversity

As the global Marvel brand sparks controversy online, Martin Thomas reflects on Arcola’s plans for more diverse and representative art.

Like hundreds of other arts organisations across England, Arcola was recently involved in reviewing its contribution to excellent and diverse art and work with children and young people. The review was part of its National Portfolio Organisation application to Arts Council England; a process which involved drawing up new plans for the development, growth and impact of Arcola’s programme.

Mehmet Ergen, Arcola’s Artistic Director said, “Ultimately this was about reviewing and reaffirming our long-standing commitment to producing diverse theatre – with diverse artists, producers and audiences – and developing the long-term means to deliver that. Over the coming years we want to recruit, train and support more diverse people, so that we (and other theatres) can offer productions which are more engaging and representative.”

Some who have approached the task of ‘mainstreaming’ diversity have encountered pitfalls. The recent controversy surrounding Walt Disney-owned Marvel Entertainment centred on their retrospective reimagining of existing characters, rather than the creation of fresh diverse roles for a new generation. Twitter was abuzz with discussion over whether retailers actually blamed Marvel’s diverse characters for a sales fall; whether Thor should be represented by a women or Ice Man as gay. But perhaps they’re missing the point. Nick Connaughton, Arcola’s Creative Engagement Manager, argues for a less binary way of approaching diversity.

“Arcola has always seen the possibilities of creatively representing different people within existing, as well as new, artistic works and roles,” he says. “We’ve embraced gender-swapping in classic texts; from Yellow Earth’s female-led Tamburlaine to Richard II, with a female Bolingbroke. We’ve queered works from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (reimagined as Kenny Morgan). This hasn’t, however, lessened our commitment to commissioning and producing new work, shining a light on under-represented voices. The sell-out run of Oladipo Agboluaje’s New Nigerians, showed the untapped potential of diverse audiences and their willingness to attend new works.”

PlayWROUGHT, Arcola’s annual festival of new writing, is the lynchpin for new work and voices. Hundreds of scripts have been submitted for this year’s festival, and many are plays which come from, and speak to, diverse communities and the present-day political picture.

Arcola’s vision, in the words of Artistic Director Mehmet Ergen, “is of a genuinely radical theatre, constantly reinventing itself to respond to, interpret and have relevance to an ever-changing world.” Where Marvel has struggled publicly to adjust its output to that new world, Arcola is flourishing by doing so – and enabling dozens of diverse artists to flourish in the process.

“Diversity is the lifeblood of this theatre”, says Mehmet. “We’ve always strived to tap into alternative talent pools, nurture and champion new artists and offer a vibrant programme. It’s boring if you stand still.”

Martin Thomas is a writer and charity consultant, and the Director of Making Sense. He works with Arcola Theatre on developing new funding strategies.