Is Theatre Accessible to Working-Class Artists?

With theatre seen as a middle-class pursuit, what about working-class artists and stories? We speak to a host of working-class artists to find out how theatre could do better

Feature by Amy Taylor | 17 Aug 2018

Theatre can be an amazing force for good, but for whom, exactly? Sky-high ticket prices and a lack of engagement with working-class audiences means fewer of those working-class audiences. Meanwhile, funding cuts and increased fees ensure that working-class artists struggle to get their foot in the door.

Despite this, working-class artists and their stories can be found, and at Edinburgh's festivals a host of writers, actors and directors are telling stories not often told on the UK stage. We spoke to some of them about their work, opportunities and how theatre could be more inclusive.  

Class in Theatre

“It never gets spoken about, never. The class structure is left out of all theatre conversations,” begins Kat Woods, who is bringing her play KillyMuck to the Fringe. Based on real-life events, the play examines the challenges of being a child in the benefits system.

"I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything on stage that represents my voice," she says of writing the play, "which is really, really sad, so I thought I’d try and do something different with that.”  According to Woods, the theatre industry’s preoccupation with imitating the works of others in order to create a hit is making it more difficult for artists like her to have their voices heard on the UK stage.

“We’re constantly talking about how we need to get more working-class voices and more underclass voices in the theatre, yet everyone’s looking for the next Fleabag! So, how does that make sense? It’s stopping people like me getting commissioned or getting other jobs because my voice is not the voice that I speak from.”

Representations of class in theatre

"I think very often when you see working-class people on stage, it’s a cute version of the working class," begins Stewart Laing, whose new play The End of Eddy – Pamela Carter’s adaptation of Édouard Louis’ autobiographical novel about growing up below the poverty line in rural France – will be staged at the Edinburgh International Festival later this month. He continues: “It’s going ‘oh look, they’re really sweet people, really.' I think because Édouard is of that class, he can be very critical of that class.”

“What Louis is doing is in his book is he’s recounting his experience, he’s reliving his experience, but at the same time he’s reflecting and reframing it as well,” explains Carter.

Reframing of working-class people and lives is very important to Eve Steele, an actor who grew up in Manchester’s Moss side in the 80s, where her new play – Ed Edwards’ The Political History of Smack and Crack – is set.

“A lot of working-class or even just generally ordinary people want drama to have characters they can identify with: humour, passion, high stakes and humanity,” says Steele. The play, which takes place during the Manchester uprising in 1981, follows the riots through the eyes of two young heroin addicts and shows how working-class communities were splintered by a right-wing conservative government.

Steele says: “A lot of new plays I see produced are quite cerebral and keep emotion at a distance, or don’t have characters I recognise and believe, especially working-class ones.

“I think what happens is that theatres often think they are encouraging people from diverse backgrounds, sometimes even working-class backgrounds, but what they want those people to do is to write or make theatre with a middle-class voice that is pleasing and familiar to them and fits their perception of intelligent work.”

Opportunities for Working-class Artists

That perception of working-class people was something that all our artists had experienced. For Pauline Lockhart from the newly-formed Wildfire Theatre - a company who work with working-class women writers and who bring its piece Project #1 to the Traverse for one day only during the Fringe, the roles for working-class women on the stage are particularly limited. She says: “I started thinking about how working-class people have been portrayed in the media, and more than often, it’s if you’re fat and funny, you’re allowed to be in theatre. I thought 'well, we’re capable of all different genres', and there’s not much seen of working-class artists in that different way.”

Lockhart, who grew up in the East End of Glasgow, found that the lack of opportunities for her family, friends and neighbours growing up meant that people didn’t fulfil their potential. After working as an actor for many years, she created Wildfire Theatre with other working-class actors – Wendy Seager, Molly Innes and Natalie Arle-Toyne – to help encourage women to see what they are capable of and keep creating.  

She explains: “And also, the main point really [is] to increase opportunities. Thinking about those people that I grew up with, there could have been loads of artistic potential there, but there was no way that was ever going to see the light of day, they weren’t encouraged in any way."

Roles for Working class Artists

George Edwards, who performs in Niall Ransome’s new play about the care system, Fcuk'd, has found that working-class actors are often typecast, with many people believing that they should only play specific roles. He explains: “We can only play working-class parts. You’ve got to just not get too bogged down about it though, because there is nothing worse than an actor with a chip on their shoulder regarding where they are from or what they ‘deserve’.

“Maybe the industry needs a little more imagination? Theatre should have no colour or class. Inclusive to everyone. We are all storytellers at the end of the day.”

Making Theatre More Accessible

For most of the artists interviewed, the issue of making theatre more accessible for working-class people fell into three distinct categories: making tickets more affordable, commissioning work by working-class writers and performers, and bringing drama classes to disadvantaged children.   

“There are lots of working class depictions on our stage, but they are all old hat depictions,” explains David Horan. Horan, along with Iseult Golden, wrote Class, a play that explores barriers, opportunities and parenting in a disadvantaged school. “This possibly has to do with that thing that when working-class voices are allowed on the stage they’re being told to represent what is already expected of them.

“We need more working-class writers to bring those authentic voices on to the stage and I think there’s an increasing awareness of wanting to bring more diverse voices in” 

Eve Steele says: “Well obviously there’s the ticket prices, but I think it’s more complicated than that. I think the fact that when you walk into a theatre building you often don’t hear many of the staff talking with a regional accent can make some of us feel like, 'this isn’t a place for us.'”

For Woods, the lack of access to drama classes in childhood means that working-class children are excluded from theatre from an early age: “We didn’t do any form of drama at school or at youth clubs, primary school or secondary school. Where I come from it wasn’t an option, which is really sad because when somebody is from an impoverished background that aspect of culture is left out of their life and they don’t get access to it.”

KillyMuck, Underbelly Bristo Square, 1-27 Aug (not 13), 6.25pm, £6.50-11
The End of Eddy, The Studio, 21-26 Aug, 7pm; 23-26 Aug, 2pm, £22
The Political History of Smack and Crack, Summerhall, 3-26 Aug (not 7, 14 & 21), 5.30pm, £9-15
Project #1, Traverse Theatre, 20 Aug, 8pm, £5-7
Fcuk'd, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 1-27 Aug, 12.30pm, £7-10
Class, Traverse Theatre, 2-26 Aug (not 6, 13 & 20), times vary, £9-20.50

Read our round-up of all the best reviews from this year's comedy and theatre programmes for 2018