Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Theatre's Class Ceiling

It was seeing a Terence Rattigan play that she didn’t rate very highly which made 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney write A Taste of Honey, the story of a young, pregnant, unmarried teenager, Jo, living in Salford with her alcoholic mother. A Taste of Honey, which was staged by Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East in 1958, is an astonishing play that crackles and snaps off of the stage offering a vibrant, unsentimental picture of working-class Northern life.   

What’s even more astonishing is that over 60 years since Delaney’s play – arguably more ground-breaking than Look Back in Anger in the way it put working-class lives on stage – British theatre is still tying itself up in knots over the lack of working-class representation: on its stages, in its workforce, and in its audience.

In the diversity debate, socioeconomic disadvantage remains one of the more under-addressed areas. In part because absence is seldom noticed and perhaps because it is harder to spot and track. Theatres often collect data relating to gender and race but not about earnings or socioeconomic background.  

Delaney’s play was undoubtedly influential in paving the way for a subsequent generation of working-class playwrights (mostly men), including the Royal Court writers of the 1960s such as Edward Bond, David Storey and Peter Gill who wrote about ordinary working-class lives. Stories about such lives pave the way for the employment of actors from a much broader range of backgrounds and potentially also encourage working-class audiences who – like all audiences – want to see their own lives reflected on stage.   

But if increased post-war social mobility, the cultural shifts of the 1960s and wider access to higher education created greater access to the arts and theatre for those from working-class backgrounds, and the introduction of subsidy made seats more affordable, those gains have turned to losses over the last 30 years.   

Reduced social mobility, the introduction of tuition fees for university courses (including drama schools), the disappearance of arts subjects from the curriculum with the introduction of league tables, and the reduction of school trips to the theatre for reasons of cost, have all contributed to a decrease in the numbers of those entering the profession from less privileged backgrounds. These factors have made theatre out of reach for audiences from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.  

Would a 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney living in Salford today have the interest in and access to theatre as her namesake 60 years ago, or the confidence to write her own play? For over a decade now, theatre director Richard Eyre has warned about a growing “cultural apartheid” in the UK that gives children who are educated privately or from wealthier backgrounds an access to the arts that their state school peers are being denied.     

There is much evidence to back this up. A 2016 report from the London School of Economics found that 73% of actors came from middle-class backgrounds. A 2019 report from Stage Actors UK found that just 10% of theatre directors came from working-class backgrounds. The Labour Party’s ‘Acting Up’ report, published in 2017, talked of a “class-shaped hole” in the arts with the arts “increasingly dominated by a narrow set of people from well-off backgrounds.” Unpaid internships and middle-class networks exacerbate this dominance and exclude those who cannot rely on parental support to advance their careers.  

This narrowing of access to the arts as a potential career goes hand in hand with diminishing audience access to the arts: the 2015 Warwick Commission found that the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of the population were the most culturally active, representing 28% of all theatre audiences. In the West End there are plenty of takers for premium seats costing upwards of £100 each.    

This creates a particular issue for the subsidised arts. Arts subsidy is raised from general taxation, but can subsidy be justified when those who do not attend arts events are effectively paying for those who do, particularly when those who do are often wealthier in the first place? In any case for households on a low income, a trip to the theatre is as out of reach as a trip to the moon. You buy shoes for your kids before you buy tickets for Waiting for Godot.  

If you don’t go to the theatre, then you are very unlikely to think that you could pursue a career in theatre, and if you do go to the theatre but do not see yourself represented on stage then it is also very unlikely that you would consider working in theatre in any capacity. Particularly as working in theatre and the arts is seen as a risk. A 2018 study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that creative arts graduates earn about 15% less than the average university leaver after five years of employment.  

For those from financially deprived backgrounds, the risk to reward benefit is too high. It is higher still for those contemplating acting as a career. A 2014 report by Casting Call Pro found that only 1 in 50 actors earned £20,000 a year. Even the fees charged by drama schools for those auditioning (often between £30-£50) can be a barrier for some wanting to apply.  

Once graduated, a class ceiling can apply to working-class actors who often get to play fewer roles with fewer lines. The dominance of the classical repertoire means that working-class actors are more likely to be cast in roles with fewer lines such as servants, rather than lead roles. As a result, they get paid less, perpetuating economic inequality.

This is starting to change. Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy for the Donmar introduced working-class voices into Shakespeare’s plays, and the RSC’s Erica Whyman has continued the trend in casting Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio in her 2018 revival of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare in particular has tended to be the preserve of Received Pronunciation, so these shifts are welcome.  

Other recent initiatives to address working-class disadvantage include the founding of Arts Emergency, a mentoring scheme aimed at broadening the horizons of sixth-form students from disadvantaged backgrounds, David Mumeni’s Open Door scheme, helping those from working-class backgrounds into drama school, and the increasing reach of Common, a company which provides support for working-class actors and creatives and aims to help the industry instigate change.    

Sixty years after Shelagh Delaney demonstrated that a young woman from Salford had something to say that audiences from all walks of life wanted to hear, we are just beginning to seriously address middle-class dominance of the arts. Belatedly we have woken up to the fact that socioeconomic deprivation is the Cinderella of diversity in the arts and all the Shelagh Delaneys have a right to go to the ball.