London’s theatres risk becoming “enclaves for the chosen few” if the industry doesn’t become more representative of the city’s population, the Bush Theatre’s artistic director said.
Madani Younis, who became the first non-white Londoner to serve as artistic director for a theatre company, was speaking ahead of the Bush Theatre’s reopening following a year-long, £4.3 million redevelopment.
In an interview with Eastern Eye last Thursday (16), he said: “As a kid growing up in this city, I would walk into cultural institutions and not feel like I belonged in those spaces or that I was being reflected in those spaces. I always felt like that was a missed opportunity.
“In fewer than 20 years, half of all young people in this city will be of dual heritage. I think it’s incumbent upon me and others to ensure that the choices we make today ensure that for another generation these buildings belong to all and not just a chosen few.”
One of the company’s first shows in its new space, Guards at the Taj, which runs from April 7 to May 20, will explore that same idea. The play follows two low-ranking officers in 17th century Agra (in north India) tasked with guarding the incomplete Taj Mahal.
The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, as legend has it, had the hands of labourers and engineers cut off to ensure nothing so beautiful would ever be built again.
“The play really explores the idea of art as a privilege, or of beauty belonging to some or not others,” Younis said.
Since joining the Bush Theatre in 2012, Younis, 35, has been outspoken regarding the need for greater diversity within British theatre.
His choices as artistic director have reflected that belief. Black Lives, Black Words, a piece born out of the Black Lives Matter movement, is currently running for a second time at the theatre, and 50 per cent of the shows being performed this season come from minority ethnic writers.
Beyond this, Bush Theatre has also launched its Project 2036 initiative, which awards bursaries of £10,000 to BME directors, producers and writers each year.
In an attempt to diversify its audience, the company is also offering 20 per cent of its tickets for £10.
The redevelopment at the west London site was also designed to provide a more open space for the community, with an open foyer and windows facing the street and neighbouring Shepherd’s Bush Market.
All those involved with Bush Theatre, including regular members of the audience, were consulted ahead of the redevelopment to establish the final design, which resulted in plant-based insulation being installed above the main theatre seating, for the audience, and a larger rehearsal space being built, for the actors.
The total budget for the redevelopment, £4.3 million, was raised from the Arts Council of England, local government, trusts and individual donors.
Although Bush Theatre was without a permanent performance space for 12 months during the redevelopment, Younis said he viewed this as an opportunity to become more acquainted with the local community, holding performances in nearby pubs, churches and karaoke bars.
“That was very purposeful on our part, we wanted to discover our community in another way by producing our work but also living their experiences through their own spaces. That was a really insightful and humbling experience as we were able to see what the needs and aspirations are for many in our community.”