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Why Black Theatre Live? by Theatre Royal’s Artistic Director Karen Simpson

Posted on: 14th May, 2016

When Jonathan first asked me if Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds wanted to be part of Black Theatre Live, I had no hesitation in saying yes and was really clear as to why we should be part of such an innovative touring project.

Bury St Edmunds has a very small ethnically diverse community in comparison to the cities and larger towns.  But weirdly it isn’t for them that I wanted us to take part.  What’s the point of BAME artists creating work if its only programmed in areas where the audiences are ethnically diverse?  Surely the real challenge is for audiences wherever they are to experience and accept the merits of their work in the same way they would do any other theatre? And the only way this is going to happen is if I programme it.

However, there is also other interesting challenges in a theatre such as Theatre Royal being part of Black Theatre Live.  We are based in the heart of East Anglia, a particularly rural part of the UK and the experience of living here means that audiences don’t always connect with contemporary new work that is city centric or possibly urban.  That is therefore a challenge that we extend to the artists.  Great theatre finds and exposes the universals and that is something we can all relate to whether we live in a village, a town, a city, come from the north, south or indeed another country.

Years ago I founded a Theatre company in Cheshire, Action Transport Theatre. It had a very small ethnically diverse population but I insisted on what was then called ‘integrated-casting’.  We toured to schools primarily and I was only too aware that for most children growing up in a predominantly white region, theatre and those BAME actors that worked with me in the 90’s were introducing powerful experiences of live to those young people.  Twenty years on, I still believe that diversity extends our experiences as audience members, theatre makers and as people. Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds is therefore very proud to be part of this project.

The productions and opportunities that Black Theatre Live has offered Theatre Royal BSE has also led to some really creative projects.  We don’t have core funding from Arts Council so it’s sometimes really difficult to think out of the box. However Black Theatre Live enables us to take on engagement projects and this led to some pilot work with sectors of our community that we had not previously worked.

In 2015 when Cathy Tyson was touring with She Called Me Mother we started a short creative project with young homeless people in Bury St Edmunds.  They then saw the production and attended the Talk Back. However, the experience was so powerful that the young people then volunteered Front of House and continued to attend productions throughout the season.  This resulted in them buying tickets for the Ballet and panto!  One young man joined our Youth Theatre, one became a FOH volunteer and another signed up for the Media course at the local college.  Further the experience was also extended to women living in our local Refuge. This in turn has led to a longer term playwriting project, rehearsed readings and again the all-important attendance at theatre performances throughout the year.  Neither of these groups were chosen because of ethnic diversity.  They were just people for whom Cathy’s play had a resonance.

We chose to use some of our marketing budget allocation from Black Theatre Live to pay for tickets for these people in the first instance rather than paying for additional print or adverts.  Not only has this strategy resulted in new theatre-goers at Theatre Royal, but has led to new creative projects and important new funding for our work through our new Associate Artists programme.  When ‘Diary of a Hounslow Girl’ is here in a couple of weeks, then Hamlet, we have the opportunity to extend this work even further.  There is an important cycle of BTL being a catalyst for audience development and at the same time enabling me to offer opportunities to artists in our region and introduce creative arts projects for people in our community.


Karen Simpson

Artistic Director, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds


This article was originally published on the Black Theatre Live’s website.

To find out more about Black Theatre Live and visit their website click HERE

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