Many Voices Q&A: Joe McCann
As part of her Many Voices project, Arusa Qureshi speaks to industry figures in Scotland to hear their thoughts on diversity and the inclusion of underrepresented voices in their respective fields
The events of the past few months have contributed to a new energy of activism and open discussion within the creative industries. But while organisations have overwhemlingly made promises and pledges to undertake anti-racist work, largely in response to the tremendous efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, the action hasn’t always matched these commitments. In the world of theatre, buildings remain closed and performances cancelled, but with widespread redundancies in all areas of the industry, there is a genuine concern about who will remain when we return to any form of normalcy. And in addition, that any progress made in diversity and inclusion will gradually be rolled back as the industry on the whole struggles to survive.
Earlier in the summer, the Tron Theatre were one of the recipients of the Scottish Government’s Performing Arts Venues Relief Fund, which provided designated funding to help stave off the threat of insolvency, bring staff out of furlough and provide work for freelancers within the sector. This has resulted in a new programme of work being commissioned, supporting the creation of 128 new freelance opportunities and over 100 additional freelance engagements related to existing programmes of work. As a part of the new programme, writer and playwright Joe McCann has been commissioned by the Tron to create a new performance and participation project, which directly interrogates some of the conversations around racism and race relations in Scotland today.
“Things My White Friends Say is a verbatim piece of theatre that explores racism in modern day Scotland,” Joe explains. “I’ve interviewed people across the country from all different backgrounds and I have to say it has been something of an eye opener. At times it has been very difficult sitting through these interviews. Opinions that I perhaps naively thought no longer existed very much still do. There is also hope. I went to St. Andrews RC School in Glasgow’s East End to discuss TMWFS with a very diverse classroom of kids and that was really heartening.”
The inspiration for the play comes from Gary McNair’s provocative piece of event theatre Locker Room Talk, which consisted of honest conversations with men about women when women are not around. Instead of looking at misogyny, Joe takes on prejudice with Things My White Friends Say, highlighting the fallacy that Scotland is a nation that doesn’t experience racism. In this Q&A, Joe discusses his start in theatre and his hopes for the industry in the future in terms of equality and diversity.
Can you tell me a little more about your professional background and how you initially got involved with theatre?
I studied Creative Writing at the University of Bedfordshire and after graduating in 2007, I set off to Budapest. I was trying to break into the film industry and I accidentally stumbled upon playwriting. Stage to Page were looking for submissions and my friend and I put in a piece. I never had much of a theatre background growing up but I was instantly enthralled. Since then, I’ve had plays on at the Fringe and I was lucky enough to be a part of The Traverse 50 [a celebration of the theatre’s 50th anniversary in 2013 with opportunities for 50 new and emerging playwrights].
When you entered the creative industries in Scotland, did you see anyone like you that you could look to for mentorship or support? If not, did that put you off?
The first full play I ever had staged was in 2012 (a script I co-wrote with a friend). The play was a three hander. All the cast were white. The director was white. The producer was white. The only POC involved in the production was myself. At the time I didn’t really even think about it but looking back and at subsequent productions I’ve been involved with, I was often the only black person in the room. Whenever I offered up an opinion, I felt I was not taken seriously. If I had someone who looked like me to turn to for advice it would have been invaluable.
Do you currently feel well represented within the creative industries in your particular field?
At this particular moment in time of course I would have to say no. I believe however in a year or so that will be a very different story. Scottish theatre is opening its doors to creatives of colour and I believe they will continue to do so.
How open do you feel the Scottish creative industries are in terms of discussions of diversity, equality and anti-racist work?
When I started out, it was a pretty dire state of affairs. I remember contacting a theatre in 2013. I was on the lookout for a couple of black actors for a rehearsed reading. Bear in mind the play I had written was a two-hander about two black brothers. The theatre suggested that I make the characters white. They reasoned that there were no suitable black actors for the part. To me that was astonishing. They were telling me (perhaps subconsciously) that there was no room in Scottish theatre for our stories; for black stories. It was all rather disheartening
Another thing I’ve found is that a black person in the industry can be quickly tagged as a troublemaker, especially if you’re not willing to sit at the back of the room and be quiet. You can’t get away with a lot of things that a white creative could. I’ve had a white director tell me there was nothing wrong with black face and minstrel shows.
There had to be some kind of reckoning and now I feel that things are slowly getting better.
One reason individuals don’t pursue such an industry is because they don’t see people of colour in senior/management positions and don’t feel as if they could ever be in those positions as a result. What’s your opinion on this? Is it a concern you share?
Representation is important. I grew up in a working-class family and I can honestly say that I would not even have attempted a career in writing if I had not read the script for Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing at age 10 or 11. I did not know that black working-class people were supposed to write or do anything creative.
I can fully understand if someone wanted to pursue a management role in Scotland’s creative industries they may be put off by the lack of diversity in those roles. That has to change soon.
What can be done to get more creatives of colour involved in the arts in Scotland in a way that is genuine and not tokenistic, with attention also given to sustained support?
I feel we are now in the storm of a revolution. Voices that have been silenced or underrepresented for far too long, now are finally being heard. Opportunities that did not exist even six or seven months ago are now out there and available. The question that needs to be asked is will those opportunities still be there a year from now, two years from now, in a decade’s time?
I like to think they will be. I do not feel that this is just a box ticking exercise. The industry appears committed to change.
In Things My White Friends Say, we will have an all-black cast, a black director and a black writer. Contrast this to my first experience in the industry – that at the very least represents progress. The Tron have been wonderful with me. Viviane Hullin and Andy Arnold did not know me at all, yet they took a chance on my work. I am very humbled and grateful.
What steps would you like to see your industry take in getting more diverse voices involved more broadly?
From a writer’s perspective, theatres should introduce a bi-yearly submissions window exclusively for artists of colour. They should commit to stage at least three to five of these submissions every year. Hopefully we will then get to the point where a “black” play is not seen as such an anomaly but an everyday part of Scottish theatre.