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Interview with David Loumgair, Founder of COMMON, on the industry’s critical need to include class in the current diversity debate, and his role in supporting artists from working-class backgrounds.


By Heather Jeffery

Alongside being a freelance theatre director, and newly-appointed Senior Dramaturg at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, David Loumgair is the Founder of COMMON.  COMMON is an arts organisation which exists to support the UK theatre industry in achieving greater socio-economic diversity and help working-class artists like himself build sustainable careers in theatre. They are an Associate Company of English Touring Theatre, in a collaboration which helps them to outreach their work across the UK.


On meeting David at a Café Nero in Angel, he considerately made sure we found a comfortable table where we could hear each other well. He has a lot to say on the topic of class diversity which he believes has been excluded from the conversation.  He emphasises that urgent support needs to be offered to artists from working-class backgrounds.


“For the last decade or so, thanks to brilliant organisations like Tonic Theatre, Act for Change, and some pioneering venues who took practical steps to implement structural change, there’s been a really impassioned and considered ‘diversity debate’ which has occupied the agendas of most established theatres and arts organisations in recent years.”  


David speaks with a soft Scottish accent, barely noticeable, with a quiet, clear delivery. He continues: “We owe a great deal to organisations like Tonic, founded by Lucy Kerbel and who support the industry in achieving greater gender equality.  Thanks to organisations like theirs we have seen a rise in women occupying more influential positions in theatres, and more opportunities being created for women in the industry as a whole. A similar shift has been happening to increase accessibility and opportunities for artists from BAME backgrounds, but don’t get me wrong, we’ve still got a long, long way to go!”


“I’d perhaps argue that diversity across disability and sexuality is not being focused on as fiercely, but those areas are certainly still involved in the debate. However, I think class has been downright excluded from this public conversation for a very long time.”


Therefore, David established COMMON.  Others who are working to achieve a similar aim, says David, occupy a different area of the same class debate.  “I think the space that an organisation like Arts Emergency occupy, who do deeply inspiring work, is to offer direct support to young people from working-class or low-income backgrounds to actually get into the industry, through creating accessible routes for formal education and training. I hope they wouldn’t mind me saying that I think COMMON is trying to take the baton that they’re presenting to the industry, which calls for an organisation to look towards supporting those who are already building careers in theatre.  Ultimately, our aim is to help the theatre industry as a wider sector to effectively support more working-class creatives including playwrights, directors, movement directors, producers and designers, to build sustainable careers in theatre.”


David himself identifies as coming from working-class background, so he does have skin in the game. His research has included reaching out to cultural sociologists and humanities academics who have undertaken long-term research into class hierarchies and ‘frameworks of measurement’ in British society as whole. A major British class survey, developed in collaboration with academic experts and published online by the BBC in 2013, presents 7 different classifications of class, rather than the historic understanding of ‘working, middle and upper’ class.  


David explains how the study defined and measured class through the lens of three types of capital: economic capital (which includes personal income, the assets owned by an individual and family savings); social capital (including the quantity and profession of friends, family and contacts) and cultural capital (the types of arts and culture an individual engages with, and the frequency they engage with them).   As David points out, this framework of measurement is problematic when it is applied to the theatre industry, because even if an artist self-identifies as working-class, their consumption of arts and culture may be so high that they could be deemed ‘culturally middle-class.’ Solely by deciding to work in the theatre industry.  That person’s ‘cultural capital’ and therefore class is potentially changed.


“COMMON is looking to address the problems which are faced when trying to measure class in a theatre-based ecology”, says David. ”We can’t limit this diversity debate to ‘class’ owning one tick-box, ‘female artists’ owning another, ‘artists from BAME backgrounds’ owning another, and so on. It’s so much more complicated than that.  These areas of diversity have really complicated relationships with each other, like what are the barriers faced by a black, female, working-class theatre director?”


He continues: “I would even go so far as to argue that class is the most intersectional area of the diversity debate, because it underpins and has a relationship with so many of these other areas of diversity that we don’t quite understand yet and impacts an artist’s attempt to progress their career in incredibly complex, personal ways. As an example, you could create a fantastic initiative to support a female theatre director, but if you haven’t considered the barriers faced by working-class female theatre directors, then artists from these backgrounds may not actually have the resources to engage with that opportunity.”


David is also hoping that COMMON will facilitate more nuanced, working-class stories to be presented on our stages, by encouraging arts organisations to actively support the career progression of artists from working-class backgrounds.  He asks: “Where is the support for the next Andrew Dunbar, the next Lee Hall, or the next Shelagh Delaney to present work on bigger stages? Where are the diverse, non-stereotypical, complex working-class narratives? We just don’t see them on our stages.”


David pinpoints part of the problem, which is the continual representation of working-class characters, environments and experiences as being something fundamentally negative. “We see so many narratives, not just in theatre but in film and TV, about single mums living on benefits who aren’t ‘moral’ characters, who aren’t intelligent, compassionate or responsible. But that simply isn’t true, we have such a narrow lens for understanding what it means to be ‘working-class’.”


In addition to this problem, David identifies a second typical misconception: “A lot of narratives present the idea that it is the fault of the working-class individual that they aren’t able to achieve ‘social mobility’. The reason given is that they don’t want to, or because of their personal, destructive actions ruining their chances. It’s presented as the fault of the individual who is working-class in being unable to achieve social mobility, whereas the reality is that our current political landscape, and the systematic impoverishment of the working-classes, makes it almost impossible to be socially mobile.”


In 2017, it was stated in The Independent that there are currently over 4 million children, and over 10.4 million people, living in poverty in the UK. David is clearly aware of the difficulties facing the working-classes.  “We know that free school meals are being scrapped and taken away from children where for some it can be their only meal of the day. Parents are needing to go into schools to charge their phones, because they can’t afford the electricity bills to charge them in their own homes. The benefits system is structured in a way that makes it difficult to access, so the working-classes face a severe lack of support. They don’t have enough financial aid to be able to live healthily and safely, let alone live comfortably - they barely scrape by”.


In the theatre industry, the barriers become symptomatic of each other.  Not enough working-class narratives because there isn’t enough access into theatre and vice versa, and not enough educational access for those from working-class backgrounds.  David is also keen to stay away from public funding. As we are all too aware, the theatre industry is facing a crisis in public subsidy, with the current government not placing enough significance on the ‘creative industries’. So, David doesn’t want to rely on public subsidy when later down the line that money might be taken away. He expresses that this lack of investment or importance placed on arts and culture from our current government doesn’t just affect the theatre industry, it damages grass-roots access to arts and culture within education.


David himself grew up in a single parent, working-class family in the Scottish Borders, and talks about his own experience of higher education: “I was fortunate enough to receive the highest maintenance grant available whilst I was at university, because of my family’s low income. But that ‘free money’ no long exists.  It was more accessible to those from lower-income or working-class backgrounds, and when fees were introduced, there were still greater opportunities for financial support. Maintenance grants don’t exist now, but more loans do, and this can force young people to ask whether they really want to be leaving higher education with over £50,000 of debt, or simply seek employment and start paying their way immediately.   If the grants hadn’t been there when I was at university, I probably would’ve decided not to go, rather than shouldering the responsibility of leaving with an immense amount of debt.”  


Some established actors who come from working-class backgrounds and have built successful and sustainable careers, including Christopher Eccleston, Maxine Peake, Julie Walters and Julie Hesmondhalgh, have publicly spoken about the lack of accessibility – and ultimately affordability – for young people from working-class backgrounds to pursue higher education and formal training, meaning the ‘routes in’ which were available to them no longer exist. TV star Christopher Eccleston has warned that working-class actors are finding it tougher than ever to ‘make it’ in the industry. The former Doctor Who and Our Friends in the North actor was brought up in Salford by working-class parents. He argues that British culture has become bland, because of the dominance of actors from more privileged backgrounds. “I still feel insecure, like a lot of my working-class contemporaries. I had a sense acting wasn’t for me because I’m not educated,” he once told Radio Times magazine.


David agrees that theatre is inherently inaccessible to the working-classes, and notes that the class debate has often been driven by impassioned and perceptive working-class actors. “Actors like Christopher Eccleston and Maxine Peake are absolute heroes of mine, because for a long time they have openly spoken about the barriers faced by artists from working-class backgrounds, and why arts and culture is at a loss because of it. They have laid the foundations for an organisation like COMMON to exist, and to have been received so warmly and passionately as it has.”


“But, I’m keen for the ‘class debate’ to become more diverse with the types of established artists who are speaking out about their own working-class backgrounds and the barriers that they’ve faced. We need working class artists across all disciplines; writers, directors, producers, movement directors, lighting designers, theatre-makers, composers, to ensure that the next ‘Maxine Peake’ is actually able to build a career.”


David also wants to change the way the industry talks about class: “As an industry, we are fascinated by opposites and binaries, so the ‘class argument’ is often presented as being about poverty versus privilege. Of course not every artist who isn’t working-class has access to endless amounts of financial support. COMMON isn’t about trying to attack or blame those from middle-class or more comfortable backgrounds. But it’s about saying that all artists, regardless of their background, need to have the same access and opportunity to build a career in theatre.”


“Otherwise, as artists like Christopher Eccleston have said, I think it will be an incredibly bland, deeply uninteresting, and ultimately unjust industry to work in.”





Published June 2018