Theatre is hardly known for being inclusive. Black and brown people disproportionately come from lower or working incomes, and a high cost of tuition as well as insecure employment is likely to dissuade many from drama. That’s before you even consider the lack of real representation and opportunities, on-stage and off, and clearly on display every time a theatre announces a new hire, a new show, or a new season.
One new writing night hopes to address the imbalance, or better yet, upset it completely. Named after legendary dub musician’s Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s band, The Upsetters presents new, short plays, written and performed exclusively by people of colour.
The very first instalment is due to run on Sunday, June 9 at the Bunker Theatre in Southwark, London.
Playwright and Founder Marcus Bernard was kind enough to explain a bit more about the project and what he hopes to achieve:
What is The Upsetters and how did the idea come about? And why Lee Perry?
The Upsetters is, at the moment, a short play night where every piece is written by a writer of colour, directed by a director of colour and performed by actors of colour.
New writing nights are a great entry into the industry, most have open submissions, and you get the chance to meet new creatives, network and experience writing for the stage. However, when I was involved I found that I was often the only writer of colour involved.
I sent out a tweet, quite thoughtlessly, saying that I was going to start my own night. I used quite galvanising language. It wasn't about ‘the industry is awful’ but rather ‘this isn't great, I'm going to do something about it’. But it got liked and retweeted over 600 times so I decided I needed to follow through.
I'm not great with names, but The Upsetters seemed fitting. Firstly, it's essentially a scratch night so Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is perfect. I'm also a huge fan of his music. I grew up listening to dub. But I also figured that this was about disrupting the industry and, hopefully, upsetting a few people along the way.
What has the response been like so far?
It's been pretty amazing. We had 132 scripts submitted to our call-out which is incredible and shows that the need for this is out there. Some of the plays we've received are pretty special.
We've also had support offered to us by Theatre Deli who are providing 100% subsidised rehearsal space. Plenty of other companies have expressed interest in helping us out but, to be honest, I've been a bit precious about giving up control. I'm keen to ensure that it doesn't become a side project of another larger theatre company to freshen up their own brand.
I'm really grateful for all of the offers for support and for every like and retweet that we've received. Genuinely, without people's help, even as simple as a quick retweet, we wouldn't be getting the exposure that we've had so far. It's been huge.
How does the experience of putting on a show work compare to writing?
I really love writing. And I'm quite good at it but I've got a lot to learn. I'm a long way away from getting my name up in lights outside of the Royal Court!
Producing gives me something to do when I'm not writing. With that being said, both producing and writing can be pretty isolating experiences. I do most of my writing and producing by myself, and a lot of it is just thinking before getting around to actually doing it.
I would love to expand what The Upsetters does, perhaps seek further funding and produce a full-length play, and really start to champion underrepresented artists of colour. It feels like there's a real need for this. I'm still figuring it all out but I trust it'll go where it needs to go.
What are some of the challenges?
Mostly the challenge is financial. The Upsetters is about being an accessible platform to artists of colour but most BAME people are from working-class backgrounds which means they can't afford to work in the arts.
I also have to be mindful, not only of people of colour, but also those who are LGBTQ+, working-class, women, disabled, D/deaf, and neurodivergent. I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to cater to as many people as possible.
We've selected a wheelchair-accessible venue, all performances will be ‘relaxed’ which means the lights are up, low sound will be used, and people are free to move around. We're also captioning using The Difference Engine for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.
Unfortunately, all these things cost money and, as we're unfunded, we've had to put it on the ticket sales. We're charging £15 which is more than we'd like but we're hoping people will understand.
How did the partnership with the Bunker come about?
Basically, I thought their new season was dope. All women, many working-class artists, lots of artist of colour, but without much fanfare about it. It wasn't being marketed as ‘this is our women's season’. It just was. And that's how it should be.
Matt Maltby (New Work Coordinator at the Bunker) really challenged me on representation. If it wasn't for our conversation, I wouldn't have captioning. He made me consider things I hadn't thought about previously. And a conversation with (Artistic Director of the Bunker) Chris Sonnex really sealed it for me when he asked whether my night was exploiting people of colour as a marketing ploy.
I think it's important to interrogate your own privilege, position and motivations, and those conversations got me thinking about that in the best way.
What do you hope to achieve with The Upsetters?
I want to produce more short play nights, I want to branch out into full length plays, I want to take stuff on tour, and I want to see some huge Hollywood movie starring a little-known South-Asian actor who got her first role at one of our nights.
That's kind of the point. I want it to be a platform which can help launch people's careers. We're never going to see a Chinese King Lear at the Globe if people from South-East Asia aren't able to get their start in the industry.
We're not going to have an Indian penning the next MCU film if they can't afford to write their first script. Short play nights are how my (still very young) career got started. It seemed like a good way to help others.
What can theatres and practitioners do to change things for the better?
It’s about making room for others and interrogating your own privilege. And it goes for everyone, not just white, middle-class people, even though they should probably do it most of all.
My Dad is Black, he's half Jamaican and half English, and my Mum is Indian, so I straddle a few different cultures. My parents grew up at a time where cultures didn't really mix, and, to a lesser extent, so did I. I saw many sides of both oppression and privilege when it came to race, and I try to use that experience when I look at things now. I try to consider all angles, I try to be mindful of history and I try to be respectful.
I can't tell you, or anyone else, how to use your privilege because I don't know what your privilege is. You're white but that doesn't necessarily mean much outside of the fact your life may be a bit easier. It's up to the individual to take a look and think about how they can best be useful to others.
Finally, as your night references music, what have you been listening to recently?
I've been listening to surprisingly little music recently but not too long ago I rediscovered Upwards by Ty. Strangely, Ty retweeted something I posted about the Windrush generation and it just reminded me of how much I loved the album when I was growing up. I've had that on quite a bit.
Also, when I write plays, I often create playlists to accompany what I'm writing. Mostly it just gets me in the mood, reminds me of the frame of mind I am in or want to be in. My latest play that I'm writing is about a mixed-race Black activist, so I've had that playlist on quite a bit. It features Arrested Development, Kano, Gil Scott-Heron, Sam Cooke, Tracy Chapman and a few others.
Thanks for your time Marcus, and best of luck with the night!
The Upsetters will run Sunday June 9 at 4.00pm and 7.30pm at the Bunker Theatre.
Tickets are available from the website.