Is it Time To Retire R.P.?

I’m so pleased to see the conversations happening in the industry around diversity and representation. I’d like more action, but I’ll acknowledge the conversations are happening.

A year or so ago I was invited to a panel to speak about my experience of funding for the arts. I was thrilled to meet Steven Kavuma on that panel. I had first heard Steven speak at a Diversity conference and he lit a fire in that room. Following him on social media has further opened my mind about the conversations we need to be having. I am a big fan of Steven so I was delighted to finally meet him. We fell into conversation about diversity and representation and I brought up a recent production at a major London theatre as being ground-breaking.

I, like many, had fallen for what I now call the ruse of ‘headshot diversity’, a cast that looks good in pictures. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll see the dangers of this type of ‘diversity’. As discovered by The Stage’s recent survey, performers of colour are more likely to be in the ensemble or supporting roles than principal ones. Over in America, for some years there has been a movement to pivot the conversation away from ‘diversity’ and ‘representation’ and steer it towards ‘centrality’ – placing performers of colour central to the story.

Steven pointed out to me that the particular production was directed by a white man, had a majority white creative team and had been mounted in a theatre where the entire staff were overwhelmingly white. Steven got me thinking about “white performative spaces”.

I recently finished reading Leslie Odom Jr.’s Failing Up. A particular moment stuck out at me. Cast in a revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Odom struggled with knowing exactly what it is he was there to do. Was he a black man in Thornton Wilder’s turn-of-the-century drama, and if so how did that change his relationships with the other characters and them with him? Or was he a black man in whiteface? Had colour-blind casting erased his personal identity and was he, in this drama, pretending to be white? Following from my thoughts about white performative spaces I started thinking about “white performative acting”.

It got me thinking about drama schools and education and what we simply accept as ‘standards’. It got me thinking about the teaching of RP, or more specifically, about the importance given to the teaching of RP.

Is it still relevant today to teach RP as the standard? To insist that every graduate must learn this particular accent? To make successful mastery of RP a requirement of passing some courses? Most linguists would agree that as an accent, it is most prevalent in the South of England so it seems a bit biased to presume this is, and always has been, the standard accent of the UK. It has also been known as BBC English, Public School English and The Queen’s English. Is insisting that every drama school graduate, regardless of ethnicity, learns to sound like the Queen a bit, well, racist?

Yeah, I went there, and I think it’s OK to go there. I think we have to be able to ask questions like “is this ‘standard’, ifrom over a century ago, still relevant to actor training today, or is it an unintentionally racist hangover that it’s time to retire?”

I’m interested in hearing opinions on this. Is it time to retire RP?

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