Scott Ramsay, director of the New Theatre Royal Portsmouth, talks to Ariane Barnes, actor-singer, writer, comedian and founder of the Different Women Project.

Christmas is traditionally the busiest time of year for theatres across the country. Alongside seasonal audiences, theatres collectively play host to more actors and practitioners than at any other time of year. The popular nature of the Christmas season means this is the perfect opportunity to promote diversity, however this often isn’t the case, with venues failing to reflect the diversity of their communities onstage.

In this article I talk to Ariane Barnes, who stars in the New Theatre Royal Portsmouth’s Christmas production of Peter Pan, and who set up the Different Women Project to promote dialogue about women’s representation in the arts. Barnes is of British-Mauritian heritage, sits on Equity’s Minority Ethnic Committee and has a rich understanding of challenges facing BAME and female actors in the UK.

 

“Invisibility is an important challenge for us to tackle. When you’re a woman it becomes a double whammy. Just look at advertising across the media and you’ll see a lack of representation straight away. Even people who feel switched on don’t see how far it goes. It’s psychologically challenging as an actor, because you’re never quite sure the reasons for why things are the way they are, and if you say anything you’re often portrayed as being envious, vain or difficult.

“There’s a lack of quality writing for women generally, and BAME women have little opportunity in mainstream theatre. It’s interesting what the New Theatre Royal has done this year, in reimagining the character of Lily in Peter Pan as a much more meaty, empowered role. It means there’s an interesting opportunity there for a more experienced BAME female like me.”

 

That’s a decision the New Theatre Royal took early in the writing and casting process. 50/50 gender casting, and 80/20 BAME representation, reflecting its community.  The production of Peter Pan also includes young people with hearing impairment.

“Producer and venues need to step up and put the effort in. For example, by bringing inspirational voices and practitioners of colour into productions and outreach programmes. Unless we start pushing the envelope and challenging the invisibilities that exist, nothing will change. And the effort needs to be sustained, and dealt with intelligently. The detail and potential benefits of diversity are often overlooked.

What of Barnes’s own experience as a part-British, part- Mauritian artist? How did she make the leap into the theatre industry?

“I always knew that I would sing, but I also knew that I didn’t see myself reflected in the media, so didn’t make the connection that theatre was something I could do. When I did realise, an aunt told me not to do it, as ‘There were only parts for white people like Helena Bonham Carter in period dramas.’ And she was right that it is a struggle for non-white performers. If I were to go back in time and give my younger self a piece of advice, it would be to celebrate my uniqueness. I have a strong memory of my headmistress telling me to ‘fit in’ rather than ‘stand out’. That’s rubbish. Ultimately, diversity is good and healthy for our industry. Thankfully my parents supported me, on the basis that I would excel at what I do.”

 

And exceling is something that comes naturally to Barnes. Not only is she a champion for diversity in the arts, Barnes career is an excellent example of diversity too. After a thrilling early start with her one-woman show- Diva- she has been a stand-up comedienne, a writer, songstress, musical and theatre actor, and founder of the Different Women Project, which hopes to make a difference in drawing attention to the lack of diversity in our industry.

“Age, race, gender and sexuality are all factors. I engage with powerhouse women to empower and inspire others. You know, it’s ok to say no, and it’s ok to challenge those who use you just to tick boxes, or where parts are handled badly. It’s also ok to identify when an agent doesn’t know what to do with you, and to do something about it. Self-care is hugely important.

“There’s a sad disconnect between some drama schools and the industry we’re reinventing. Diversity needs to be layered into everything. What we see onstage, in our outreach programmes, in our audiences. Even at the best of times the industry is a bit of a mystery. Performance is hard to understand. The more people see themselves reflected, the more they’ll feel it is applicable to them. I’m doing my bit to address that. It’s what I call the ‘Rainbow Challenge.’ ”

 

I ask Barnes what’s next, after Peter Pan. Firstly she’s off to a mountain camp in Mauritius to research material for her next theatre show, Maroon Queen, about the relatively unknown true history of the Mauritian Maroons. She then returns to London to join Showstopper- the improvised musical, for a two-month residency at The Other Palace. A diverse New Year indeed. And Barnes loves that.

“We still have a tendency to pigeon hole artists, even casting agents. People seem to lack the confidence to do something different. I like to work across genres and with people from different disciplines and experiences. Why would you not want to do that?”

Those are the words that stick with me as I leave Barnes to prepare for her next performance. Diversity- “why would you not want to do that?”