Crusader aims to break down the barriers of middle class arts

Madani Younis is seen as something of a pioneer in theatre circles. Beginning his career at Leeds theatre company Red Ladder, as artistic director of its Asian Theatre School, he has long been a vocal champion of opening up the arts world to more diverse audiences.

It was the support he received from Red Ladder which allowed him to establish his own career as a writer director, staging hits around the country, including Silent Cry, Streets of Rage and Caravan, which garnered high praise when they were staged at the likes of the West Yorkshire Playhouse and York Theatre Royal. When Younis left Red Ladder in 2007 to set up his own theatre company, Freedom Studios, based in Bradford, he was determined to give the same opportunities he had enjoyed to the next generation of black and Asian artists.

In the last few years, the company has gone from strength to strength, working with the RSC and Younis himself was commissioned by Sheffield's Crucible Theatre last year to create two pieces of installation art to celebrate the re-opening following a 15m refurbishment.

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However, for all the strides Younis has made in his own career, he believes he, and a few others who have made a breakthrough, are the exception.

It's a feeling which was brought into stark focus earlier this year when Younis advertised a scheme called Street Voices 3, which aimed to train theatre writers and directors of the future. While the writers, who were drawn from around Yorkshire, were a diverse group, Younis was shocked when he advertised for four directors to put the scripts on stage.

"Of 86 applicants, the vast majority were London based and a significant number had degrees from Oxbridge. The 75 who filled out the monitoring forms were white," says Younis. "Four were Asian, one black and four were 'other ethnic'." For Younis, the figures made depressing reading.

"We still exist in these ghettos of the theatre world," he says. "The fact is that when I first began working in theatre it was the last bastion of the white middle class. Sadly, it seems that 10 years on, that remains true. Where are these artists? We are a black-led organisation that celebrates the diversity of contemporary British experience and if we can't find the next generation of theatre artists, then who will? I was taken aback when I saw the statistics of those people who applied to our scheme."

After studying for an MA under playwright David Edgar at Birmingham University, in 2000, Younis joined Red Ladder's Asian Theatre School a year later.

He says at the time you "couldn't swing a cat" in the theatre world without hitting a scheme or bursary in place to help artists like himself make their mark.

The schemes were put in place to redress the balance of what many saw as a theatre establishment that relied on an Old Boys network and a group referred to in the industry as the "Oxbridge Mafia".

"How many training schemes do we need before we get the opportunity to put that into practice in the real world?" he says. "I see so many training opportunities for black and Asian artists, but that training needs to start leading somewhere.

"There was a piece in a national newspaper earlier this year in which (theatre critic and commentator) Lyn Gardner posed the question 'Why is British Theatre still in thrall to Oxbridge?' It is staggering to think that is still an issue. The fact is, if all that funding that was put into black and Asian theatre artists when I came into the industry had translated into something real, then the British theatrical landscape would look very different today."

Younis is doing his part to make sure diverse voices are heard, staging a total of eight plays as part of Street Voices 3, tonight and tomorrow in Bradford, which will then transfer to the Bush Theatre in London. With major cuts to the Arts Council on the way as a result of the Comprehending Spending Review, however, Younis is not optimistic for the future.

"The danger now is that institutions will resort to doing what's safe and that means what's familiar – and for the theatre establishment that doesn't mean people that look like me."

Street Voices 3, Bradford Theatre in The Mill, University of Bradford, November 8 and 9. Tickets 01274 233200.