In January The Stage newspaper, the trade newspaper for the theatre industry, entered Dawn Walton into its list of 100 most influential people in British theatre for the first time.
Walton went in at 61. It was nowhere near high enough.The impact this indomitable woman is having on British theatre is enormous and its shockwaves are going to continue to impact upon the theatrical landscape for some time to come.
The artistic director of Sheffield- based company Eclipse, Walton has been doing important work for a decade. She has been doing deeply significant work that will change the face of British theatre since 2015.
That was the year she brought into being Revolution Mix, a sustained programme of work that aims to tackle inequality in theatre, television, radio and digital media. It is the largest ever national delivery of Black British stories, produced and performed in regional theatres.
When we talk, Walton is on the film set of Revolution Mix 4, a film about the lauded African-American actor Samuel Morgan Smith who lit up England’s stages in the mid 1800s.
Revolution Mix 1 saw Leeds-based beatboxer Testament write his first play, Black Men Walking, which performed to sell out audiences in 2018. Revolution Mix 2 saw Chinonyerem Odimba, Selina Thompson and Lorna French collaborate with Walton to write a Radio 4 afternoon drama. Revolution Mix 3 is in Hull this month. A new play from award- winning playwright Chinonyerem Odimba, Revolution Mix 3 is Princess and the Hustler, which is at Hull Truck Theatre for its only Yorkshire date on a national tour until March 16. The play tells the story of the 1963 Bristol bus boycott. Despite being a major turning point for Black British civil rights, the story is barely known in the South West, let alone outside of it. The boycott led to the first Equalities and Discrimination laws when 18-year-old Guy Bailey was refused a job interview by the Bristol Omnibus Company because of the colour of his skin. “Revolution Mix was specifically designed to take on the disappointing idea that new work and new work by black theatre artists is in some way a risk,” says Walton. “There are myths and assumptions attached for artistic programmers and leaders of buildings, particularly in regional theatres, about black audiences. If theatres put people of colour on stage and the stories told from a particular perspective and an audience isn’t found, the theatres say ‘the audience didn’t come’. We say flip it and ask ‘what did you do to find the audiences?’. The argument I hear is that certain people only go to the theatre if there is a reduced price for tickets. That is so patronising and feeds into people drawing false conclusions.” Her willingness to stare down issues that many are scared to address is what makes Walton so important. She is an extraordinary ally to artists of colour, but she is also important to the industry, which says it wants to change the way it looks and genuinely address the problems of inequality. If the industry wants to change, it needs to listen to Walton.
“One of the most important parts of Revolution Mix is to tell the stories that have been missing from British history,” she says. “We are in the middle of Brexit, trying to work out who we are as a nation and one of the reasons we don’t understand that fully is because we don’t actually understand the full history of our country, we don’t value the people who came here and helped to build this country. We see people being repatriated to countries they have never lived in because of what is happening with the Windrush generation, because we don’t understand how this country was built. People’s biggest complaint to me is when they see black actors in costume dramas because they have been told that people of colour didn’t exist pre-Windrush.”
It is because of attitudes like this that stories such as Odimba’s Princess and the Hustler are so important. The play also features local audiences wherever it plays, giving them the opportunity to take ownership of a story being played on their stage. Walton, who directs the piece, says: “It is a funny and entertaining piece of work that really fills your heart. There is some history in there, but it isn’t what the piece is about. There is just enough to make audiences think and maybe look up what happened when they leave the theatre.” With this work happening, with productions like Nine Night, about a black British family, being produced by the National, does Walton feel like progress is finally being made? “The moment we relax and say ‘we’ve done it’ is the moment we say we don’t need to concentrate on this any longer. We can’t do that.”
It’s a good job Walton continues to fight the good fight.
Through Revolution Mix, Eclipse Theatre has developed stories with 15 writers, commissioned touring productions, short films, a BBC Radio 4 afternoon drama and a series of podcast dramas.
Princess and the Hustler is set during the 1963 Bristol bus boycott, and tells the story of Princess, a cheeky 10-year-old black girl who dreams of winning the Weston-Super-Mare beauty contest. While Princess explores what it means to be black and beautiful, her brother represents the beginning of an incredibly important moment in the documentation and history of Black British culture.
At Hull Truck until March 16. hulltruck.co.uk 01482 323628.