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‘Small afro, a hoody …& he walked around like he ran the show’. BAME Role Models in the Performing Arts

Dr Doris Ruth Eikhof, Deputy Director of CAMEo Research Institute at University of Leicester, the Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies, explains the impact of BAME Role Models in performing arts.

“I had never seen that in the arts before: small afro, a hoody on that said BRAT and he walked around like he ran the show”- BAME role models in arts and culture

Role models are key to young people’s career aspirations. But if you are from a BAME background you are likely to have difficulty spotting a career role model in the arts and culture that looks or talks like you: Riz Ahmed recently recounted how his family used to shout “AAAAAA-SI-AAAAN” alerts in the rare case of a BAME actor appearing on TV. While we now see cultural workers with BAME backgrounds a little more often than during Ahmed’s youth, they are still significantly under-represented on our screens and stages, behind cameras and writing desks, or in our architecture, games and design companies.

Riz Ahmed, Gary Houlder

In 2016/17, we carried out a study into BAME role models in theatre, Where am I?. We wanted to better understand why and how role models were important for attracting more BAME talent into theatre and especially into leadership positions. The findings couldn’t have been clearer: BAME role models are hugely important in inspiring artistic career ambitions, especially when it comes to visual representation of ethnicity.

Seeing someone who looks and sounds like oneself in an artistic leadership role inspires more than any declaration of organisational commitment to diversity.

What also became clear very quickly is that role models inspire in different ways. A first type of role models we called Bright Lights. These role models might only appear in someone’s life for a brief moment but they powerfully catalyse insight and ambition. Visual similarities are particularly important with Bright Lights: “it was because they […] looked like me and I subconsciously identified with them that I walked out thinking ‘yeah, let me give this a go’”, said an interviewee about watching Ishy Din’s Snookered.

Snookered, Tristram Kenton

Three other types of role models – Guides, Forgers and Enablers – are more permanent fixtures in people’s careers. Guides were role models that our interviewees either worked with or admired from a far, and that provided concrete models of how to do something; how to develop and apply skills, for example, or express and defend your values. Our interviewees actively looked towards Guides for inspiration: “you watch it and you copy it”.

Forgers provide inspiration for the bigger picture. These role models have a track record of breaking down barriers, taking risks and carving a path, a trajectory for others to follow. Forgers are often aware of their trailblazer role, and actively show others how to pursue their own career.

The final category, Enablers, are the most involved type of role model. They almost act like a mentor and, depending on the situation, give strength, support, insight, knowledge, encouragement. Very crucially, Enablers often provided our interviewees with access to people and networks, and demystified the theatre sector, helping interviewees to make sense of a world they were not familiar with.

But whether Bright Lights, Guides, Forgers or Enablers, there simply are not enough BAME role models in theatre. This finding also came through loud and clear.

And because more BAME role models would mean more inspiration, opportunity and support for talent from BAME backgrounds, increasing the number of BAME role models is key, in theatre as well as arts and culture more widely.

The good news: our study showed that role models are not perfect, multi-tasking super-humans who successfully deal with every imaginable situation. It is not just a handful of award winners that can be role models, there are Bright Lights, Guides, Forgers or Enablers everywhere across arts and culture that can attract and inspire BAME talent. But these role models need support. Industry leaders of any ethnicity need to give Bright Lights platforms on which they can shine, point individuals towards Guides and Forgers they can learn from, and actively pair up early career BAME workers with Enablers. The solution is not to ask BAME workers to add “Be a role model and attract more BAME talent” to their already busy lives.

What is needed is a genuinely collective, industry-wide effort to showcase and support BAME role models, and in doing so dismantle stereotypes of who can or should be successful in arts and culture.

We have published a Pocket Guide to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Role Models and Leaders in the Performing Arts with practical ideas and tips on how to make that collective effort, from empowering BAME talent and demystifying industry practice to changing recruitment practices and creating visibility. Attracting more BAME talent into the arts and culture is everyone’s job – to the benefit of all.

Where am I? was led by Suzanne Gorman for Maya Productions and undertaken in collaboration with the CAMEo Research Institute for Cultural and Media Economies, University of Leicester. You can download the full project report here.


Social Media:

CAMEo: Twitter @CAMEo_UoL Facebook @culturalandmediaeconomies

Doris Eikhof: Twitter @DEikhof

Mayaproductions: Twitter @Mayatheatre Facebook @mayaproductionslondon