Sunday, 28 July 2019

BLOG: Has West End Bares failed to deliver diversity in their promotion?


On Thursday (25th July 2019), MADtrust announced the 10th Anniversary performance of West End Bares, this year the theme is ‘Stripped: Back to our Birthday Suits'. 

There is no denying that West End Bares does an amazing job; it creates awareness and ultimately raises a lot of money. The charity, having been around for 25 years now, “raises funds for HIV and AIDS projects that build awareness and provide care, support and education in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa”. Alongside West End Bares, they also run West End Eurovision, West End Christmas and put on cabarets throughout the year amongst other things. 

There have been issues raised on twitter about the inclusion and diversity of the West End Bares 2019 promotion. You can see from the poster that only a certain type of body image is represented.

This raises the question; ’Has West End Bares lost the true meaning of the event?’

Are West End Bares promoting the idea that you have to look a certain way to work in this industry or to be a part of their work? And is this fuelled by inherent prejudices within the industry itself?

Although we have a long way to go with diversity in the theatre industry, we have made significant progress over the past 10 years. If you were to look into a programme from a show 10 years ago compared to now, the change is drastic and so important. 

However, not only in this industry but in every day life, we are constantly shown images similar to the poster for this years event and it's suggested that this is what we should aspire to look like. The truth of the matter is, the people featured on the poster do represent a large portion of the people working in this industry. However, there is a huge amount of people working across the West End, on tour and in regional theatres up and down the country, who are equally employable but are excluded in this branding of the show. 

MADtrust as a charity, is so important to our community as performers and people who work across the board in theatre. So by branding this show as they have done, is it excluding people from their organisation's message? I don’t have an answer for that unfortunately.

I must say, I have no doubt the people featured in the marketing are living healthy lifestyles and I am in no way saying they shouldn’t be involved. What they are doing for the charity is fantastic and they should, of course, be proud of their bodies and be even prouder of what they are working towards with the charity. 

Body shaming is no stranger in our industry. Recently a reviewer commented on actor Sheridan Smith's weight in a review on British Theatre for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium. Fortunately, people flocked to her defence over this matter and rightly so. In a role that specifies no particular body requirements; why do people still expect the character to look a certain way? Perhaps branding like this is giving people an unrealistic expectation of what performers should look like.

But it is also important to point out that this is not the only promotional image that promotes and advertises body images like this. The imagery I see everyday in the theatre world, specifically in LGBTQ+ theatre, does not fully represent that community of people. It is not healthy to solely promote these types of bodies to the people watching it and it does not set a good example to the general public, fellow performers or young people. 

Having seen the production of Afterglow recently at the Southwark playhouse I was surprised at the image it portrayed of gay men. Although it was a fantastic play and the actors were perfectly cast for those parts, it certainly sent out a particular message about body image for gay men. After reading quite a few of the reviews of the show, I’m glad this was pointed out and its important to recognise that the issue isn’t just with the West End Bares promotion, its across our whole industry. It’s a much bigger issue. 

Performers come in all shapes and sizes. There are people all over the West End and across the country making brilliant work, performing to the highest standard and giving everything they have 8 times a week, who do not look like they’ve walked off a Calvin Klein shoot. But, as people have pointed out on social media, there is pressure from the industry to look a certain way. 

So there is no denying that there is pressure, but that says more about this industry than it does about this event. However it is the job of the people behind these events to make sure we are covering all grounds and are making inclusion the highest priority.

Perhaps performers that represent other types of bodies were approached to be part of the campaign and perhaps they turned the offer down. Was that due to the established image that the event has created over the past 10 years? Who’s to say?

The selection process is a mystery to me. I have no idea how they ask people to be involved or if there is a way of getting yourself involved. But what I do know is that there has not been an open application process or search to find people wanting to help out and give up their time for the cause. Does this mean it's become an elite event for a certain group of performers? Or are we missing something?

I am sure this isn’t from a lack of trying, I have full confidence in the efforts of those involved, and that they try and make it as inclusive as possible. But I feel maybe the build up of this image over the past 10 years has hit back; people don’t feel comfortable with some of the images used as it makes them feel inferior.

Perhaps the event organisers should look at this as an opportunity to really step it up for next year. There is no doubt in my mind that this event will be wonderful and raise lots of money. The performers involved in the campaign should be incredibly proud of what they are helping to do. But there is some progress to be made. 

‘West End Bares’ is a chance to celebrate all that the West End has to offer in every shape, size and form.

Written by Jay Parsons

Edited by Peter McFarlane and Vincenzo Monachello 
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