Futures Theatre and the role of theatre in social justice work

By Cecilia McAloon

When we think of the phrase ‘social justice work’, theatre and drama aren’t normally the first activities that come to mind. But Caroline Bryant is one person whose lifelong work has been to combine the two. Bryant is the founder of Futures Theatre, a company that aims to stage, strengthen, and share women’s voices. In the words of Bryant, “Futures’ main goal is to challenge gender inequality wherever we see it through the means of theatre - and that’s a broad way of looking at theatre.”

The “broad way of looking at theatre” that Bryant describes encompasses the many engagement programmes that Futures has organised to support marginalised groups since its inception. Most recently, Futures has worked with women with complex needs, women affected by the criminal justice system, and women working in or at risk of street based prostitution.

With our common values of support and understanding in our work towards equality, I spoke to Bryant on behalf of Equality Check to find out, from her experience, precisely what role the arts have to play in the fight for gender equality.

Bryant began her career as an actress, “I was getting jobs as a young, white, slim, attractive woman that were very minimising of me and that were very narrow in what a character could be”. Those characters, as female roles traditionally have been, were subservient to their male protagonist: “the story would never be about the character that I was, and then I looked around and thought that that is not okay.” As a long-time campaigner of social activism, feminism, and fairness, Bryant wanted to be able to open up the landscape of theatre to all women and non-binary people, leading her to found Futures Theatre.

Futures was a means of combining two personal passions for Bryant. “I have always been really interested in social justice and I've been a campaigner for women's rights, for social housing in London, and all those sorts of things. And I wanted to be able to talk about those things within my work. If you're going to give up your life for something that doesn't have huge financial rewards and certainly doesn't have any security then you've got to be really passionate and driven by something much greater than just, ‘it'll be nice to do this'. Therefore, if that's just in you as it was in me, then it almost isn't a choice really. It was very natural for me to join up that desire for social justice along with the medium of theatre.”

Along with offering Bryant a way to combine her personal interests, Futures was a way for Bryant to harness theatre to combat inequality, namely, through sharing the stories of women that often go untold or unheard. So many marginalised women’s stories remain untold, according to Bryant, because “there’s a confidence needed to speak out and up in a way that gatekeepers will listen and many women haven’t been equipped with that confidence and skillset”. Oftentimes people are told: “‘you're sh*t, and you're this that and the other’, whether that be through domestic abuse, or whether it be through an education system that doesn't meet the needs of many young people.”

And for those who do have the confidence to speak, their stories go unheard because “they’re marginalised by systems, they’re not given the space or the opportunity to speak in a way that the systems want to hear people.” Bryant explains that when it comes to the spaces where stories are being shared (theatre, TV, film, radio), “people within those divisions of power often either don't know what else is going on around them or they're not interested in promoting those stories.” “So naturally people that are telling a different story, from a different experience, don't get the same access to a broad audience.”

“There's so many restrictions. What happens with a lot of the women we work with, is that there's multiple disadvantages and they're layered one on top of the other which means it's almost impossible for people to really hear you.” This is what Futures aims to rectify, “we're trying to support people and ourselves to be able to speak out more eloquently and clearly and navigate restriction and minimisation so that people can get their voices out there.”

Beyond her personal love for the theatre, I ask Bryant what role drama has in addressing gender inequality? The answer: it’s about storytelling. “Theatre is telling stories. Throughout our whole history, whether those stories are through a faith group like Christians or Muslims, it's all about stories. We know how powerful a communication tool stories are. When you can tell a story in whatever format, you can touch somebody because, even though they will potentially have none of those experiences, if a story is told with authenticity and intensity then it can be a lens into a world that you have no experience of.”

Futures Theatre provides audiences exposure to the lives of those outside of their own frame of reference. “I think then it is a really powerful thing because when you begin to understand how some things build on others to impact people's lives then you can think, 'Oh yeah, that's really unfair', or, 'aren't they just amazing?’” The result is a greater appreciation for others, and hopefully, reflection among “those very people that can influence change in terms of distance, cultural change, and cultural equity”. That is, Bryant hopes that “perhaps as some strategic thinker or decision-maker you can actually start to have a slightly more porous understanding of other people's worlds and open up your own.”

On speaking to Bryant, it becomes clear that the movement towards understanding and appreciation that Futures aims to facilitate stems from Bryant’s belief that “equity is the way forward”. It’s about equity over equality. Bryant describes the difference using the analogy of runners in a race: “equity is where we take it into consideration where a person begins. So if you think of it like a 100m race, somebody that's able-bodied can run that hundred metres and they'll start at the beginning. But for somebody who has a physical disability, it's not fair to put them at the beginning of the race and to say that it's equal. So what we have to do is start them at seventy metres and then they'll begin at the same so that we are acknowledging that we are different, and that there are some differences that are not earnt. Therefore, to make it fair, we take into consideration those things.”

By getting women’s voices out there, whether that be in plays or in their recent podcast (Fully Amplified), Futures offers its platform to facilitate this exchange of stories, of experiences, which it has done for the last thirty years. Across those thirty years, Bryant herself has written three plays, directed twenty-two productions, and commissioned countless projects by writers and artists. But, it hasn’t been the easiest of journeys, “we had to fight a long battle to become established. But to do the work that we wanted to do, that makes me know that I've spent my life doing something that's important, however small it might be, it has been worthwhile.”

After working to champion women’s and non-binary people’s voices for almost three decades, Bryant has no doubt that the work she is doing at Futures is important, “we see it year after year after year with individual relationships, with audience members”. Even so, in her own work Bryant has felt “a huge frustration in some of the attitudes that still prevail in terms of what women's roles are and the acceptance of a level of inequality that comes about because women are the people that have children.”

Similarly Bryant observes that “in the big picture of gender inequality, of course there have been masses of changes in thirty years - it's not all negative. But I'm really frustrated by the lack of change in mentality of people. We've got legislation now that means in theory you shouldn't be prejudiced in the workplace because of your gender, in theory you should be on equal pay, and we know that that's not true because there's all sorts of ways around that, as we know is reported every year in research.”

Finally, I describe the #SeenAndHeard project to Bryant: using Equality Check’s platform to offer people a way to safely and anonymously speak out against workplace inequality. I ask her whether she thinks it will be effective in freelance industries like theatre. “I think it's brilliant because you're going into companies in the arts where so much is dependent on personal relationships and therefore makes it very difficult for people to challenge inequality where they see it. I think the fact that you're doing something that can be anonymised, that's really important.” “The more traction that equality gets and the #MeToo movement has and all those things, companies will want to be seen to be aware of these situations and working hopefully with #SeenAndHeard and Equality Check. Go for it.”

It’s clear that the world of art has its place in the fight for gender parity. With reference to Equality Check and to her own company, Bryant emphasises the importance of “any framework that we can create that helps people realise what's happening”. Unfortunately, when it comes to perpetuating the marginalisation of others, Bryant explains that “half the time people don't even realise that they're doing some of these things - because they've been culturally acceptable, because they're in positions of power, because things haven't affected them personally.”

One thing that Futures and Equality Check share in their approach to fighting for equality is what Bryant describes as a “supportive way of working with companies”. Whether it be through Futures’ medium of storytelling or through Equality Check’s community-driven data collection, it seems clear that widespread consideration and understanding will be two key drivers towards cultural equity.

In the past, it has been impossible to speak out against inequality at work. Help Equality Check change that by taking 2 minutes to leave an anonymous review of your workplace. Your voice is powerful. Be #SeenAndHeard

About the author:

Cecilia McAloon

Cecilia has a double first in English Language & Literature from the University of Oxford. Before joining Equality Check, Cecilia co-founded an award-winning film production group and worked at the Oxford University Filmmaking Foundation. Cecilia has a long-held passion for ED&I and hopes that her work at Equality Check will have a lasting impact on creating equal opportunities for the UK workforce.