The stories we tell the world about the past, the present and the future can support a vision for change

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd. An unjust racially motivated murder. A public execution conducted by the very people who were supposed to protect him and who are paid to keep him safe as an American citizen. Many of us experienced huge sadness, rage, disappointment, helplessness, hopelessness. Seeing a man in police uniform take a civilian’s life using disproportionate force. The brutality shook us to our cores. George Floyd didn’t deserve to die and so much pain and suffering has been caused by his death. This incident happening not too far in time from a string of state-sanctioned murders of innocent Black American citizens: Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery most notably.

Though this incident happened in a city over 4,000 miles away from the UK; it ignited a fire in the bellies of those moved and awoken by this tragedy. It gave us the courage to callout the injustices faced by black and ethnically diverse people in the UK and to charge collectively towards justice; marching in the streets, writing and signing letters digitally, reading and educating ourselves, engaging in uncomfortable discourse, to learn, to unlearn, to heal, to apologise, to reconcile, to recalibrate, to see for the first time the severity of the matter.

But this wasn’t the beginning for many Black people worldwide: watching people like them being killed for the colour of their skin and seeing the world do nothing to save them, to bring justice to the communities who have lost innocent loved ones. It is really important to acknowledge here that George Floyd’s death was not the first or the last murder of an innocent Black person in America even in the year 2020. People of the African diaspora have been mourning the deaths of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence, Smiley Culture, Mark Duggan, Christopher Adler, Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell, and leaders like Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and others; tracing right back to the inhumane treatment and deaths of African people during one of humanity’s largest-ever genocides: the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The Royal Exchange Theatre Company occupies space that was historically connected to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. One would assume that this is common knowledge but it’s difficult to know because we never talk about it. As Artistic Directors we’ve been told candidly by close friends that many Black people in Manchester have a complex relationship to the building and therefore to the theatre, the stories, the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from the richness that a local or regional theatre has to offer.

When we were appointed, I [Roy] had a very strange moment of realisation. I hadn’t really paid attention to the trading board, the plaques on the walls that told the incomplete history of the Royal Exchange building. I recognised what a powerful narrative it was to become CEO of this prestigious theatre company, housed in this beautiful listed building but I also couldn’t help but feel like I was maybe selling out. In fact, I started to doubt whether or not I wanted to accept the job offer. I realised that I hadn’t fully taken in the very quiet involuntary sweeping under the rug that had happened for many years. Was I about to become complicit in this too? Well absolutely not. We became Artistic Directors because we wanted to act, to do, instead of just talking about it."

The architecture of the Royal Exchange building evokes such a broad variety of responses from people. Some people walk in and love it, are enamoured by the grandeur and the stained glass, juxtaposed by this colourful spaceship-like module sitting at the centre, like a playful protest, an artistic occupation – one that perhaps wasn’t even supposed to last as long as it has. For others, it’s a symbol of elitism, imperialism, disenfranchisement. It’s too posh for some, feels like a museum, makes you feel like you’ve got to submit to the way that the tall pillars remind you of the power that sits out of your reach; the arrogance of the gold adornment, almost mocking you as you enter. No reaction is right or wrong, but rather is true of the individual who experiences it and therefore is valid and should be valued, heard, celebrated, and challenged.

A photocopied image of H. L. Saunders and Frederick Sargent’s “Interior of the Manchester Royal Exchange” was left in our office in the very early days of our tenure; before the pandemic affected us in the UK. We weren’t entirely sure how it got there, whether it was an accident or an intentional provocation. Maybe we’ll never know. We were struck by the number of men in the picture, all wearing top hats. We imagined what they might sound like, what their lives might have been like and what they might have been whispering to one another. We were told that was how deals were done, almost in complete silence. How interesting. We also spoke about the fact that neither of us were represented in that painting. We dreamt of maybe recreating this image one day. Staging it, using shitloads of costumes from stock and inviting all of Manchester to take up space. But that is just one instance, one moment, and doesn’t necessarily change the relationships that people have with the space. This is when DISRVPT was born.

DISRVPT is a programme of riotous curated events which invite individuals or companies from a range of communities and art forms to take ownership of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Great Hall. To playfully, politically, creatively disrupt the environment with the creativity and art that exist in the curator’s cultural reservoir. To teach us what the varying communities of Greater Manchester might like to see in our space, the ways in which they’d like to be welcomed, the vibe, the energy, the entertainment, the art, the stories, the way we communicate it and market it, all an experiment to allow those who have not felt an affinity to have the opportunity to see themselves, their culture, people like them occupying our space, being at ease and teaching us about the values of their community.

The first DISRVPT event is sponsored by WarnerMedia and sees us offering Mancunian writer, performance artist and producer Keisha Thompson two special commissions, one of which will shape the first DISRVPTION this Autumn (more details to follow). In this inaugural DISRVPT event, we have given Keisha the provocation of inviting us all to reckon with the complex history of the Royal Exchange building, it’s connection (as well as Britain’s) to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and to acknowledge the ways in which many people are still affected today. We are so thrilled to work with Keisha on the inaugural DISRVPT event. Keisha’s voice as an artist is evocative, provocative and playful; her oeuvre showing a bold commitment to unearthing formally inventive storytelling about her lived experience as a Black, Mancunian woman. The second of Keisha’s commissions is the opportunity to write or create whatever her heart wants to speak to the world.

At the Royal Exchange, we make a pledge to tell the broadest range of global majority stories possible in order to crack open and further dismantle untruths that keep us from seeing and empathising with lives that are different to our own. These will indeed be stories about racism to raise awareness of the matter and teach those who do not experience racism what it might be like; as well as the opportunity for those who do experience racism to feel seen and have space to unravel the complexity of such experiences. More importantly, there will also be stories that allow us all to see a variety of truths that challenge the status quo and allow us to see one another differently, with more nuance, authenticity and care. With a number of Black artists on commission, we are really excited to see the fruits of their labour over the coming years.

We have learned that real long-lasting change isn’t something that will happen overnight but there are many things that can be done quickly. We know this now, so in our sector (and beyond) we are scrambling to right wrongs, to make up for a lack of action before Floyd’s murder and the resurgence of the BLM movement. I really hope that we don’t forget to look after those real human beings whom we are now thrusting opportunities at. I hope we follow these through with further opportunities for those artists to develop under their own terms and not within the context of a cultural and political revolution.

The reason a man like Chauvin could kneel his whole grown adult knee on the neck of another man who wielded no weapons or bore any threat of violence is because the Western world has taught us through a plethora of biased and false narratives to place less value on the lives of black and ethnically diverse people. The global majority are viewed as less and this is manifested in unequal treatment and status in healthcare, education, careers and opportunities, safety, wellbeing, policing, finance and storytelling. This, and the stories that have historically painted Black people worldwide as criminals and prone to exhibiting dangerous, violent behaviours. The lack of nuance is still terrifying to this day.

Narrative is everything. Stories are everything. They govern our lives consciously and subconsciously. They can either set us free or keep us in bondage. We have a responsibility as a publicly funded charitable organisation to make real long-lasting social impact and the stories we tell to the world about the past, the present and the future can and will support this vision for change and is a quiet and powerful part of the revolution that is happening in the world.

May we continue to have the courage to ask questions, to be uncomfortable, to stand firm in the face of adversity, to move towards justice. To learn, to unlearn, to heal, to apologise, to reconcile, to recalibrate, to continue to kill the disease of racism which continues to ravage our world.

Below is a list of other actions we are taking:

• Anti-Racism training at all levels of the organisation including trustees and participants
• Older Black Lives Matter in Theatre Pilot project to investigate arts engagement in communities of older Black people in Greater Manchester
• Reimagined Young Company syllabus including practice and stimulus (with inclusion, anti-racism and anti-discrimination at the heart of it)
• Open access script meetings inviting the entire company to experience a plethora of diverse material with discussions
• Connecting Team Book Club – a mandatory book club supporting staff in Engagement, Marketing & Communications and Development to educate themselves and one another on the barriers faced by marginalised communities to accessing theatre & the arts
• Developed a People & Culture Lead and a People & Culture Board Sub-Committee position which will support the Executive to reshape the culture at the Royal Exchange, ensuring that anti-racism and inclusivity sit at the core of our practices and process
• A collaboration with Talawa Theatre Company to co-commission an award-winning Black British playwright in Greater Manchester to write some of the untold stories of Manchester's past
• A number of commissions held by ethnically diverse writers of varying levels of experience
• A writers group setup in 2020 to support the development of British East Asian & South East Asian writers in Greater Manchester & the North West, being mentored and supported by prolific, international East & South East Asian writers
• And the work continues … In the words of Katori Hall “…the baton passes on…”