Vari-Lite diversity and inclusion


    In our "Industry Speak" series, experts talk about changes to the entertainment lighting industry, including trends, technologies, and other concerns vital to members of the live event community.


    Stop for a moment and imagine this: The entertainment technology and backstage business is a welcoming, international industry with an open-door policy that attracts, and retains people from all cultures, races, religions, ages, sex / genders, sexual orientations, and physical and mental abilities.


    It nurtures, develops, and promotes technologists and engineers, creative thinkers and go-getters, big picture futurists, entrepreneurs, and detail-devoted geeks. It encourages people from all backgrounds and educational levels, from multiple and varied pathways, to enter the sector. It shares collective values and guides and inspires people throughout their careers. Projects are realized from a host of perspectives, which continually reshape the future of the industry.


    Some of the above is already true, a lot of it isn’t. But imagine if it were all true now. Wouldn’t it make you proud to be part of it? And if you weren’t part of it already, wouldn’t you want to be?


    So, if the provocation becomes the destination, then how does the entertainment technology and backstage industry get there?


    Despite being a huge contributor and realizer to the live, broadcast, and streamed content sectors, which almost everyone in the world engages with, most people have no knowledge of the plethora of businesses, jobs and careers existing behind the scenes. It’s like the sector exists in another dimension.


    Let’s face it, you can’t imagine what you can’t see! This invisibility was proven during Covid, where an entire workforce felt unseen and unappreciated. This, and other factors, resulted in many people leaving the industry and transferring their skills to other sectors. In addition, two cohorts of college leavers were forced to look for work elsewhere. Many have not returned. The result - a major skills shortage across the board.


    With an energy crisis, inflation, and recession predicted around the world, it would be tempting to consider battening down the hatches, keeping things simple and riding it out. But as Albert Einstein said: “In adversity there is great opportunity.”


    Could this opportunity come from reimagining the industry? Can we throw the stage doors wide open, cast more far-reaching recruitment nets and deepen engagement with local schools, colleges, and university careers departments? Isn’t it time people from all parts of society knew this industry existed?


    At the very least it’s surely time to re-appraise some of the industry’s most archaic, obstacle-laden habits, systems, working practices and cultures and redesign them to ensure that all jobs are accessible to all people?


    Idealistic, yes, but isn’t that what defines an entrepreneurial creative industry like live entertainment?


    The good news is that globally there are a growing number of organizations disrupting long-established systems and critically reviewing the habits and processes that have excluded many talented and enthusiastic people from seeing, and therefore entering the industry.


    Organizations like Diversify the Stage, established by singer Noelle Scaggs in the USA. It launched an Inclusivity Pledge for the live music industry and has already signed up Live Nation, AEG, and key talent agencies.


    These businesses are some of the most influential clients / employers of the entertainment tech and backstage industries. They are aware of the current nepotistic approach to the recruitment of backstage crews and production staff and the obstacles to entry the freelance touring culture presents. These multi-billion-dollar businesses are increasingly being held to account by artists, who are asking why our backstage workforces are not even close to representing society.


    Through training initiatives, alongside promotors and live industry businesses, Diversify The Stage seeks to bypass traditional pathways into backstage roles and provide a strong pipeline of professionals from historically excluded and underrepresented groups as Scaggs explains: “Being more intentional around the diverse hiring of underrepresented groups is just one important part of how it benefits culture shift within the industry. This intention also brings positive outcomes for a company's bottom line, due to potential exposure to new markets and buying power.


    “Inclusion and Intentional practice in creating an inclusive and anti-racist culture in the workforce is the most crucial part of the long-term work. It’s one thing to highlight the lack of careers in communities and then market them to fill a diversity void. It’s quite another to create and establish informed solutions. We must build a workforce culture that maintains and includes diverse voices and that invests in their communities and experiences. This will ultimately support the long-term growth and positively impact the industry. Until leaders in our industry - and the companies that operate in it – commit to ensuring that Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access are mutually inclusive, as part of any action made towards improving diversity (optical measures), then no amount of diverse hiring will bring forth any authentic change, other than an increase in demographic points on end of year reporting."  


    In the UK, Petok Productions, the brainchild of Pembe Tokluhan, (recently shortlisted for the Youth Music Awards in the Social Action category) is a directory and production company with a remit to represent women, trans and non-binary professionals in all backstage roles behind the scenes, behind the screens and behind the lens. Petok Productions’ mission is to achieve 50/50 gender equality in the backstage industries. Tokluhan and her team are also launching Petok Academy with a vision to provide meaningful, free training, mentorship, networking, and job placement opportunities for its members.


    “Employing people from different walks of life will always enhance the workspace because it brings different experiences and knowledge to a team,” says Tokluhan. “By bringing people into your business that have not seen people that look like themselves in such positions you organically promote and expand diversity. At the end of the day, you can’t be what you can’t see.”


    In the UK, Backstage Niche was recently launched by Rose Bruford graduate Sylvia Darkwa Ohemeng. With a mission to inform and encourage the younger generation, from various global backgrounds, to consider the exciting possibilities of a career in backstage theatre, Ohemeng says: “Representation in any career is key. It's important that all workforces reflect their own society. Those who work in theatre should be able to see London’s cultural mix, both onstage and backstage, and not feel isolated. Diverse workforces open the door to the next generation and attracts those with transferable skills to consider working in theatre. There is a reluctance in applying for jobs in these spaces, it doesn’t always feel comfortable or welcoming. I hope that anyone who would like to apply feels confident to do so.”


    In the USA, shining a light on the small numbers of theatrical designers of color in US and western theatrical design, is lighting designer and Yale assistant professor, Alan Edwards. His illuminating six-part podcast, Changing the Landscape, features interviews with several fascinating creatives and brings into clear view the barriers and obstacles that litter the road to success. The podcast also highlights actions that could make significant differences to accessibility into the backstage disciplines.


    “Diversifying the industry is crucial to its success and longevity,” says Edwards. “Folks go where they feel wanted. One of the barriers for backstage creatives is the gulf between those that have talent and skill, and those that are allowed / seen to achieve "excellence," by winning awards, etc. Audiences want to see themselves represented. Period. Why doesn't the field adjust? For the longest time, under- and misrepresented communities in the United States have sat quietly, only taking part in the things that were "for us." But if our stories are so interesting (which ticket sales prove), then why shouldn't we be involved in telling them? And if the work of our creatives is as excellent as the industry demands, then what's the hold up? Who are the gatekeepers? Diversifying the entertainment industry makes it juicier for everybody -- creator, and consumer. More ideas, more perspectives, and more energy is what will carry this industry into the future. It’s long overdue, what are we waiting for?”


    What indeed? Nevertheless, such a level of change demands some far-reaching cultural changes across the sector. The above selection of organizations, plus others like them, can act as beacons of excellence, inspiration, and success but change must be led from industry unions, trade associations, awarding bodies, and contributing businesses.


    Good intentions are just that without positive action from within. For this industry to arrive at the destination described at the beginning of this article it must first identify its own biases and blind spots and the barriers to entry they cause. It must then holistically and wholeheartedly invest in making diversity and inclusion the norm, with vigorous intent.


    Interestingly, when businesses are quizzed about why they have a single demographic workforce the answer is often: “We do our best to encourage women and minorities to apply but they just don’t seem to be out there.”


    If you are one of those businesses, then you will be delighted to hear that although the response above is all too common it is not true, help is at hand.


    For example, the UK membership organization Stage Sight encourages its members to make practical changes to their recruitment, working environment and working practices and then publicly share their progress and acquired knowledge via case studies, so that others may learn.


    Stage Sight’s mission is to create an off-stage workforce that is more reflective of today’s society, inclusive of ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. The website is packed with helpful resources and inspiring initiatives from their members, which include: The Royal Shakespeare Company, Birmingham Rep, Charcoalblue Theatre Consultants, The National Theatre, e-stage, the Octogon Theatre, Theatre Clywyd, Storyhouse, Guildford School of Acting, LAMDA, Disney Theatrical Group.


    Arts Council England has published several useful guides and toolkits to help businesses identify their own biases and blind spots, change business culture, and open the door to equality, diversity, and inclusion.


    The CIPD (Chartered Institute of Professional Development) has helpfully highlighted five easy to adopt actions that businesses and individuals can use to foster inclusion, which can be found here:


    In the USA, Roadies of Color United is a professional association with a primary goal to promote the shared interests of its members, while advocating for a more diverse and inclusive industry.


    By showcasing professionals working in the industry, they ensure public representation that in turn attracts new recruits. The organization has a searchable membership directory for employers who can seek out professionals by location, occupation or job title or sector.


    Education is also an important pathway into the industry. Not just from specialist university courses but also from courses in Ai, programming, engineering, art (both digital and analog), gaming, video production, and a host of others. Those students need to know the industry exists.


    Making efforts to engage the next generation from school age onwards is Production Futures, which was established to create opportunities for young people to learn, train, network, and develop real careers in production across all aspects of live events, music, touring, theatre, TV, broadcast, and film. The organization promotes equality, diversity, and employability by revealing all career pathways and highlighting hidden job roles in this industry.


    Production Futures recently hosted a panel at the PLASA show titled: Creating an Inclusive workforce: How do we attract young talent? “We invited key industry professionals (Jas Parekh, Koy Neminathan, Amy Kerr, and Ollie Jeffery to discuss how we can work together to make positive change,” explains Production Futures director, Hannah Eakins. “We know that diversity is critical when it comes to creating a welcoming, accepting, and accommodating work environment for all people. Such workplaces have been proven to improve employee attraction, satisfaction, retention, creativity, and productivity, plus the financial success of a business. Today many young people look for diverse and inclusive businesses when applying for or accepting a job. This industry can only benefit from creating opportunities that attract a more diverse workforce.”


    It is people that make any business or organization. If all the people in a business are the same then how can it broaden its horizons, remove unseen barriers to entry and make the sector the truly imaginative, universally relevant, and inspiring place to work that it should be?


    There is a whole load of magic behind the stage door, it is time we opened it up and invited a whole world of magic in.

    The Fifth Estate


    ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Roadies of Color, Stage Sight, Arts Council England, CIPD - Chartered Institute of Professional Development, Sarah Rushton-Read, The Fifth Estate