Better Songs to Sing: Why we need more working class voices in theatre and the arts

“Working class voices are missing from theatre. And that matters: to society, to the industry and to you as an artist”

Emma Shaw, Writer and Producer, discusses the need for more working class voices in theatre and the arts, and how the work we see on stage reflects the industry and the UK as a whole.

You know that scene in Educating Rita where everyone is in the pub having a good old knees-up? Rita’s mother starts crying and says There must be better songs to sing than this.

When I first saw that, growing up in a working class area of Doncaster in the 90’s, it struck a chord. I just knew there were more options. Different songs to sing.

Last Saturday night I had that feeling again. I’d just seen my twentieth incarnation of “The Most Self-Indulgent Comedy of A White, Middle Class Millennial (featuring relationships and social media)”. Sat in the after-show bar, Rita popped into my head. Surely as an industry we should be able to find better songs to sing, different plays to perform?

I see a lot of fringe shows. I get sent a lot of scripts. There is a noticeable “sameness”. A uniformity of viewpoint, character and references. We keep telling the same stories over and over again. It’s not really a mystery why that is. Go into any rehearsal room, networking event, commissioning meeting or casting call: the personnel will be majority posh, white and southern.

Published last week, Labour’s Acting Up Report has the stats to confirm this. The stream of diverse voices into theatre has been cut off. Only 16% of actors come from a working class background. The report lays out the reasons the arts have become a career for the rich (drama cuts in schools, lack of network, inability to take unpaid work, lack of resources to take risks).

Obviously, if you’re working class and forging a career in the arts, this is all highly relevant. However, if you’re one of the 51% from a ‘privileged background’ you might be tempted to ignore the issue.

That would be a mistake. Working class voices are missing from theatre. And that matters: to society, to the industry and to you as an artist.

It doesn’t matter how innovative your creative process, how artistically ground-breaking your work: if it’s inaccessible to the poor, it’s neither radical nor revolutionary.

Furthermore, from a creative standpoint the greater the diversity of voices involved in the artistic discussion, the greater the chances of those magic collisions happening. The kind where sparks fly and something new is created.

The objection I hear most from writers and directors about developing projects with working class characters is “I’m not interested in telling those types of stories”.

What does that even mean? “Those types of stories”? You aren’t interested in telling love stories? Stories about power, revenge, family relationships? Funny stories? Stories full of drama?

More to the point, if you can genuinely find nothing in working class stories to interest you, nothing that translates on any level to your life… doesn’t that strike you as odd?

Should you be living in a society where the experience of a huge percentage of your fellow citizens bears so little relation to yours that you can’t translate their narratives?

It’s a level of obliviousness that causes otherwise sweet people to utter phrases like ‘let them eat cake’.

Theatre remains one of the few places where an audience member has to experience a whole world as it is presented. The lives of the characters may seem irrelevant to theirs, their viewpoints obnoxious. But they still have to see them: no changing the channel, no tailored newsfeeds, no filters.

As other media become echo chambers, we all have a responsibility to make sure theatre goes in the opposite direction.

The absence of the working class on stage is not just a concern for working class actors, directors, producers and writers. If you are one of the “privileged 51%” currently working in the industry, that lack of visibility is limiting your work and your understanding too.

Working class stories are out there. It’s the responsibility of all of us to find them.

But beyond the characters and setting: how do you spot them? What makes a script working class?

Jimmy McGovern, David Eldridge, Barry Hynes, Laura Wade, Sally Wainwright, John Sullivan, Shelagh Delaney – “How to be a Working Class Writer 101” would cover a lot of ground.

We are talking about a diverse body of writers and works that include but are not limited to kitchen sink realism. (My SparkNotes version would be Alan Bleasdale’s The Monocled Mutineer on repeat). 

But boil them all down and they share a common core: they are fundamentally anti-establishment.

And that’s what I want to see. That’s what I’m looking for. That pissed off voice saying “don’t let them get away with this crap”: the hallmark of a working class script.

We need anti-establishment plays now more than ever. We need stories that question the status quo; that hold to account those in economic, cultural and political power.

There are better songs to sing than this. Don’t just stick with what you know. Use different voices. Tell different stories.


Emma Shaw is an experienced producer who has a passion for supporting and developing new work, particularly from female writers. As well as being a contributing writer, she is part of the Nevertheless She production team. Her own writing often takes existing ideas and turns them on their head to create something bold and new.