What Are Quotas For?: A Response To Nicholas Hytner

Former National Theatre artistic director and founding artistic director of the new Bridge Theatre Nicholas Hytner kicked up a bit of a fuss last week in an interview in which he dismissed the suggestion that his new company (which will only produce plays written by white men in its inaugural season) should institute some kind of diversity ‘quota.’ 

His actual words were these: ‘There will be no quotas of any kind. There’s no audit, there’s no one out front ever saying: ‘Where do you come from?’ We’re not in that game. … We don’t want to virtue signal—we are in showbusiness. … The work we do will tend towards being fair and diverse, but I’m not going to get involved in any maths.’ 

Hytner, intentionally or otherwise, sets up a rather clever rhetorical dichotomy that would make any of the characters in their current Julius Caesar proud: it’s quotas versus freedom; audits versus artistry; natural tendencies versus petty math; virtue signalling versus showbusiness. Anyone who’s carping on about their all-male season is clearly placed on the side of the virtue-signalling accountants shrieking about quotas (a word, as far as I can tell, no one used to talk about the Bridge until Hytner did). 

So let’s take a moment to talk about the word 'quota'. Technically, the word refers to a maximum limit, not a minimum, hence its negative connotations: my go-to association is the Jewish admission quotas American universities had in the early 20th century. Using ‘quota’ thus implies not a desired minimum of writers who are women and/or of colour, but a maximum number of white men. If framing it that way makes you feel uneasy, that’s intentional. It’s a framing meant to make you think not about who will be let in, but who will be kept out—to get you thinking not whether the inclusion is fair, but whether the exclusion is unfair. It suggests that the best artists are already being produced, so to force a quota would be to force theatres to program subpar work. 

This is the sneaky secret lurking beneath the quota discussion, one that both sides seem strangely reticent to say out loud. The anti-quota argument implies that, with all things being equal, and all plays measured on merit, the white men would be the ones chosen. That is why quotas are bad, so the logic goes: because they exchange quality for box-ticking—or virtue signalling, as Hytner puts it. There’s no real virtue in this diversity, just show of it at the expense of the art. If you insist your plays ‘tend towards being fair and diverse,’ but still come up with an all-white, all-male season, the conclusion is plain: if anyone else were good enough, we would have programmed them. But we didn’t, so… maybe next time? 

But here’s the thing: every single season at every single theatre, there are hundreds of very, very good plays that aren’t chosen for production. The writers who make it to our biggest stages are not the blazingly obvious cream rising to the top, they’re just the very talented ones who got picked out of a wide pool of very talented ones. The demand for diversity measures is a demand to acknowledge that writers who aren’t white men are just as good, but they still aren’t getting chosen. The dearth of diversity on our stages is not because of a dearth of talent. It is because these writers don’t have the polished backgrounds or long production histories of their white and male counterparts; it is because white and male artistic directors are only trained to see the universality in white male (and occasionally white female) stories, and everything else seems too niche or too strange or maybe best suited for a staged reading on International Women’s Day.

‘Quotas,’ if that’s the word we have to use, force a reevaluation of these assumptions. Lili Loofbourow’s tremendous recent essay about ‘The Male Glance’ pinpoints the origins of this problem when it comes to stories by women: we are trained by our culture to assume there’s nothing happening beneath the surface. We are trained to see them as niche, ‘for women,’ not capable of the same depth and intentionality and artistry. A quota forces an artistic director to dig deeper, to take a risk on a writer whose style seems odd to him, to someone who hasn’t had many production opportunities yet, to someone who tells stories in which he’s not sure how to see himself. 

If you commit, for example, to programming half your season with women, then you are forced to stop defaulting to the men you already know and do the work of finding the women you don’t yet. Quotas insist that excellent work by women, by men and women of colour, by LGBTQ artists, by disabled artists, by whatever metric you want to set that makes the very simple suggestion that maybe our art should accurately reflect the world we live in— they insist that work is out there. Because it is. We are not compromising quality. We are not virtue signalling, ticking boxes, doing fiddly, pointless maths. We are recognizing that centuries of bias have just made it easier to see the worth in the work of white men and have given them readier access to the qualifications and awards and opportunities that serve as shorthand for skill. We are saying that since everyone says they’re committed to diversity but it still isn’t happening, maybe we need some simple rubrics to hold everyone accountable. Half the world is women. More than half of audiences are. Probably about half the writers you program should be, too. The only grounds for objection is if you secretly think women just aren’t as good at this whole writing thing.  

I really admire Nicholas Hytner as an artist, and many people speaking in his defence have pointed out the diverse work he did during his time at the National Theatre. But equity isn’t like ordering takeaway: if you get extra now, you don’t get to save it for later. Good work in the past doesn’t make up for a lack of effort in the present or future. Commitment to diversity is constant, and it takes continual attention and work: every play, every season, every company. We are making up for centuries of deficit here. Anything less is simply not enough.