The Footlights: Drama in the Comedy Scene

Paul Norris 12 June 2018

The Footlights are one of Cambridge’s most venerable institutions, but the strength of their reputation had made them, in some people’s eyes, complacent about making their committee and their shows as open as possible. Criticism reached a particular height in March this year after what seemed like an endless string of predominantly white male productions. The issue became muddled by the resignation of Ruby Keane as Footlights President. According to a Footlights statement she was asked to stand down because of ‘her misuse of the role of President and her management of the society’, but Keane herself claimed she had wanted to put ‘pressure on the current and future committees to… think of further ways to increase diversity’.

Sketch comedy is historically associated with upper-class white men (Fry and Laurie, Mitchell and Webb, Armstrong and Miller, etc.) and this connection continues to the present. Students who have seen people like them represented in sketch comedy are more likely to be drawn to it, and students from schools with well-funded performing arts departments have an inevitable advantage. Even the myriad theatrical opportunities I encountered at St. Paul’s could not overcome my deep-rooted unfunniness on stage, but for someone with even a modicum of talent schools like mine are a perfect breeding ground for comic confidence.

Awareness of the inequality of comic opportunities at a young age is driving the Footlights’ heightened desire to revolve their access problem. I spoke to one of the society’s four newly-appointed access officers, Alex Franklin, who explained that making comic performance available to young people before they come to university would make the Cambridge scene more inclusive to all backgrounds. Specific plans are still in the works and ‘There’s still quite a bit of a way to go,’ says Alex, ‘But I think we’re on the right path.’

Footlights have also made changes to their committee structure in Cambridge. Rather than appointing a committee on the basis of ‘contribution to comedy’ and then assigning positions, each people are appointed based on their merits for specific positions. This is part of a move to separate the Footlights committee from being ‘a Footlight’ and performing in Footlights shows. In the past the committee has been an exclusive set of Cambridge comedians supposedly selected solely on the basis of comic ability, but a lack of effort in cultivating talent in people from more varied backgrounds meant that these committees were often all male and all white. The change in committee structure is a step in the right direction.

There is still some way to go, and I personally suspect that sketch comedy’s preoccupation with clever or silly conceits makes it less appropriate as a medium for conveying personal experience, and therefore more comfortable for people who see comedy as a way of having fun rather than a means of attacking power structures. Having fun on stage is of course valid, but it is limited, and can exclude people who really have something to say. It’s good to see that the Footlights are expanding beyond sketch comedy to include other genres, such as stand-up. These changes alone are a good sign, but Alex assured me that more are in store, saying that ‘There’ll be a lot of very visible change… soonish.’