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“This feels like a really hostile environment”: Accusations of racism at Theatre Deli

Nathan Geering, former co-artistic director at Theatre Deli, accuses organisation of “nuanced, institutional racism”.

Nathan Geering at Migration Matters Closing Party July 2021 Credit Amani Creatives JPG

Theatre Deli Co-Artistic Director Nathan Geering at the Migration Matters 2021 closing party.

Amani Creatives

When Nathan Geering was recruited as Theatre Deli’s co-artistic director, he was excited at the opportunity for marginalised and under-represented communities in Sheffield to be represented. He wanted to change the fact that many communities in the city do not feel welcome or safe in artistic spaces and “redefine what an artistic director should be”. He aimed to be more available and forward-facing, and he won an award for impressive work on disabled access.

So many people were shocked when, on 31 May, Nathan resigned from his role citing “nuanced institutional racism” within Theatre Deli. He has received support from organisations like our team here at Opus, as well as Migration Matters Festival, and Sheffield Culture Consortium.

Councillor Abtisam Mohamed also expressed her solidarity with Geering, saying:

Nathan has done some excellent work at Theatre Deli and more importantly has allowed them to reach a new audience they normally would not engage with. I was saddened to hear of Nathan’s resignation but completely understand why he felt he needed to do so.

In a conversation with Now Then, Nathan describes experiencing racism “literally from day one”, with “an almost hostile reception, lukewarm at the very, very, very best” from some of his new colleagues. Over time, he struggled to get help from the team at Theatre Deli, with technical support not being arranged or provided for performances and events he was running. This led to his first flagship event being accompanied by his portable sound system rather than the professional equipment the Theatre normally used.

Geering believes that some people did not want to be managed by a person of colour, and that other colleagues did not take his complaints about the lack of technical provision or support seriously.

Nathan says he continued to be blanked when he greeted one colleague and he feels that that person’s actions were rewarded rather than addressed by the organisation. When he suggested using Theatre Deli’s grievance procedure, Nathan tells Now Then that he was discouraged from doing so in favour of settling things “at an informal level”.

The lack of support within the organisation continued, Nathan alleges. Essential equipment was not ordered in time, sabotaging a second project of Geering’s, and staff time was not provided when it was promised on other occasions, getting in the way of a third vital Theatre Deli project.

This started to have a significant impact on Nathan’s mental health, he tells me:

I was really anxious, in terms of going into work. I was like, ‘This feels like a really hostile environment I'm working in at the moment. It doesn't feel like it's a safe space for me.

He repeatedly impresses on me that the nuanced nature of these experiences makes them very hard to prove and very hard to address.

It was these really nuanced micro-aggressions, things that are really super difficult to prove as a person of colour.

When Nathan was later told that his line management responsibilities were being taken away from him, he tells me it was argued that this was so that he could focus on artistic visioning, which at first sounded reasonable to him. Looking back, however, it has taken on a more sinister tone to him.

That meant that we had no authority within the organisation, we had no line management. And as people of colour, we were the only people of colour in the senior management team. And I had no authority within that organisation.

Despite having a role as co-artistic director of both Theatre Deli’s Sheffield and London venues, Nathan reports that he also stopped being consulted about events that were happening in London.

The combination of these occurrences led him to wonder whether he was being treated as more of a figurehead than a true co-artistic director. The build-up of events led to a meeting where Geering ultimately broke down in tears:

I said ‘Look, I'm not feeling seen right now as a person of colour. I've come here, and I've spoken to you about how I've been made to feel about working in this environment, and how one person just really has no regard for me as a human being. And you're telling me that I need to protect this person. And that's all you're hitting home about. You're not seeing me as a person of colour’.

I hit my limits, I broke down in tears. I was absolutely crying my eyes out because I felt like I've been completely broken down by this organisation. Because my concerns as a person of colour were not being recognised.

In response, he was told that he was shouting - a charge often thrown at people of colour when they are, as he relates it, “speaking passionately”.

As a commissioner for the Race Equality Commission, Geering knew that he could have reported the organisation to them and he brought this up in the meeting in question. He says he was accused of threatening them, something he disputes. He offered to write an anti-racism policy for the organisation that would centre the voices and expertise of people of colour, where people accused of racism wouldn’t go up against a panel of white people without the lived experience that is so vital in assessing such situations.

It got to the point where people of colour attending a Theatre Deli event complained that a member of staff was “disinterested, quite rude and negative towards the Black audience that was there” and other staff members who were people of colour made the same allegations. He explains:

So, that, for me, is an even huger issue because it's terrible that it's happening to me, personally, within an organisation I'm supposed to be running. But the fact that it's coming out now onto our audiences and our clients I'm like, this is not good. This is terrible.

Nathan also had concerns about his hours and his pay. While contracted to work 2.5 days a week, in reality he says he frequently worked full-time hours and felt undervalued. The other co-artistic director left the role because his acting career was taking off, so Nathan was hopeful that he could take on the role full-time, or for four days a week on the condition that a disabled person was hired for the fifth day. Instead, his hours were increased to three days a week.

A further niggling concern for Nathan was that he felt that Theatre Deli were “citing my awards and all the work that I've done with regards to accessibility. They were happy to cite those awards [in funding applications] but they weren't willing to pay me a full-time wage.”

I felt exploited. Because they were using my credentials in terms of accessibility, but also my skin colour as a person of colour, to be able to tick boxes to bring in new audiences, new communities, to say that they're a Black-led organisation so it would look really attractive.

Ultimately, Geering felt undervalued. He felt like there was an undercurrent of institutional racism within Theatre Deli, and he felt he was working within a hostile team. He was torn when writing the anti-racism policy that his colleagues had promised to look at, because “how can I try and employ people of colour at senior management level in an organisation that I felt was already displaying nuanced, institutionalised racism? How can I invite somebody else into that trauma?”

His appeal for more hours was turned down and he handed in his resignation, at which point Geering says that Theatre Deli offered him the opportunity for a grievance procedure. He felt it was too late and that such a procedure was doomed to fail:

I'm shifting the paradigm. I refuse to enter into a space where I'm automatically set up to fail as a person of colour. And the current procedures that are in place, not only in that organisation but also in our legal system, are not designed for people of colour to thrive.

David Ralf, CEO and Executive Director for Theatre Deli, told Now Then:

Without wishing to prejudge the impartial investigation which will follow, or the chance that Nathan will change his mind about his resignation, it is important to note that we agreed a new Artistic Director job description with increased hours with Nathan Geering on the 25 April, in response to his skillset, interpretation of the role, and Deli's need for competent management in Sheffield. After this, Nathan continued to raise issues regarding pay and hours in conversations that led directly up to his resignation.

As CEO, I could not in good conscience recommend to the Board that Nathan be offered the full-time sole Artistic Director role that he wanted, given ongoing issues of competency and behaviour towards other staff with multiple intersecting identities, which I had observed personally and which had been reported to me over the last year.

Historically the organisation has not had a single full-time Artistic Director, and this role has been filled in several different ways over recent years. We have not responded directly to Nathan's individual public allegations, both to preserve the integrity of the impartial investigation, which we welcome, and to protect our staff.

Despite all this we are proud of Nathan's work for Theatre Deli, and his work with communities in Sheffield, and were working directly up to his resignation on retaining him, and continuing to accommodate different ways of working.

Nathan tells me that he is sceptical of the suggestion that the problem was one of his competence, asking, “why is it then that I'm good enough to do it part-time, but not full-time?”, suggesting also that he could have been offered further training if his skills were lacking.

And Theatre Deli told Now Then:

We are saddened and surprised by Nathan Geering's resignation which he has tendered with immediate effect. We will be making a more complete public statement when it is possible and appropriate for us to do so.

We have reached out to Nathan with the hopes that he will attend an externally facilitated and impartial grievance panel to discuss the serious allegations he has made. We will then carry out a thorough investigation, in line with our Grievance Procedure.

Multiple confidential HR issues involving members of staff with different intersecting identities have influenced our decision-making in recent months. We have a duty of care to everyone that works with us.

We understand how pervasive and nuanced institutional and systemic racism can be. At the same time, we do not recognise the Theatre Deli described in Nathan's public post. We will continue to work to be an organisation which welcomes everyone, which provides safe spaces to create art, and we hope to continue to learn from everyone who works with us.

We thank you for any patience you are able to afford us as we investigate further.

We hope to rebuild trust with the communities and individuals we work with in the coming months, which we know will have been affected by these public comments.

Councillor Mohamed expresses concerns about this response, saying:

I do have concerns with the statement made by Theatre Deli in which they state ‘We do not recognise the Theatre Deli described in Nathan’s public post’. Sadly this reinforces the position that they do not understand how to address or deal with racism. Denying the experience isn’t helpful.

We have an ambition that we will become an anti-racist city. But in doing so, organisations that want to become actively anti-racist need to recognise that racism exists. Racism in all forms, which includes the micro-aggressions that many people of colour face in the workplace but are often very difficult to evidence.

Theatre Deli will need to learn, reflect and change as a result of this experience and work hard to rebuild trust.

The experience has left Nathan, he says, with trauma (“and I don’t use that word lightly”). He now wants to see a future where funding goes to people and groups with lived experiences.

What needs to happen is that [people with] protected characteristics need their own institutions, so for example, disability organisations, groups of people of colour, LGBTQIA+ groups. We all need our own buildings, we all need our own institutions that are run by us, with us, for us.

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