A production needs East Asians, so sit back and they will come?

Just finished reading Dan Bacalzo’s latest blog post Frequently Asked Questions about Yellowface Casting

In the article Dan poses many questions that should be aired, even if they can’t be answered. But the thing that sticks out for me is this:

But I do wonder what kind of outreach was done to encourage more actors of Asian descent to audition. I don’t know enough specifics about the Union Theatre, so I’m going to make my comments a bit more general now. The bottom line is that if theatres do not have a history of casting in a diverse manner, it’s less likely that actors of color will show up to an open call. Also, if you’re doing a show that has roles originally intended to be played by actors of a certain race, then it is your job as a director/casting director/producer to find people who fit that bill. That often means actively taking steps to expand the pool of actors who might typically show up to audition for your theatre. You can’t just assume they’ll find you. You have to make an effort.

How many times have I heard similar comments, such as:

facebook_blank_face3But we just couldn’t find anyone
Where did you look? How hard did you look?
Non of the people that we saw were good enough.
How many people did you actually see?
We saw loads.
Which is usually a euphemism for seeing less than a small handful. But if we say that it’ll stop people from giving us a hard time on the diversity-ethnic-minority-thing.

I was at a public event where a casting director, for a major UK, publicly funded theatre company, openly said to nearly two hundred British East Asian Artists, that they had not been aware that so many East Asian actors existed. They also wanted to know why they didn’t know that we existed!


Call me slow, but isn’t there a clue in the job title CASTING DIRECTOR? Isn’t it part of the job description of a casting director to have a wide-reaching knowledge of the actors available?  A list, B list, relatively unknown and newbies? Surely if you don’t know the market from which you’re trying to source your talent you can’t be as effective a casting director, as the casting director who does know?

In order to do their job, Casting Directors draw on years of artistic taste, imagination, knowledge, research and political expertise – all this before the collaboration with the Director, Producer, writer etc begins.

This explanation/definition comes directly from the Casting Directors Guild. Pretty self-explanatory to me.

http://bailiwickchicago.com/colorblind-casting-catch-22/So what is it about the casting process and BAME (British Asian Minority Ethnic) artists, specifically British East Asian Artists that can enable a casting director to feel perfectly at home announcing publicly, that actually they haven’t really got a clue when it comes to British East Asian Artists.

The Face of Fu Manchu 1965

So what, if any, are the key drivers that feed into this “lack of knowledge?” The apparent reticence when it comes to engaging and hiring British East Asian actors? Is it the prevailing, ingrained, institutionalised and structural attitudes towards East Asians in British society? We are at the bottom of the societal heap. We are the “model minority.” We are silent, we are non demonstrative, we demand very little and even when we do, we are easily swatted like the proverbial fly.
We are ignored and thus we remain culturally insignificant, yet to find our place on the artistic landscape as our Black, African, Caribbean and South Asian colleagues have managed to do.
The persistent and enduring representation of East Asians as heavily accented, usually low paid, non-comprehending, menial workers, or illegal immigrants, culturally at odds within the society in which they live; is more likely to be the basis of an East Asian character in the UK media. I have yet to see consistent representations of East Asians who are British in speech, culture and outlook. These portrayals are rare. When it happens it is a breath of fresh air (Secret Diary of a Call Girl – Gemma Chan).

MV5BMTQ4NDI3NDg4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjY5OTI1OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_We can see an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, or Herman MV5BMTIxMTU2NTE2Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTY0NzMzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_Hesse’s Steppenwolf and we don’t expect the actors in these English language adaptations to put on French or German-Swiss accents? Yet when it comes to us East Asians actors, we are still expected to vocally colour our performance with East Asian accents. As if to further underline the fact that we are East Asian.
So British productions or English language productions usually based on foreign

Anthony Andrews and Ian McKellen in The Scarlet Pimpernel 1982
Anthony Andrews and Ian McKellen in The Scarlet Pimpernel 1982

language literature,viewers don’t seem to have a problem with such adaptation. Neither do we have a problem with such dramas as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Set in Britain and revolutionary France. Yet non of the French characters, predominantly played by British actors (in the versions that I have seen) has had to assume a French accent. Why should they, these are English language production. We accept that when Citizen Armand Chauvelin meets Sir Percy Blakeney, that Chauvelin is French, n’est-ce pas?
Why then, when it comes to productions that are set in East Asia, yet written in English, the audience has to hear (in the majority of cases) an East Asian accent, even if an East Asian has been cast? However you cast English actors, for example, The Pillow Book by Robert Forrest, set in 10th-century Japan and the accent is not required (thank goodness).

Pillow Book BBC Radio 4

The Pillow Book was broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in 2008 with the following cast:
Shonagon …… Ruth Gemmell
Narimasa …… John Rowe
Empress …… Laura Rees
Tadanobu …… Benedict Cumberbatch
Saisho …… Caroline Martin
Emperor …… Richard Madden
Yukinari …… Mark Bazeley
Directed and produced by Lu Kemp. It went into the fifth series in October  2012 with Ruth Gemmell continuing in the role of Shonagon.
So having cast Caucasian actors only, the most prominent device used, in my opinion, to set this piece in the far east was music. I can go along with that. The fact that the actors (again thank god) do not attempt to put on East Asian accents does interfere with my ability to listen, take in the broadcast and accept that it is set in feudal Japan.

What worries me more is why no British East Asian actors were cast at all in this piece. Given that there are precious few opportunities for East Asian actors in the UK. That topic requires yet more discussion in a stand-alone article.

A scene from Pacific Overtures Photo: Darren Bell Photography
A scene from Pacific Overtures Photo: Darren Bell Photography

It is apparently perfectly acceptable and plausible for a Caucasian actor in an English adaptation to play outside of their own race and ethnicity, without the requirement of a foreign accent. Yet the same cannot be said for a British East Asian actor. Even if the character is meant to be British East Asian. There is still an expectation that East Asians must have foreign accents. First, second generation realistic and authentic, yes. Now in 2014, East Asian kids are just as likely to be into hardcore street dance and Parkour as their Caucasian peers are. These new generations of British East Asian kids and youths may relate more to Rap and Hip-Hop, than to Canto-pop or Chinese Opera.  Many now speak less Chinese than their predecessors did. Some don’t know enough Chinese to be able to communicate properly with their parents.
These are East Asians, these are modern British East Asians. They see little to noting of themselves reflected in popular media. They don’t see their older brother, the entrepreneur, or their cousin who works in production, the sister that’s a journalist or the political activist.
We are still being artistically and culturally corralled into a heightened and feigned exotics. That is supposed to do what exactly? Re-confirm that East Asians are not like westerners (we already know this) and therefore are never going to be allowed into the fold?

I’m not just questioning the casting process and efforts of  The Union Theatre’s production of Pacific Overtures but in general. Look at BBC Radio 4’s production of The Pillow Book and compare that to the cultural, ethnic and racial sensitivity that the producers of  James Joyce’s Ulysses put into the casting including the following Irish actors, Niamh Cusack, Stephen Rea, Jim Norton, Stephen Hogan and Janet Moran.

Until the British viewing and hearing public are given more variety in representations of British society’s diversity;  in terms of programs, content, story-lines and realistic character portrayals of British East Asians, we will continue to be dangled across small and big screens, as ill spoken, usually poorly paid and socially ostracised citizens. With the occasional wealthy Triad Leader, but always the outsider, the foreigner.

BEAA founding members 2013
BEAA founding members

It isn’t just one thing that has led to an imbalance and total lack of meaningful cultural inclusion for East Asians. I believe it is a confluence of several interlocking deep-seated, deep-rooted historical characteristics and attitudes which remain stubbornly embedded (so it would seem) in the British psyche. Accompanied by an assumed arrogance on the part of many in positions of artistic power, who coincidentally tend to be white and male.
The assumption that putting a production on which requires East Asian talent is enough is flawed and not enough. The ‘build and they will come’ attitude. Well maybe we will, maybe we won’t, but surely if you really wanted to cast a production with an all East Asian cast, you’d go all out to try and achieve that wouldn’t you?  You wouldn’t just sit back and expect the talent to flock to you? You’d scour through the Spotlight Directory, you’d contact Equity? You’d put a call out to all the major Agents? You’d reach out to as many professional channels and outlets as you could to find your cast wouldn’t you?
So is that why we see so few East Asians in the media and on stage. Is that why we see the same BAME faces. This is not the actors fault, but those that seem to be unable or unwilling to cast their nets further afield. This laissez-faire attitude, is it ignorance on the part of the producers, casting directors and directors? Or simply contempt towards the viewing public? An insult to their intelligence an assumption that it doesn’t matter or the viewer won’t notice?  Or just apathy in general when it comes to casting BAMEs especially if it’s from a minority to which the establishment has less familiarity with and feels even less comfortable with?

It isn’t enough to announce that you’re casting a production that needs to be racially and ethnically specific. You (the casting director, producer, director) have to work at this. In the same manner it isn’t enough to say I support diversity and then sit back and do sweet fa about it. The only way that we will get diverse, or minority specific shows when apposite and required is if we work at it. Everyone has to be pro-active. British media is not suddenly over night, even with the introduction of quotas,  going to reflect modern British society as seen on our streets. There has to be the writing to support this. Changes in mindset and a discarding of old views and perceptions as to what it means to be British.

B.D. Wong (center) and the company of Pacific Overtures photo by Joan Marcus
B.D. Wong (center) and the company of Pacific Overtures
photo by Joan Marcus

More care needs to be taken with productions such as Pacific Overtures and yes, even The Mikado and that they are cast with cultural sensitivity, which is more consummate with modern-day society. As we now have access to diverse and minority specific talent.  I can already hear some people saying that the Mikado was written in another time –  true and there would not have been East Asian actors/light opera singers readily available for Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan to draw from, even if they had wanted to.
But we are no longer in that era. Pacific Overtures was written in the 20th century and was designed for a cast of East Asians so why are we presented with a white-washed production?

But we couldn’t find any British East Asians, or Only one British East Asian applied.

Sadly I am sure that I will hear the above again,  if we can have a casting director working for a high-profile publicly funded company, admitting that they are not aware of two-thirds of the British East Asian talent available, then I am sure they are not the only ones. That can be changed. But for change to occur, the will has to be there. Change is not an inactive, inert process, it is active and alive. If you don’t know where to find British East Asian actors, then make it your business to know where to find them. If I don’t know something I look it up. I use the internet, the local library, I’ll  even read a hard copy book or two. It’s my responsibility to do the research.

In this day and age of technology and access to information, it is not enough to plead ignorance.