I was at a gathering not so long ago and the opening gambit, from a complete stranger was this:
What did you read?
I was momentarily taken-aback (quite a feat for those of you who know me). I responded to the question by saying,
I didn’t “read” anything. I went to an all girls state secondary modern school and then a Polytechnic, before going onto drama school.
There was a measurable awkward silence from the gentleman. He had cornered himself, hung by his own petard. Having initiated a conversation with a complete stranger. He based his approach on a series of assumptions about me, my up-bringing, race and very specifically my education. Which he then found to be incorrect. His next questions was, well it was more of statement,
Drama school eh? RADA.
At that point I could quite easily have, as they say, lost the will to live.
Two things were bubbling in my brain.
- Why did you start talking to me?
- What are you going to do now?
I was tempted, sorely tempted, to smile and walk away. But there was something in me (the devil perhaps) that made disinclined to ease this chaps, self-inflicted embarrassment.
I explained calmly, quietly and in the finest RP tones I was capable of.
- Who I was
- Where I had come from.
Lighting the blue touch-paper and retiring to wait for the full impact of my words to sink in. This usually does take a few extra seconds, but it felt like minutes.
My explanation had clearly caused more discomfort and social embarrassment.
You see, I’m a Colonial. I’m an orphaned colonial, who was adopted and raised in the bosom of middle-class conservative England.
I speak well and in spite of what one might hear about Secondary Modern schools, I received a pretty solid all round education. At that time, I think that less than 5% of the school population went onto any form of tertiary education. The school doors opened and those not academically gifted were welcomed by the local manufacturing companies and trades who took on apprentices. Many girls went onto do Pitman courses, many more went into retail, and a few went to the BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) as air-stewardess. I went to a Polytechnic, studying for two years Theatre Design, Music, English, Drama and Film studies. I passed all four exams and then went on to audition at various drama schools. But only being able to get a discretionary grant for one drama school, the die was cast and that’s where I went for three years.
The gentleman was further more discomforted when I told him that RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) was not the drama school that I had trained at. He then went on to ask, well say the following
I suppose it must be very difficult and frustrating for an actress like you, in field that it notorious for unemployment. I mean these days there’s not much call for maids, servants and such like, but historical dramas set in the East are still frightfully popular so you must do well with that type of work.
Twenty years ago, maybe even ten, I would have gotten visibly, very angry. Now that I’m older and I will say wiser on this score, it doesn’t rile me any more. Life, as I have discovered, is far too short. In “conversations” such as these I make a decision whether to walk away or to engage. I weigh up the likelihood of whether spending time talking will fall on deaf ears or might actually plant a small seed. I don’t always get it right. It isn’t an exact science. But if you don’t talk, if you’re not prepared to communicate with people then nothing ever will change.
I explain to him that I have been exceedingly lucky in my career over the past thirty odd years. Even though he will never have heard of me. My first job was the lead role in a British feature film PING PONG (1987). I’ve been shown at Venice Film Festival, I’ve worked for the BBC (why does that always seem to impress people so much)? I’ve worked with the some of the best British acting talent that this country has had to offer over the past thirty years. As well as an American Oscar winner and I’ve been nominated myself for a couple of theatre awards. I’ve worked with some of the world’s most renowned writers and playwrights and I’ve even performed in Shakespeare at one of Britain’s the oldest theatres.
The two things that people most comment on are
- my age
- the fact that I’ve actually acted in a Shakespeare
East Asian genes are pretty “youthful” it would appear. For which, on the one hand I am incredibly grateful for, so I give him that one.
The Shakespeare thing, well that’s all part and parcel of being a British East Asian artist. The fact that my ethnicity, colour, race and assumed racial characteristics; a polite way I sometimes think of expressing stereotypical flaws as seen by the culturally dominant, more often than not, preclude me from being able to participate in a Shakespearian production. Or at least always guarantees the raising of a Caucasian eyebrow or two.
I played Portia in Julius Caesar twenty-seven years ago. Yes TWENTY-SEVEN years ago. Since that time there have been a fair few BAME actors and actresses that have played major parts in Shakespearian productions. Mostly Black, African, Caribbean or South Asian artists, but to my knowledge not another East Asian actress. I’m thinking specifically on a mainstream stage, so not profit share or low-pay-no paid theatre productions. I’d like to think that I’m wrong and there will be a slew of comments saying what about so-and so at this theatre or that theatre. We have yet to see an East Asian actress play the part of Cleopatra, or Perdita, or even an East Asian actor take on the role of Shylock. If you think that sounds completely screw ball then read my previous post, Authenticity keeping artistic integrity or an excuse to maintain cultural dominance?
The gentleman that asked me the questions, his voice is not a lone one. Archaic views about East Asians stubbornly persist. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. If you aren’t exposed to representations of East Asians, that challenge the stereotypical, the caricature, then the viewers and the general public are never going to be able to see beyond the hackneyed, outmoded, factually incorrect, biased and racist views that British East Asians are still subjected to. Then you have those who say, that there isn’t a market for such content or representations (I beg to differ there is), broadcasting, the media, theatre, film and TV are all missing out on a huge trick and the potential to increase their revenues both at home and abroad. Culture providers don’t make such content or pro-actively think in a diverse manner. So instead of the numbers of British ethnics watching broadcast content increasing in line with the actual number of Black, Asian (South and East) Minority Ethnics in the UK, instead of those numbers increasing they are decreasing or flat-lining. The younger generations are going out and making their own content that is now being seen globally. In broadcasting they no longer need such channels as the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 or Five they are doing it themselves and accruing audiences sizes that many a broadcaster can only dream of.
In theatre, I suspect it’s even worse. In order to create and diversify into new markets and audiences you have to at first to stimulate that market, do you not? Something I would have thought that Britain was well versed in especially having accrued all that experience in the mid to late 1800s in East Asia. Britain wanted what China had, tea, silk and porcelain. But China didn’t want what Britain had. So Britain created a market for a particular product, they stimulated the need for the product and then bobs your uncle. Two wars on and everyone in China wanted Britain’s opium and were happy to hand over tea, silk and porcelain for it. Basic law of economics.
I’m being rather flippant, but the basic point holds true, I believe. You only have to cast your mind back to 2013 in London. The Arrest of Ai Weiwei at The Hampstead. I have never seen so many East Asians in the audience. Chimerica at The Almeida Theatre again the audience was full of East Asians, students, visiting business men, overseas students and British East Asians and Yellowface at The Park theatre. Both Yellowface and Chimerica productions transferred to the Royal National Theatre-The Shed and The Harold Pinter Theatre respectively. Not forgetting The Fu Manchu Complex at The Ovalhouse and World of Extreme Happiness at The Royal National Theatre-The Shed. Productions well patronised with not just white middle class theatre loving people, but also East Asians and other British ethnic minorities. So it can’t be said that East Asians don’t go to the theatre. You just have to put on the productions that will be of interest not just to the traditional group of people who support the arts, but to those who you have yet to entice and invite in. This doesn’t necessarily mean a season of East Asian themed plays or East Asian plays, but work that casts multi-culturally and writing that comes from British East Asian. Just because a writer is British East Asian doesn’t necessarily mean that all that they write about is going to be East Asian. The point is that their voice will be British but from a new and different perspective.
If your really want something, then you will find a way of affecting change so that you can get it. There is much talk of diversity and inequality and the lack BAME (British Asian Minority Ethnic) representation in the arts and media. This is grand and I welcome it. But the will to change has to be there on all sides.
It’s the twenty-first century and we have yet to see more than a few British East Asian actors on stage in a Shakespearian production and even fewer British East Asian actresses on stage, playing major Shakespearian roles. It certainly has not happened at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as far as I am aware. Or at The Royal National Theatre. Yes they have both mounted contemporary pieces, past and present in which East Asian actors have been cast, but Shakespeare productions? Hugh Quarshie, said something very interesting at an event what was held earlier this year at the Victoria & Albert museum. It was along these lines I am paraphrasing and this is not verbatim.
That for most actors reaching the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) and working on that stage in a Shakespearian plays signifies that you, as an actor have in sense come of age. You have reached a certain standard in your craft and from that point you will go onto greater things.
Now whilst one can say, yes that’s true, in the vast majority of cases for white actors, not so for their BAME (British Asian Minority Ethnic) colleagues. Especially back in the early days pre 1981. The same expectations did not hold true for the first Black actors that trod the boards at the RSC. It didn’t necessarily open doors in the same way that it had and does for white actors. This is still, in my opinion, true to a greater or lesser degree for both Black and South Asian British actors. As for the British East Asian actors we, have yet to even gain a foot hold on the bottom rung of our so-called “national” theatre companies. Theatre companies that receive large public grants on an ongoing basis. That should be representative of The Nation in terms of culture and our modern-day demographics. Still they do not reflect our society in any meaningful way, in my personal opinion.
We have neither the depth nor variety of BAME (British Asian Minority Ethnic) actors or writers, represented, nurtured or encouraged by these institutions (and others). British East Asians very rarely get to make it as subsidiary or peripheral characters in modern dramas, let alone the classics.
There have been recent all Black productions and all South Asian productions of Shakespeare, but no attempt has been made to cast an all East Asian or predominantly all East Asian production of Shakespeare. We are told there are not enough of us (British East Asian actors). That’s true in relative terms to our Black and South Asian colleagues. But there are approximately 200 East Asian actors registered with Spotlight and Equity. Of that estimated 200, how many of us have been classically trained? I couldn’t say because robust monitoring is something that the industry has only recently decided to address. But there are enough British East Asian actors, in spite of the challenges we face as artists, who have both the training and the experience to be cast in and to perform Shakespeare. The simple reason that you don’t see it is because the gatekeepers, the producers and the directors will not, cannot or refuse to even countenance the idea. Based on what? As far as I can ascertain excuses based on factually incorrect assumptions. Based on an ingrained institutionalised and structural racism towards East Asians, that continues even in the 21st century. And most importantly of all, the lack of will. A lack of will to overcome those preconceived ideas of what it means to be British. Of what it means to be British East Asian, culturally, socially and physically. Publicly funded arts organisations, Theatre Companies, building based companies, Production, Media and Broadcasters all have to start meaningfully, nurturing and developing British talent, British East Asian talent, not just actors, but new writers and more mature new writers, who are East Asian, giving us our voice and allowing others to hear directly from us.
I’m not suggesting that Shakespeare should (or should not) be produced as an ALL [fill in race or ethnicity] type productions. As I have argued before, at the end of the day no matter what you superficially do, the text remains the text. You are still performing Shakespeare and that’s how it should be unless you wish to balderize, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. The beauty of Shakespeare is this deep-rooted commonality in themes. Which has allowed the works of Shakespeare to be translated in to practically every known language across the globe. So I personally see no reason why we can’t see more productions on the stages of the RSC that are multicultural in the casting of major roles. I see no reason why certain productions could not be set in geographical areas where East Asians reside. I can see no reason why in a modern-day dress production of Shakespeare the cast should not reflect and embrace the poly ethnic and multiculturalism, that is the reality of modern-day Britain.
Speaking personally and selfishly, I believe that I have a weird sister, a Nurse, a Regan or Goneril in me. Perhaps even a Lady M or a Lady Mcduff, a Gertrude, A Mistress Quickly or even Volumnia, all depends on how the worlds of these plays are re-conceived. I’d like to think I’d get a chance as a British classically trained actress. First there would have to be a general acceptance that I am British and that also being East Asian is not a contradiction. Ideally I should be looked upon as an actor first and foremost.
Past experience tells me not to hold my breath.