DIVERSITY – That old chestnut

Last night (Monday 17th November 2014) I was lucky enough to be able to attend an event hosted at Kings College London:
Issues in racial and ethnic casting – a launch event for Contemporary Theatre Review
Once again The Orphan of Zhao Redux film was screened. An extraordinary piece produced and directed by Jennifer Lim, Minyu Lim and Daniel York. I make no excuse for posting this film (again) as in my personal view it cannot be seen too many times.


As a visual and artistic response to claims often laid at the feet of BAME (British Asian Minority and Ethnic) artists, but especially to East Asian performers – producers, theatre directors, casting directors, can never seem to find East Asian performers. When they do, many see an entire section of British society in the gait and physiognomy of just a couple of actors.

You add that to the ongoing societal and artistic attitudes and views that are applied to British East Asians then one could be forgiven (if you’re a British East Asian) for still feeling somewhat pessimistic.

The main questions that stayed with me from last night’s event were:

  • Should publicly funded organisations be “made”  to implement diversity strategies that work?
  • The Arts Council – as a funding body should this organisation be put into a position where it has to be more practically accountable when it comes to matters of diversity and what the people who have been given awards do

Equality_Act_101It is well-known (or should be) that it is a legal requirement for ALL companies, organisations and bodies to have an active and implemented diversity, equal opportunities policy. It would appear that in some of the larger arts organisations these policies, in spite of being a legal requirement are, how shall we say, not the most important of policies for said organisations. In fact it would appear that such policies are moveable feasts. Constantly being redesigned and tweaked to suite the organisation rather than being used and created as intended. There is also a worrying trend towards back-benching diversity in order to tick boxes. In other words,  keeping diversity off the main stages and significant public platforms and only allowing diversity to show its face when it comes to the educational and outreach work. Of course there should be diversity in such important work. But why should this diversity in 21st century Britain not be given a place on the stages at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) or The Royal National Theatre on the Olivier or Lyttelton stage? Yes we do see Black and South Asian actors on such stages, but British East Asians?

I’ve just tried and “failed” yet again at accessing Gfta (Grants for the Arts) funding for the development BB3FCD9B-B5C7-72F7-EF4DC785E8E50753of two new full length stage plays. I totally understand the economic pressure and the competitive nature of access to pubic funding. But now that we are so limited in routes for regional and ethnically diverse writers in finding meaningful platforms for artistic development. The T.I.E. companies and regional repertory theatres once a rich and diverse breeding ground for new writers, have all but disappeared. Downsized or cut completely as money for the arts has been further reduced. The myopic and philistine attitude towards the arts that has been brought forward from the Thatcherite years and has bitten ever deeper since the financial crash of 2008.

20140604_105938-1024x768In order to cut away the artistic cataracts that Theatre (and indeed other media) suffer from when it comes to public displays of diversity especially when it comes to East Asians, we need British East Asian writing and the British East Asian writers to present their view of the world, their Britain. Not what it historically was or a romanticised miss-remembered view of Britain. Even if we have the writers and I  personally think that we do. We just don’t get to see their work.  Access to funding, to platforms that will progress such work is not there. BAME artists more often than not we are consigned to the margins, to the fringes of our own cultural landscape. Making our own work, our own art, but in effect our voice is being silenced, sectioned off from mainstream society, with no real platform from which to be heard. If our contemporary views are being muffled through lack of access, then is it any wonder that representations of true diversity continue to languish at the back of the artistic cupboard.

As for me I fully intend to push on and write the two works that I had submitted an application for IMG_5543bw_10x8R&D (research and development) funding from the Arts Council. It would have been a surprise, but obviously very welcomed, if funding had been forthcoming.
I am incredibly fortunate to have found the support of  two writing mentors both well established in their field, both significant award winners and both BAME writers.
One of my writing mentors, an Asian American playwright wrote, in response to me telling them I had not been successful in my funding application.

So sorry that the Arts Council proved parochial and short-sighted

I’ll just let that hang there for a second. I’m lucky in that I have found two writers willing to take time out of their busy lives and afford a new writer the gift of their experience and insight. If I manage to progress, I’d like to think that I will learn by example and would offer the same support that I have been given – but first I have to get “there”.

Why didn’t I choose a British playwright as a mentor, I hear many ask. Technically speaking one of the my mentors is/was British (BAME) but in spite of having been awarded the John Whiting Award for their first theatrical work, they left these shores feeling that opportunities were more abundant, less restrictive and more open to diversity elsewhere. That was some twenty-years ago and here we are still “discussing” the issues of diversity, visibility, opportunities and accessibility for BAME artists.

Perhaps if more of the current funding available was specifically and effectively targeted to give meaningful opportunities to British East Asian writers, then perhaps there would have been established British East Asian writers that I could have approached. As it is and wanting to find an established East Asian writer who uses the English language and would (hopefully) understand the impetus, stimuli and position from which I approach any written project, I felt that I had no other option but to seek a mentor from across the pond. I cannot name one established, award-winning British East Asian playwright that has been produced in the Westend, at the RSC or at the RNT? If you can pray do share.
However I can name at least half a dozen British East Asian writers that most people will never have heard of and unless things radically change, probably are never likely to become well-known – why?

  • Access
  • True implementation of diversity
  • Eradication of institutionalised and structural racism and prejudice

All of the above need to be embraced in practical terms. They also need to be integrated into ALL arts organisations, academic/training institutions, theatre companies, casting, production and funding.

It’s all very well saying, I support diversity, but unless people whole-heartedly buy into and fully implement diversity policies, we’ll end up going round and round and round in ever decreasing circles.

Humankind has not woven the web of life, We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
Chief Seattle, Native American tribal leader.