Reflecting as current Acting Job draws to an end

When acting jobs draw to and end it’s always sad.

Sandra Oh
But it’s part and parcel of the peripatetic life of a freelancer. You make new friends and now with social media, you can keep in contact (although it’s not the same, but better than losing touch). Recently and more to the point unusually for me; I have been incredibly lucky in the recent work I’ve been given the opportunity to do. Neal Street Productions, Royal Shakespeare Company, BBC, Big Finish Productions, Theatre503, HerStory Festival, Women and War Festival and Untold Arts #TheScarTest at Soho Theatre. But even in the 21st century, such productions as #SnowInMidsummer (RSC) and #TheScarTest are rare. Rare because of the content/subject matter and casting. #Snow an all East Asian eleven strong cast, #Scar an all female, all women of colour cast – hired to act, not just because of the colour of their skin, but their ability to perform multiple roles.
I’d like to think that we come a long way since the 80’s when I played Portia (amongst other roles) at The Bristol Old Vic in the studio.

Julius Caesar BOV 1987
Lucy Sheen and Leo Wringer as Portia and Brutus photographer Lawrence Burns

Directed by the late great Roger Rees. One broad sheet critic headed their review

 Let Me Have Men About me that are Black.

His contention was that no matter how well the diverse poly ethnic company spoke the verse and he conceded we spoke it perfectly. It just wasn’t Shakespeare, because we were not white. I repeat I’d like to think we have come a long way since then. I can dream can’t I? But then I think it’s been thirty years since that groundbreaking production. And we have yet to see another British East Asian actress in a major Shakespearian role on a main-stage in the UK. Incredible isn’t it.

Whilst our colleagues of South Asian and Black, African and Caribbean heritage have made headway – British East Asians remain stuck in a time vortex which is more reminiscent of the Victorian world view when it comes to people from the Far-east than the actuality of the 21st century. But is this then a true reflection of how the western, Eurocentric Caucasian Oxbridge educated male arts dominated world view us?

Diversity is the watchword and those in the industry sitting in their ivory towers, holding the purse strings tight, dictating what is “good art” and what subjects are worthy of being produced and who can or cannot be cast in leading protagonistic roles. But inclusivity the actual driver, the engine if you like to achieve diversity top to bottom, in front of and behind the camera that is missing. We can have all the protestations from the production companies that they see diversity as something that is lacking. That they need to do more. But if the will to drive this to fruition is not there. If the very people tasked with implementing this have no connection to diversity what then? And it isn’t just the media (TV, Film) that is guilty of paying lip service only it is in our theatres. On our main stages, not just regional subsidises theatres (the few that are left) but our major NPOs (National portfolio Organisations) i.e. the ones that receive ongoing funding from The Arts Council Of England, some not all are still lagging far behind in the diversity. In casting of actors, back stage, administration wise etc.

When are we going to see more diversity and inclusion in British culture?
And please don’t tell me it takes time for these things to occur. It’s been thirty years since I first entered in to the fray and heard the “debate” about accurate and appropriate representations of people of colour. How much more time is needed? Quite frankly that “excuse” has passed its sell by date and gone over the “best before” date.

All I want, all any actor wants (irrespective colour, gender or physical ability) is a fair shake. An opportunity to work in the field that I trained to work in. I think I’m ok at this type of work. All anyone wants is to be able to make the bills at the end of the month, to earn enough to cover their travel and food costs and maybe have just a little at the end of the month to have a few nights out – go see a film, catch a theatre show have a drink or meal with a few friends once in a while. As an actor of colour I’d love not to be worrying
about the when the next casting will come along let alone the next job. At the moment many acting jobs appear to be driven not by the talent,  but by who your agent is and whether the production company and or casting director actually knows and likes the agent you’re with. You’re being dictated to before you even get a chance to walk through a door to a casting. You add the latter to the existing narrow view when casting people of colour in non-specified roles, add that to the ongoing view of what an East Asian should be, the limited expectations of what an East Asian should be like through the culturally dominant lens of the UK and castings are not piling up for actors like me. Add to that the inbuilt agism when it comes to female actors and that’s yet another barrier. Whatever happened to “playing age” especially in theatre?

I’m not famous, people don’t know who I am or what I’ve been in. That’s fine, I don’t mind that at all. But industry people? You would be forgiven for assuming that those who work in the business of finding or suggesting actors for roles, that such professionals would be in the know. It’s not like I’m fresh out of drama school.  I have to confess I have now been around for a while and I do have a fairly credible CV.  But recently I have been quizzed by several industry folks in the casting sector,  asking me why they have never heard of me, or never come across me.
I don’t know, how does one answer that one?  At the beginning of this year I appeared in Call The Midwife S6 Ep3 an episode that apparently attracted 31.4 per cent of the viewing audience and 500,000 more viewers than the previous week’s episode. So over or around 9.22 million viewers. Making Call The Midwife the most watched program for that day.

As an actor of colour or a very particular and unrepresented colour roles of this type, calibre, researched well and crafted with love and care are the exception not the rule.

And on that note I will draw to a rather (for me) depressing note. As I enter the final few performances of The Scar Test and extraordinary play written by the über talented Hannah Khalil, directed superbly by Sara Joyce and performed by an equally extraordinary cast Nadia Nadif, Shazia Nicholls, Janet Etuck and Rebecca Omogbehin I cannot help wonder whether we will ever get the chance to work together again because this grouping of actress spanning continents, faiths and cultures is so rare to be seen on stage yet it is an actuality in British  life in spite of what the Daily Mail and other right-wing fear and hatred mongering media would have you think. Britain is not as segregated and fearful as some would want us to believe.
Yet our art, our culture has not even come close to reflecting the exuberance, the complexity, the joy and diversity that really is modern-day Britain and we are all the poorer for it.

 

 

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What happens after the production comes down?

So you’ve just ended an intense period of work with a group of fellow actors. 99.9% of the time the actors you didn’t already know become long-term friends and remain in your life, even if it’s intermittent.

RSC Swan Theatre: Snow In Midsummer company 2017

You’ll bump into them maybe at casting, you’ll see them when you go to see a show, you might, if you’re lucky, work with one or two or maybe all of them again both collectively and severally.
But the nature of being an actor is at once both communal and solo.
So what does happen when you finish a play and everyone goes their separate ways. Now it’s so much easier to keep in touch with folks, social media, mobile phones and email. None of that was available when I first came into the profession. It was landlines, public telephones, and snail mail. First night cards and telegrams from your agent. So not surprisingly often you just literally lost contact with people. In this day of technology if you want to keep in contact with someone it’s pretty simple.
Having recently completed an amazing job at The RSC, something that will always be special and a production with which I take immense pride in having been part of; but as they say, all good things must come to an end and it did on March 25th, 2017.

I have always suffered, to varying degrees, from depression when jobs finish, especially, theatre jobs. It taps into my predilection towards depression. I suffered a nervous breakdown when I was a young adult kept it quiet for more years than I care to think of. But over those years I have learned to “cope.” Finding activities that keep your mind busy and focussed elsewhere. I write, I draw, I used to play musical instruments. (I must get back into that). These days I write and I create digital canvasses. By and large, it helps to fill the vast expanse of empty time. You go from 100 to 0. Doing everything and anything. Having structured days and evenings, to doing nothing. As an actor you constantly experience the highs of working, engaging with people, reconnecting with actors, and friends you might not have seen for sometime. You’re performing (what you trained to do or have spent a life time doing) and socialising as you wind down.
To the loneliness and isolation of nothing. Very often nothing in the pipeline and the worry of how you’re going to cover your bills. You hope, you pray that ‘something’ will come along sooner rather than later. In the old days, cash in hand work was easy to find.  Now even temporary work has expectations of commitment, contracts and minimal shifts to be worked. It’s not that easy, unless you find a sympathetic and supportive employer. Or a reputable agency with plenty of work on the books, but good ones, truly good ones are over subscribed and can afford to pick and choose who they take.

Calling it the post-show blues is a bit like calling Postnatal depression the baby blues. I just as guilty as the next person.
It belittles the seriousness of the condition. Most actors “shrug” it off and try to get on with things. For the most part it “works.” But there are and have been recent tragedies and it doesn’t always stop when you get the next job.
Thankfully it is getting easier to talk about such things. But there are still many, who I am sure, suffer in silence because of the perceived and historical stigma of having mental health issues.

Alone
ALONE – digital canvas by Lucy Sheen

How do actors cope with such extremes? If you’re lucky enough to be going from one job to the next – the average working actor can find themselves languishing in such depressions and each time it hits harder because the joy, the thrill of being employed feels all the more intense, it is all the more precious especially if the interludes between work have become longer.
The starvation and the feast heightened and intensified. I suppose one could say it’s an occupational hazard. One of the many that face the freelance, self-employed, trying to be, jobbing actor.

I’m lucky I have another job to turn my energies to and a potential job after that one. For the likes of an actor like me that’s amazing infamous, unknown female actors or colour over fifty don’t find themselves in a position like this too often. But plenty of actors, old, young, male, female, BAME not BAME do find themselves in despair and fighting off the black dog as it circles around you. I don’t have answers, I don’t have ‘a solution.’ I wish I did.

All I know is that recognising the signs is the first step, talking to someone you trust the second and taking each day as it comes the third.
No pre-loading, no transferring or second guessing yourself, just putting one foot forward after the other and taking your time. Taking all the time that you need.

On a rather flippant final note I do also find the odd glass of red wine in good company or a G&Ts helps too –  here’s to keeping and staying well.

Zut alors!

I’m back again scratching my head.

Yesterday it was Aunty, the “affectionate” term used by many when referring to the British Broadcasting Company or the BBC and their “major plans on diversity.” For more read BEA FAQ for The BBC, casting directors and general media

Today it’s Théâtre du Châtelet and their rival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King & I.  For more on that please read the most excellent fairyprincessdiaries’ latest blog post.

Yes that's The King of Siam
Yes that’s The King of Siam

Here’s the thing. The King & I is set in Siam. It’s about The King of Siam.  Simple isn’t it. But according to the latest revival little things like historical accuracy i.e. The King of Siam being from Siam or as we now know the country Thailand, this is role that is quiet obviously for an East Asian actor, no?  Mais non, aussi incroyable que cela puisse paraître, ce fait est sans conséquence à tous. Par Anglais: But no, incredible as it may seem, this fact is of no consequence at all.  It appears , that when it came to the casting of this revival UK director Lee Blakely saw nothing inappropriate, nothing “wrong” in casting French actor Lambert Wilson as The King and Lisa Milne as Lady Thiang. Monsieur Wilson according to his IMBd profile he was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, France.  He is French his father, Georges Wilson, was an actor, theatrical manager and director of the Theatre National de Paris, now known as Théâtre du Châtelet from 1963 to 1972 – coincidence, peut-être? As far as I can ascertain Monsieur Wilson has not cultural, ethnic or heritage ties or personal associations with East Asia. Not that the latter should matter. What matter is that as good an actor Monsieur Wilson is, what in god’s name is he doing being cast as The King, in The King & I? And the same goes for Opera singer Lisa Milne.

http://bailiwickchicago.com/colorblind-casting-catch-22/
Colour blind casting

Now some would say this is one for those that advocate colour blind casting. Choose the best actors for the roles. Yes it would if it were globally a two way street and traffic was going both sides of the track up and down, not just in one direction. But it isn’t is it. You get a BAME actor or actress playing a part that’s more obviously written or traditionally play by an Caucasian actor then usually all hell breaks loose. This tend to happen  more frequently in movies, the platform and media maybe different,  but the issues are the same. Suddenly the casting a BAME actor affects the integrity of the work. Those that haven chosen to cast in this manner wake up to headlines such as:

The Incoherent Backlashes to Black

Actors Playing ‘White’ Superheroes

 

In terms of a BAME  (Black, Asian Minority Ethnic) actor in the UK being cast in what is considered traditionally white theatrical roles, recently I can only think of one. A Black actress cast in the part of Bobby in The Railway Children. I am sure there must be others. But for the life of me I cannot think of any at the time of writing this blog post. The actress playing Bobby got a mixed reception. Some went with it, for others it ‘spoilt’ the show. They complained of having to try and explain things to their disappointed children. I couldn’t help thinking at the time, was it the children that were disappointed or the adults?  Was it about the fact that the role had been played by a Black actress , most of whom admitted she did a fine job, or that audience members’ own prejudices and preconceptions prevented them from sitting in a theatre, suspending disbelief and just enjoying the show? After all in the theatre, is that not the contract that the audience and theatre enter into? For a brief time all things are possible. If you want realism watch the news, watch a conventional documentary. Theatre is all about the imagination. The audiences’ and the actors’ combined imaginations, or at least it used to be.

Thing is, I don’t see too many BAME actors being cast in white roles.  The RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) claimed that it was breaking the mould back in 2000 when they cast David Oyelowo as Henry VI, at the same time Adrian Lester was about to tread the boards as Hamlet in Brooks production at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris, December 2000. Both actors received, as far as I recall, great critical acclaim for their portrayals.
But it’s not an everyday occurrence. A BAME actor, (more often than not a Black-Caribbean or South Asian actor in the UK) playing a classical lead, is the exception not the rule. It is happening more. But considering 2000 was the first time that the Royal Shakespeare Company actually cast a Black actor as a King, it is pretty shabby going.

Back to the matter in hand, Théâtre du Châtele’s revival of The King & I.

Yul Byner & Deborah Kerr 1956
Yul Brynner & Deborah Kerr 1956
The-King-and-I.-Festival-EdinburghPhoto-Credit-Catherine-Ashmore-1-e1348762946446-630x310 copy
UK 2012 Josefina Gabrielle (Anna) and Ramon Tikaram (The King) in The King and I. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
kingandi_wst-dl copy
December 11th, 2013 Vancouver,Gateway Jovanni Sy, who plays the king of Siam, and an inspired rendering of the English schoolteacher Anna by the smartly-cast Barbara Tomasic
Brisbane 2014 Lisa McCune and international opera sensation Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King of Siam.
Brisbane 2014
Lisa McCune and international opera sensation Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King of Siam.


My point being, yes BAME actors do sometimes get cast in “white” roles. But not as often as their Caucasian counterparts get cast in BAME roles. Caucasian actors can go seamless from playing anything and practically everything without raising an eyebrow in many quarters. It’s  appears to be ok for a work to be re-ethnicised, to be culturally re-structured to accommodate the casting of a Caucasian actor or actress. But you trying doing that, the other way around. Questions are asked, fingers pointed, barbed comments quite often bandied about freely on social media.

My ears are still ringing to the furore that Talawa’s  all black Importance of  Being Earnest elicited back in 1992. It literally split the professional theatrical and artistic community in two, those for and those against.
Whilst on the one hand a revival of The King & I can be staged in a manner that strips out the very heart of the piece, the political and the cultural concerns, by casting the King and Lady Thiang with Caucasian actors.
A company that in the UK looks at doing Chekhov’s  Three Sisters or Ibsen’s Ghosts with a mixed or all British East Asian cast, would be in for a very rough ride indeed. One only has to look at the reviews from around the globe when it comes to multiracial casting  – please I’d love to be proved wrong.

Is it fair, no. Will it continue to occur, yes. Will things change, possibly, but only if we ALL stand together and refuse to be complicit, refuse to enable this type of cultural  laundering of work.
It seems that there is still one rule for the culturally dominant in society and another for those that are not.

Tony Hall reveals major action plan to tackle BBC diversity

Thus read a recent headline in The Stage and expanding on my impromptu Facebook response

http://guru.bafta.org/lenny-henry-bafta-television-lecture-watch-live
Lenny Henry BAFTA Television Lecture 2014

 

It’s taken a high-profile BAME (British Asian Minority Ethnic), Lenny Henry to embarrass Aunty into doing something. While all of this is great. It means nought if there is no robust mechanism, procedures and protocols in place to ensure that these plans are rolled out effectively and efficiently and are actually practically affecting the way the media and the arts utilise BAME talent.

Tony Hall, director general of the BBC. Photo: Johan Persson

The BBC according to the recent exchange they had with East Asian student
Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan stated that they had measures in place when it came to diversity.
Already I see a huge flaw. Once again British East Asians appear to missing from this ‘major action plan.’  Will these new measures stop the BBC and other media producers from discounting East Asian artists as ‘lacking in authenticity’ and therefore feeling justified in casting overseas? Attitudes have to change in the UK and that starts with robust monitoring, encouraging and bringing on East Asian writers of ALL ages not just “emerging” for which it appears one has to be between the ages of 16-30!

There is a wealth of British talent, of British Asian Minority and Ethnic talent that the BBC ignores at its peril. There is a wealth of British East Asian talent that is still being side-barred and not just by the BBC. But as the flagship, as a publicly funded broadcaster, the BBC should be leading the way.  Excuse me for not being overly enthusiastic but I have seen many initiatives over the years come and go. I have also seen many of my (BAME) friends, colleagues and acquaintances pack up, either leave the country or just give in altogether.
Those that have left these shore, many have found that they can make a living over in the US (and other places) something that very few actors, let alone BAME actors can do on these shores.

When you consider that the UK has in many cases invested in these actors, via the old grants system in my case, or student loans,  it seems an utter madness that this investment is not nurtured to full fruition.  But, I suspect, if the establishment and country that you live in doesn’t see you as part of the society;  for example some of the comments that Lenny Henry received after he had given BAFTA Television Lecture many via Twitter

‘If he (Henry) wants a lot of blacks around go and live in a black country.’ On another occasion, Mr Henwood tweeted: ‘Islam reminds me of the 3rd Reich Strength through violence against the citizens.’

To which of course many responded, that Lenny Henry already did. Didn’t he (Mr Henwood) realise Lenny came from the Black country?

LennyHenryTweet
Then you’re not going to be considered and therefore you won’t figure in the big media scheme of things and there is a disjunct between what is actually happening in Britain and what Producers and those responsible for media content view as reality. Whether that through a comedic, dramatic or factionalised lens.
You only have to scroll through the comments below the two Daily Mail articles to see what British people, who happen to have non Caucasian roots, still have to endure in supposed modern, multicultural and poly ethnic British society. Diversity is here to stay, though I am sure, there are many on all sides of all fences. Be those religious or cultural who spout their preference for their own elite and pure “isms” sadly we will never be able to stop such people from having extreme views. But the majority of people, I’d like to think, just want to get on with their lives. They want the best for themselves, their children and their loved ones. They want things to be proud of, things that reflect the country that they live in. Just think back to the Olympics 2012.

No one is saying that the BBC has to give actors jobs.  BAME artists would just like to be able to compete on a level playing field. We’d just like to know that we will be considered not just for the “obvious” roles because that’s what BAME actors have always been cast as – but for other roles, that reflect more completely and accurately, the diversity which can be found on British streets, in British businesses, schools and colleges.

multicultural-affairs_Banner
If we want our media to better reflect actuality, then the media has to start viewing BAMEs as part of society not additional, separate or as an “add-on” to it. We are part and parcel of the British landscape, no matter what feelings that might instil in people.  Diversity is here, it’s real and it is reflected in the faces of the people you walk past every day. BAMEs are not an adjunct, an addendum or a mere footnote –  we are real, we have purpose, we have vision and we contribute.