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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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!

casting-directors-logo

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
2013

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.

 

Authenticity keeping artistic integrity or an excuse to maintain cultural dominance?

I had a very interesting conversation the other day with a friend and fellow actor. Amongst the things that we discussed apart from diversity and equality was authenticity of casting. The use of authenticity to justify a lack of diversity or willingness to diversify.

It is perfectly acceptable for Helen Mirren to have been cast in the role of Cleopatra and the public and critics all accept her as  “Egyptian.”  When in fact we now know that the reality and authenticity of the look for Cleopatra is far from what we readily accept on the UK stage.

Cleopatra was a woman of mixed racial heritage. She was Greek, but was raised in Egypt.

Mirren as Cleopatra NT 1988
Mirren as Cleopatra NT 1988

We don’t bat a collective eyelid when a Caucasian actress treads the boards as the famous queen. The acting maybe criticised, the set, the costumes, the choice of director, even the lighting. But no one says a word about the choice of actress. The authenticity of casting the likes of Mirren as the Queen is never questioned. But this is something that is often queried when BAME artists are cast in Shakespeare or the Classics. Curious is it not? I personally, have no problem with Helen Mirren or anyone else for that matter being cast in that role. By the way below is a forensic reconstruction of what Cleopatra apparently, according to the science available in 2006, would have looked like. I’ll leave that one with you.

article-1095043-02CFBB40000005DC-200_468x378

The problem that I have is when people spout authenticity at me, as the rationale, the prima facie case as it were, as to why ethnicity, colour or racial background precludes one being seen as British. That Britishness can only and should only be portrayed using a single colour. Britishness equates only to White Anglo-Saxon actors and actresses. If, as I am constantly being reminded by industry professionals, that one of the beauties of Shakespeare is, his timelessness, universality and ability to cross cultures and borders, why in 2014 do we not see more BAME actors appearing in British Shakespearian productions on our premier stages?  Especially within our publicly funded national companies such as The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Royal National Theatre?

Equal opportunities, do BAME – British Asian (South Asian and East Asian) Minority Ethnic actors have access to the same level of opportunities that their Caucasian counterparts do? Well if you have been keeping up with the news then you will know the answer to that one is, NO. The industry now concedes and accepts that.  Just read what David Harewood, or Lenny Henry have to say on the subject. The facts of reality, do not bear out the assumed and supposed equality. David Oyelowo made the headlines in the press as the first British Black actor to play an English King on the stage at The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001. Lord I could fill an entire notebook on this subject and still not have scratched the white veneer that covers the attitude and influences that mould the majority of the classics that are produced and performed on our stages and why BAME artists seldom get a look in. Don’t even get me started on where the British East Asians Artists are in all of this! Unless you have literally been hiding in a bunker on a desert island somewhere unknown and uncharted, the matter of diversity and the lack of opportunities and visibility is being widely discussed (by far more accomplished people than myself) in public and across social media.

The question of authenticity. I suppose one might have to preface this with whose authenticity or authenticity as it is expedient and convenient for the gate-keepers, producers and directors?

Authenticity, is often raised as a reason not to participate in colour blind or diverse casting.  It is also a factor that is raised to try and negate the shaming of the practise of blacking up, in order to portray such characters as Othello. It usually comes hand in hand with other comments such as,  ‘oh well if you’re going to bang on about authenticity, you can only cast Hamlet using a Dane.’ I’m not even going to dignify that obtuse repost with a sentence. What I will say is, the authenticity of Shakespeare, if you’re a proponent of that, by all means go for it. Thus Shakespeare will only be performed on stages similar in design to the Globe i.e. an open air auditorium. Productions will use no artificial lighting, have very little in the way of set or costume and the cast will contain no females whatsoever. Authenticity. I ask again whose authenticity?

There is a continuing duplicity it seems that accompanies all things pertaining to diversity and equality in the arts and I am sure in the wider society. The work flow does not run down the artistic pipeline through a bi-directional valve for BAME artists. The flow of work is controlled by a check valve, meaning work opportunities, particularly in Shakespeare are only allowed to flow freely in one direction and that  direction does not favour diversity, colour blind casting or BAME talent.
Work opportunities for BAMEs, especially Shakespearian and Classical, are far fewer and occur with less frequency, if at all. Audiences and critics don’t bat an eye lid when Caucasian actor, after Caucasian actor performs in classical Greek tragedies, Russian Classics, even taking on Classical works from other continents, or appear as Hamlet and Shylock. And why should we? We are dealing in the currency of the imagination. In the recreation of stories, in fantasy and the art of performance.
Why is it that British Asian Minority Ethnic actors are more likely to be subjected to scrutiny and questions concerning their ethnicity and race in relation to the portrayal of Britishness. Whilst their
British White Anglo-Saxon counterparts can assume the guise of a myriad of races and ethnicities exeunt stage right to rapturous applause? The moment an actor of colour of dual or multiple heritage is classically cast, questions are asked, can someone of such a background be British?

Chinese Jews more commonly referred to as the lost Jews or the Jews of Kaifeng
Chinese Jews more commonly referred to as the lost Jews or the Jews of Kaifeng

Here’s a thought for you. Often an actor’s choice on how they portray Shylock raises eyebrows. Inferences and intimations on whether characterisation which dons the iconic hair locks are perhaps anti-Semitic? There was a little of this when Dustin Hoffman took on the role in London’s Westend in 1989. Above you can see a picture of some Chinese Jews. yes there is such a thing. So if we’re talking authenticity then there is no reason not to cast an East Asian as Shylock. After all it was a Venetian, Marco Polo, who opened up the trade routes to China.
If opportunities existed for ALL BAME actors to be seen, or at least be seriously considered for major Shakespearian or classical roles I would walk away. It is a non argument, there would be no debate. But there are just not the same opportunities for BAME actors. If there were, we would be seeing far more Black, South Asian and East Asian faces at the RSC, RNT and on our Westend Stages participating in the classics. So much so that we would no longer need to pass comment. The sight of a Black, Brown or non-white face would not be cause for comment. It would not raise the question, ‘what political point is being made in this production?’It goes back to a point that I have raised in recent posts BRITISHNESS. The colour and concept of BRITISHNESS needs to be redefined and brought into the 21st century.

Popular media and culture can do this, by simply casting more BAME artists. By not sticking with the handful of BAME artists that the establishment feels comfortable with. By taking real risks and using the talent that already exists, but is seldom given the chance to shine.  Lets put a halt to the perception of us as “other.” Stop defining us as “other” in the productions that BAMEs are cast in, by insisting on giving us accents. Foreign accents, that specifically denote our lack of comprehension of the English language and therefore our lack of, or inability to be included in the state of being British.

The media falls into the trap of using visual and aural shorthand so a British Muslim is this:-

m2

But could just as easily be this:-
islam02-d9d774cd8ee61fd3ea4be9797e5f5182d83bf449

 

In reality these are the faces of Britain
diversity-006

 

If you want to cite authenticity then look around first. Look at the real world and start using what you see. Start reflecting what’s actually there. Put aside all the old, hackneyed views about religious, ethnic and racial groupings, collected and given to us when we were kids in schools over twenty, thirty years ago.
Whether we like it or not things have changed. The authenticity that is often talked about and applied to theatre and the arts, is merely a means to conserve a view of life that is fast diminishing. I pass no judgement on what this means or how individuals in Britain may feel about such change.
But it is happening, it has happened. The moment that Britain became an Empire, was the moment that the exclusivity and singularity of Britain remaining a white Anglo-Saxon island, that was the moment that, that status was condemned.

I hear theatre practitioners going on about the authenticity of a role and the problems that cross casting can raise if they cast BAMEs. Not long ago this was raised by the RSC as an excuse as to why more East Asians hadn’t been cast. One of the other plays in that RSC season was Boris Godunov. Rewind, Boris Godunov, a Russian leader of Tartar origin.
Here are the faces of a few Tartars.
Crimea Tatars-2

So next time anyone thinks about using authenticity as a screen or excuse as to why BAMEs can’t be cast in a production perhaps your own idea of what you perceive that community or race to be, should be scrutinised first. When we talk of being Jewish let us not confine or restrict ourselves just to the Ashkenazi Jew, but consider also the Sephardic Jew and the Kaifeng Jew.
When we talk of Muslim let us not forget that there are many countries whose citizens are of the Muslim faith, including China. When we talk of the Muslim terrorist let us not forget that one of the most wanted terrorist is Samantha Lewthwaite, a twenty-nine year old White English woman who converted to Islam when she was 17. By all accounts she was a bright student who the teachers all loved.

white terrorist

Authentic, but perhaps an authenticity and reality that some would rather not face and prefer not to see this reflection mirrored in our art and culture?
Authenticity as driver of artistic integrity. Such a politicised phrase, artistic integrity. If one takes the phrase as it stands and applies standard logic to the words and their meaning. Any unpaid artists who works has integrity, has freedom to writer, paint, perform and portray whatever they see fit to do. The artists that sells their work to whomever will buy their work also has integrity. Once an artist is subsidised, the art is inherently compromised it looses its integrity. The financial crutch, the middleman so to speak has a vested interest on the artists work and can therefore influence the path and nature of the art itself. They don’t necessarily have to lift a finger to exert influence to reassert a preferential structural point of view.
So let’s be honest with each other shall we. When we apply integrity to art what do we actually mean. That we’d prefer to see plays produced that reflect times past and that reaffirm a state of being which is no longer a reality. Or are we looking to produce art that truly reflects modern society using the vehicle of classic drama to pass comment on modern times. Shakespeare will still be Shakespeare no matter where you set it, or how you cast it. Unless of course you bowdlerize it. Using modern-day diversity in Shakespeare can enhance the view of Britishness. It can open modern parallels as was done by casting Adrian Lester and Jude Akuwudike as Pistol. In the exchange between the incognito Henry, Pistol ask his name and Henry answers ‘Harry le roi’ pronounced as has become common place and accepted ‘le roy.’ Jude Akuwudike played Pistol, with a strong Jamaican accent, allowing this heritage to imbue and inhabit Pistol’s nuances and characteristics. Pistol exclaims ‘LEROY!’ delighted by the name. The audience’s reaction was laughter, because both actors were black. Using the black stereotype of Leroy, with a Pistol that has Jamaican vocal tones, shifts us from colour to confronting class not race or ethnicity, as both Henry and Pistol are black.
Maybe I’m reading too much into a past production but it’s an interesting thought isn’t it?

Why am I not feeling the Liberté, égalité, fraternité for British East Asians

At the moment social media, blogs, forums, round tables, press releases and sound-bites all seem to be about diversity and how we just aren’t cutting it in our popularist media in the year 2014.

Having attend the Ed Vaizey round-table at the beginning of this week over at BAFTA and heard very encouraging noises from the likes of Sky, Channel 4 and yes even Aunty (The BBC) herself I’m still doubtful. Not of the desire for change or perhaps even the willingness, but the lack of where-with-all. That the momentum will be scuppered because the requisite tools, knowledge and understanding of required behaviours just aren’t there in the boardrooms, commissioning suites and programming offices. The diversity that is perceived through these windows, is at odds with actuality, with the reality of modern-day multicultural Britain.
We all know that we cannot discriminate, we cannot use a persons’ age, gender, sexuality, religion, race, ethnicity or disability to disadvantage or prevent that person from having access to opportunities. But discrimination still occurs.

Why is it that in 2014 we have yet to see any significant British East Asian characters on TV or film? By British I mean someone who talks English, not with a broken foreign accent. But English, with a regional accent, Liverpudlian, Welsh, Scottish, Bristolian or Sarfth-London? Yes we have had Katie Leung Cho, in Harry Potter a feature film series.  But on British TV? Why haven’t we seen, why can’t we see an East Asian booted and suited estate manager with Etonian tones. A down to earth black cabbie, more Chingford  than Changsha.  A female East Asian hedge fund trader? We have seen the development and acceptance (hard-fought and won) of British Asian and British Black, African, Caribbean in popular and mainstream TV. But not British East Asians. Yes we pop up every now and then. But nine times out of ten, as the saying goes, we’ve got an accent. We’re seldom positioned or located firmly in this country. We are somehow always the outsiders, even if we live here. We’re always on the fringes of British society even if we’re slap bang in the middle. The drama and characterisations inexorably pointing to the differences, seldom the commonalities.
ITV did recently gave us Prey (2014) with Benedict Wong playing DC Ash Chan, a British East Asian, with no foreign accent.
If I had my way I wouldn’t have to write about any of this. Equality, diversity, issues of perception on who is or who is not British. In my world we’d all be working. Why?  Colour, race or ethnicity, would not pre-determine whether I, or anyone else, could be seen for a part. If I had my way the only factors that would determine whether you were right to be seen for a role, would be playing age range and gender. Then it’s down purely to acting ability and whether you are the actor best suited for the part in a British drama.

Back to reality, well at least for the British East Asians. At the moment we are still not seen as British. We’re East Asians in Britain and that’s a very different state of being. We, have yet to earn the right to put out feet fully under the table. In spite of our historical contributions to this country in both The Great War (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) we are still not accepted.

 

Some of our ancestors fought and died for this country. Our countrymen and women were allies during both world conflicts, is there a greater commitment, contribution or testament that one can offer?
Is this lack of recognition, this unwillingness, this silent, subtle, subconscious attitude one of the driving reasons that East Asians continue to be so appalling represented in popular media?
Is it that this particular institutionalised and structural racism is so deeply entrenched, entangled and interlocked into the British psyche?  Is this why East Asians are very rarely afford the luxury of just being a person who happens to be East Asian?
The Aliens act 1905, was passed and amended several times (1919, 1920, 1948) and only repealed in 1974! This act forced the wives of East Asians to report to local police stations, in effect imposing a curfew on them and their families. These women who were married to Aliens also lost their right to vote.
Now why don’t I see this in historical dramas?  Where are the historical mixed race East Asian families?
Oh and if there is anyone out there who’s thinking possibilities, three things.

  1. You heard it here first
  2. Contact me so we can talk
  3. Not every East Asian needs to have a foreign accent.

How’s about that for taking a risk, how about casting faces that haven’t been seen on the TV before (or very seldom) how about looking across the age range of British East Asian talent – now that’s what I would call taking risks. Risks that will bring rewards.

The recent uncovering of the radicalisaiton of British Asians isn’t all down to the pop-up mosque or radical Imams preaching extreme fundamentalist views. What do these young men, culturally, as British Asians and Muslims have to tie themselves into British society? Not much as far as I can see. Depictions of terrorists, radical extremists, people who hate the west? Even though much of the wider society accepts now that British Asians exist and are part of British society. There is still always a danger that exterior influences will exploit any weakness that can be found. That weakness is the lack of cultural inclusion. Britain’s inability to artistically integrate and accept the diversity of modern-day Britain into the culture. What we see on TV isn’t a realistic artistic, dramatised view of Britain. It remains in large pockets still stereotypical and caricatured.

2001 Business slumped at Wing Wai Chan's restaurant
2001 Foot & Mouth outbreak & allegations towards Chinese restaurateurs, business slumped at Wing Wai Chan’s restaurant

Until the British East Asians are fully embraced, included and recognised for their past and present achievements and contributions to this country, their country I don’t think that the changes that should occur, will occur quick enough. Why? We will remain as the exception to the rule, strangers in the home.
We will remain the legitimate scapegoat, stereotype and racial trope from which to hang social and cultural angst and fears, because historically the British East Asian community has not protested and has not made a fuss.

With all that  is now occurring regarding the ongoing debates on diversity and how the British media is reflecting this, The Henry paper, Act For Change, TV Collective let’s not forget that there is still one section of the British Asian Minority Ethnic community, The British East Asians that continue to be overlooked, to be ignored and side-barred.
In the gathering momentum, the impetus and need to embrace greater diversity, I worry that we, the British East Asians might be trampled on in the rush to reach that goal. Just as our colleagues of Asian and Black heritage fought to be recognised so must we.
It is imperative that The British East Asian Artists Group continues to lobby, continues to be represented at any and ALL talks concerning diversity, the media and the arts as a whole. That we continue to shout and raise uncomfortable questions about racism and prejudice and continue to be angry.
That we ensure that The British East Asians rightfully take a place in the BAME collective and are recognised as being both Asian (East Asian) and British. I hope that the recognition that the British East Asian Artists Group has received from colleagues within the BAME sector and from professionals in the creative industry, will now extend to those who gate-keep, produce, programme and commission the content that is broadcast across the British media.

 

I recently just read this article . . .

I’ve recently read this article

From The Front-lines: A Working

Black Actor Opens Up & Has Plenty To

Say

It’s great, sobering, slightly depressing, sad and a truthful read. A read that had me nodding my head in recognition, remembering, recalling and thinking, ‘yep, I know what that feels like.’

But it got me thinking  specifically about my own circumstances.  How things were in the good old U of K.  Across the pond, here in the UK, there is no studio system. Getting to make a Brit film always seems to be done in spite of, not because of. Where friends and acquaintances consistently seem to be leaving these shores to work in the US, especially if you’re an artist of colour.
It irks me, well that’s not true. It more than irks me, it really p**ses me off. Talented men and women who’ve gone through the system in the UK. They’ve taken out student loans  to study their craft. Or in my case in the golden days, an actual grant. So the UK has invested in them. But once they’ve graduated UK PLC seems to lose interest in their investment. Why is that? Is it simply because in the creative sector, what we create can not be boxed and priced per unit? That what we trade in is non-definable and subjective?  If it were that non-definable then we wouldn’t be able to sell tickets to the West end shows at £80 per head. Films wouldn’t generate thousands of pounds in box office takings.
So why do British trained BAME actors feel they have to leave these shores to be appreciated, to get a level of work that can sustain them, so they can earn their living doing what it was that they trained for? Very few BAME professionals in the UK reach the stage where they are making a living 100% from acting. But then according to a recent research just one actor out of every fifty makes more than £20,000 per year in the UK. (New Articles – The Independent http://ow.ly/xmObz.) Pretty grim really isn’t?

As for British East Asian actors,  the conditions that East Asian artists have had to contend with here in the UK still falls woefully short in comparison to other BAME artists and the opportunities that they can expect.  And that in itself isn’t really saying much. Being a BAME artist and having many friends from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, I realise we’re all feeling the lack of inclusion, the lack of opportunities, the subtle restrictions that are almost subliminally and implicitly present at castings. They lurk at the back of the decisions made by gatekeepers as to what new writing or writers they will support, what is considered authentic Chinese/East Asian and how Britishness is still defined.

This is isn’t contest about who feels more discriminated against. Everything is relative. From my personal perspective as a female transracially adopted British East Asian actor, writer and filmmaker things are pretty grim. In my life time on the small screen we’ve had only one positive drama TV series that had mainline characters that were British East Asian. The Chinese Detective. There have been a couple of films about the British Chinese community, but he first, the ground-breaker was PING PONG, which centred on the experience and concerns of the British Chinese community. It  was shot twenty-eight years ago. PING PONG should have been for the British Chinese and East Asian community what My Beautiful Laundrette was for the British Asian community.
That was  my first professional job. Fresh out of drama school, wide-eyed, hopeful and as green as they could possibly come. It should have been a fairy-tale start to my career. The lead in a feature film. How often does that happen? The Film was received with great warmth and praise at the Venice Film festival. But back home, a part from Time Out and Alexander Walker,  the film was basically ignored. Invisible like the section of British society it wove its story around. Recently there has been a surge of re-interest, I guess you could put PING PONG into the category of now being somewhat of bijouette cult film. That is to say a film that not many people have seen, but many have heard off and want to see.

I can be nothing but British and East Asian. Which would be fine if more people accepted that I can be both East Asian and British. The two things do not dilute, lessen or cancel each other out. Contrary to popular belief, I AM A FULLY TRAINED ACTOR. I graduated from a recognised UK drama school. In fact, I was probably one of the first British East Asian females, if not the first to attend a UK drama school and graduate, back in the mid 1980s.
I’m blowing my own trumpet (as apparently no one else will) which is all very  UN-British of me.
I’ve worked with some of the best that Britain has to offer in acting, film, TV and radio, including but not limited to:
Sir Ian HolmDame Helen Mirren, Roger Rees, David Threlfall, Pam Ferris, Kathryn Hunter, Eamonn WalkerAlexander Siddig and even an Oscar winner George Chakiris. I’ve been directed by the best, including but not limited to Richard Olivier and Thea Sharrock. But it might all as well have been for nought. A very good and dear actor friend of mine made this rather sober and depressing point, when he said to me.

If a Caucasian actress of the same age, had achieved what you had when you had (first pro job lead in a Feature Film, major Shakespearian role before hitting 25) you would have had at least one major TV series under your belt, stared in at least on other feature film,  had a hat full theatre credits including a West end show or two and have worked at the National and RSC at least once

In spite of  the CV that I have accrued and the many compliments that I have received from industry professionals, directors, producers and casting director, they all ring hollow now. None of  those who professed undying admiration for the way I practice my craft and heaped praise upon my work. have ever deigned to employ me. Twenty-eight years on and I’m still waiting and hoping that my experience, my talent will shine through and I’ll be cast in a major project that might lead to greater mainstream exposure and more prominent paid work. Who knows – it’s a funny old business.
I can only assume that like many, not only in the creative industry sector, but within society as a whole, British East Asians just don’t figure. Why, because British East Asian appears to be an anathema to many. For most people there is no such thing as British East Asian or British-Chinese. Yet if you are of African-Caribbean heritage or South Asian heritage you can refer to yourself as Black British or British Asian if you so wish, and quite rightly so.  We East Asians don’t get that option. It is Chinese and if you’re lucky “Other.”

Ethnic Minorities Monitoring Form

We are still viewed in this society  as the “outsider” the “foreigner.” As I was writing this a Twitter and Facebook bounced into life with a superb blog post from Anna Chen aka Madam Miaow Britain East Asian FAQs for BBC, casting directors and media.

MadamMiaow-BritishEastAsianFAQs-10-06-14

The condescension that runs through the BBC response to Elizabeth Chan’s query to the BBC about the lack of BEA representation in the media is jaw droppingly awful.

Elizabeth Chan
Elizabeth Chan
Elizabeth Chan
Elizabeth Chan
Brokenflagimage
National identity erased. (Image: Shutterstock)

So what will it take for me and others like me,  to be able to call ourselves British East Asian or British-Chinese and not feel as if I’ve said a dirty word out loud in public?  Paying my taxes, contributing to the National Health Service by paying not just one type of NI but two if you’re a freelancer, that doesn’t count then?   Yet if all the “immigration” and “integration” chatter and rhetoric  is to be believed then it should. I’m a passport, tax paying, law-abiding British citizen and as such should be treated with the same considerations and have the same opportunities as every other British citizen has, shouldn’t I?
I’ve lived here in the UK for all but eleven months of my life, how much more integrated into British society can it get? It would seem that being born or raised in Britain is not enough if  your skin is a shade or two darker, or your eyes and nose don’t conform to a European ascetic.

I watch TV like the majority of the nation. Soaps, dramas, comedy, docudrama, historical pieces, mysteries, cop dramas. Surely I’m not the only East Asian in Britain who indulges in this type of entertainment behaviour?  Yet where are the fully rounded, well-defined characters that represent me? Where are the bus drivers, the taxi drivers, the lawyers, the teachers, the 30 some-things, hell the 40s, 50s and 60s some-things? The other British East Asians that aren’t takeaway or restaurant owners.
You do know don’t you that not every British East Asian in the UK works in the catering industry.

Many of us live useful and productive lives in other industry sectors, such as new-media, publishing, legal, scientific, academic, educational and medical to name but a few. But we never ever see that side of British society. The East Asians who don’t speak with a heavy East Asian accent.  There are British East Asians who don’t speak Chinese,  isn’t that part of being British East Asian or British Chinese. We grew up in Britain, we went to a normal British school like every other British kid. There are British East Asians in the wider society who don’t keep themselves to themselves and are more at home eating at the Ivy or Jamie Oliver’s Diner than they are at Memories of China. There are British East Asians whose education wasn’t a state school and Chinese Sunday school, but the corridors of Oxford and Cambridge.

Why aren’t I seeing these characters on TV, British funded films and West End theatres? Why is that to have an authentic Chinese or East Asian character in a creative project in the UK, more often than not, they have to speak with an accent? Even if the whole damn thing is set in a far eastern country and the majority of the characters are East Asian, why do the East Asian characters have to have an accent?  That isn’t always the case there have been exceptions Hungry Ghosts at The Orange Tree Theatre 2010 and more recently the World of Extreme Happiness at The Royal National Theatre in The Shed.
But for everyone project that breaks the mould there seem to be at least half a dozen that don’t and they merely re-enforce the Victorian stereotype and caricature of what Europeans feared and projected onto the  Chinese and East Asia. It is incredible when you think about it. In the twenty-first century this country still sees East Asians through a distorted historical lens.

Chinesepeoplpastandpresent