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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“Female playwrights still face sexism”* . . . British East Asian Female playwrights – well …

*Female playwrights still face sexism – it’s time we admitted it

Research shows that theatres are prejudiced against female playwrights. What can be done about it?

The Heresy Of Love by Helen Edmundson Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon.
An exception … The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmundson, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

 

The above blog article by Lynn Gardner came out back in February 2012, but it is worth a repost and a re-read.
It’s pretty challenging in the first instance becoming a playwright. But god help you if you’re not young (16 – 30) Caucasian and male.
Writing seems to be the last thing on the agenda for female writers of colour who are passed 30.
Why that should surprise me I’m not sure. As an actor of colour  in my 50s, I can say hand on heart,  if you are not Dame Judi Dench (an actress I personally admire both on stage and screen) you can be well and truly left out.

Being a British East Asian actor/writer and a newbie writer to boot, I struggle. As I’ve said in the past this could of course be because what I write is crap. Thankfully I don’t think that is true. If Conversations With My Unknown Mother (scratch at The Blue Elephant part of the SEA Arts Fest 2014),  is anything to go by.

ShenaghGovanandJacquiChan
Conversations With My Unknown Mother Shenagh Govan and Jacqui Chan
EugeniaLow and ShenaghGovan
Conversations With My Unknown Mother Eugenia Low and Shenagh Govan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So how do we rectify this situation? The simple answer is support. Nurturing of more new writing, diverse writing. That means substantive targeted funding. Before I hear the protests and reminders that we’re still coming out of a recession and that the recovery is fragile and financial resources are needed in other more deserving places (article for another day). This would not take more investment just better management of what is already available. It needs those in charge of the purse strings and the gatekeepers to really buy in and commit to the artistic and cultural under-pinning of British writing. New British writing that is reflective of the modern poly ethnic, multicultural, diverse, complex and compound society we now exist in.  It means that British culture, the British arts sector, has to transfer lip service, translate that vocal support of diversity, into concrete, practical, financial investment and support for new writing and new writers.

I can’t say or write this often enough INVESTMENT. Investing in BAME writers, Female writers, more mature first-time writers. Actually scrub that, investing in British writing and start seeing BAMEs as part of British society. We have as much right to support, encouragement and financial backing as any other British citizen.
We should be able to access prominent platforms that will help us to share and make the wider society aware of the amazing amount of talent that is being buried because BAMEs so rarely get the same access to these significant, opportunities. If you’re British East Asian, we’re still fighting to be recognised and included in the overall BAME categorisation, let alone being able to find our way into mainstream acceptance.

This all goes hand in hand with the way that Britain portrays society in the media on TV and in Films. How British culture is still very much about cultural privilege, institutional racism and structural bias.

Until we as a society truly acknowledge and embrace the variety in our collective history as well as the variety and diversity in our present day lives, we will still, I think, be arguing, debating and lobbying for universal equality.

Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well.

Margaret Atwood