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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Equity as a Trade Union is the priority representing its entire workforce or safe-guarding artistic licence?

Paul Hyu has just written and extremely thought-provoking (some might say controversial) article regarding Equity and their British East Asian actor members.

You see, Equity follows a Policy, for which we, the BAME members, are apparently responsible.  If that Policy doesn’t translate into Equity being able to act in a way to support and protect us from being excluded, then we, the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee”, have to change it.   We shouldn’t expect non-BAME or majority ethnic (aka white) actors to do it for us.  But here is the rub:  it’s not easy to do.

To reads the full article please click here

 

This is my initial response as an actor, a British actor who happens to be EAST ASIAN

This is a huge problem, which is has now become “historical” much as the cutting of sheet metal to particular size in the 70s, and 80s. It was always cut a particular size because it had always been done that way. In spite of the huge amount of waste and until someone had the courage and common sense to challenge the “it’s done this way because we’ve always done it this way” and asked the question WHY things would never have changed. So it is, I feel with Equity. It’s always been this way, so we’ll continue to do things this way.
Artistic license to me is mounting a production of the Tempest and setting in the Chinese Celestial Court, or casting Adrian Lester as an English King. One could argue that casting a Black actor as an English King allows the production to explore deeper the political and socio-economic themes of this piece in a more modern context. Or is it just about accepting the society and the culture that we live in today in 21st century Britain and getting on with it and casting whomever we like in the productions that we want?
Allowing a theatre, film or TV or radio production to cast a White actor as an East Asian character in the 21st century, does not in my mind enhance any production. An in terms of the modern context of equality and employment legislation – how can this be?
Thirty years ago the situation was very different, when I graduated there were just six East Asian actors registered with Equity as actors and on Spotlight again classified as actors. And I was one of them. There are now plenty of East Asian actors. So the matter of not being able to find an East Asian actor is a moot point. To those who complain that it’s tough to find East Asian actors and that they don’t know where, and that they’ve resorted to having to pull people of the streets; I’d say isn’t that part of your remit to know where and how you source your talent? That relying on Spotlight and the personal managements and agents isn’t enough? Yes everyone is pushed for time, everyone is trying to squeeze out of their budgets as much as they can – but trying to apportion some kind of onus on the artists for not being found in the “usual places” seems a tad odd to me. Perhaps they cannot be found in the usual places because they have not, as yet had the opportunities that will allow them to employ a regular agent or have the credits required for an entry into Spotlight?There are plenty of organisations out there, even a google search could put Casting Directors in touch either directly or indirectly with the wealth of East Asian talent that is now available. Numbers as far as I am concerned is not a valid argument as it was when I first became an actor. Artistic license should not be used as a cover all, a euphemism for racist behaviour – but essential this is what it is, and it’s happening to British East Asian Artists who are, who have been consistently denied the opportunities to participate in the making and representation of their own history and their own stories. In a modern poly ethnic and multicultural society one would think that the casting an East Asian in any non-specified role should be the norm. But it is not. The programs or the productions that do cast East Asian actors seem to, have to have an overt East Asian theme. Usually one that involves characters who are not indigenous to these shore. In other words ‘Overseas East Asians, students, immigrants, usually illegal. I very rarely see British East Asians. The representations we see are victims of crime because of the way that we look and the foreign accents that we have. People fleeing from a terrible past (true this does occur) but I think that I need only count on one hand the instances that I have seen on UK TV a fully rounded representation of a British East Asian (without foreign accent). By the way I do have an accent, just not the one that many casting directors and producers think that I should have!
For those that say (and there are plenty of them out there) that Yellowface/Yellowvoice is nowhere near as repugnant as Blacking up or Brown face, I’ve even had people in person trying to make a case that Yellowface is a form of benign micky-taking and actually comes from a place of fondness; from one who is East Asian I assure you it engenders precisely the same gut wrenching feelings when exposed to this type of ‘behaviour’. To clarify further calling an East Asian a CHINK, CHING-CHONG or any other such derivative is to this East Asian just as abhorrent and insulting as using the “N” word to a person who is Black, African or Caribbean or the “P” word to a South Asian. It carries the negative weight and remembrance of colonial atrocities, indentured labour and suffering and the brutal inhumane treatment that many East Asians were subject to. As well as the more subtle and equally as damaging structural and institutionalised racism many East Asians encountered – still encounter to this day.
Yes times have moved on, but have the hearts and minds of the wider society also moved on at the same pace? It would appear from where I’m standing that a considerable number of hearts and minds need to catch up.As long as those who sit in power on the top table of my union. Yes my union. I pay my subs like a good little member, as long as those people continue to think in the manner that they appear to be doing the union will never be able to advocate and fight for the rights of ALL of its members. A trade Union should be looking after the interests of ALL its members. This is one member that feels as if my interests in the work place are being ignored.Equity should be part of the solution not part of the ongoing and continued cultural and artistic ‘blockade’ that sees East Asian artists and artists of colour, duel or tri-heritage, side barred and essentially squeezed out onto the fringes of mainstream British culture. All this talk of diversity and inclusion is great, but let’s first get our own house in order.

Grief

Grief written by Lucy Chau Lai-Tuen
Performed by Lucy (Chau Lai-Tuen) Sheen
© Lucy (Chau Lai-Tuen)Sheen ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2014
Film-footage edited and compiled by Lucy Sheen

Original film footage
GRIEF
Directed by Alec Balas
Nick…Kevin Wehby
Alec….Brother
Direct link: https://vimeo.com/92666113
April 2014
Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Music
Black Bird by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under CC Attribution 3.0.
Direct Link: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100599.
ISRC: USUAN1100599
© 2009 Kevin MacLeod