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Opening The Door : East Asians in British Theatre

Positive Discrimination - would it be a good thing to press for?

Paul Hyu - 12 February 2013

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“We should lobby ACE to impose a policy of POSITIVE discrimination for EA actors to get us through the glass ceiling”.

A lively debate ensued where I made the case for this somewhat provocative point of view, arguing that the black and Asian communities had already benefitted from this policy back in the day and that if we as East Asians were ever to gain parity (and the experience required) to be able to stand on a stage shoulder to shoulder as peers with our black, Asian and non-ethnic colleagues, there will have to be a short period of quotas and positive discrimination to achieve this. I suggested as a concrete example a policy should be lobbied for, whereby all major theatres in receipt of ACE funds (RNT, RSC, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Birmingham Rep etc) were compelled to cast at least 4% (1 in 25) of their annual actors from the East Asian sector.

Making the case so well (ahem!), 9 out of the assembled 9 agreed with me, and were shocked to learn that this positive discrimination idea had always been dismissed out of hand whenever I have sought to raise it as a serious policy at Equity, the RNT or elsewhere. The point was made that in the absence of this policy, the current situation had been allowed to flourish, and that the blank canvas of “East Asians” was able to be commandeered by those with a racist agenda. ie the lack of a role model for East Asians leaves the community undervalued and easy to overlook and ignore.

It was agreed that while we don’t want to be seen as a special case, what else would work to help us catch up with the rest of the world in UK?

When the realities of the policy were drilled into, however, Greg from the Royal Exchange admitted he would not be happy working under such an edict, telling him whom to cast. The assembled mass had to concede this was not ideal and Greg suggested it would be quite a burden and probably embarrassing for the token Yellow actor sticking out like a sore thumb. David Yip supported this point and stated that he didn’t want to see a token face if that face was not good enough. It became clearer that this was not such a straightforward workable policy after all.

When we discussed what might be a good compromise policy to lobby for, it was suggested that “Accessibility to be Seen” by these theatres would be less burdensome and more acceptable. Greg agreed this could and should be done and that furthermore, he would not find the notion of ethnic monitoring for auditions a huge burden.

It was a lively, interesting discussion, some of which I believe was captured on film and it meandered in a very interesting fashion.

I believe that the conclusion of this discussion, that we should press ACE for compulsory ethnic monitoring of auditionees (and that 4% of the total auditionees at the major theatres need to come from the East Asian sector) is actually a very workable and sensible solution. I urge all East Asians to support this action point and to lobby if not for actual positive discrimination in casting, then for a modicum of positive discrimination in the audition process. Something needs to be done to right this historical wrong and this is not a bad solution.

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COMMENTS: 7

Gabby Wong

12 February 2013

To be very honest, I would like to be cast on merit rather than token. The ethnic monitoring of auditionees seems like a very good compromise. To be considered is one thing, to be the best you can be when opportunity arises is then up to us.

Nice work.
Kevin Shen

12 February 2013

I would agree with the sentiments that I prefer not to be cast only because of my race and not because of my talent. By enforcing a policy of ‘tokenism’ or positive discrimination, we are effectively lowering our own bar in terms of talent or effort needed to achieve. I don't want someone to think I only got a part because I'm East Asian, but if I were white, I wouldn't be able to hack it in that role. I do think the audition compromise is a pretty solid one though, and given the opportunity to be seen, quality East Asians should be able to break through. However, the issue here then lies in the inherently superficial aspect of the industry, where “the look” is often a deciding factor amongst multiple high quality auditionees. This, along with experience as a deciding factor (since many of us lack experience given the lack of opportunity), could very well inhibit our getting roles, especially if dealing with a more “conservative” director. In this instance, I would advocate positive discrimination - if a decision is to be made between a white actor and an East Asian actor of equal ability, then I'd like to see the edge given to the East Asian actor.

While I am also not a huge fan of the “All-SpecificEthnicity” casts (RSC's recent Julius Caesar and Much Ado productions) because of the potential compromise of quality and the “I only got this part because of my race” element, if we are able to create a high quality all East Asian production of a non-race specific play (and ideally in a non-race specific setting), then I think that this could be a potential avenue for showcasing our talents, giving us the currently nonexistent opportunity to play really exciting non-traditionally Asian parts. If, however, we struggle to find a cast that is of a high-enough caliber, then this would ultimately just backfire and reinforce the notions that we're just not good enough.

I talk a lot.
Daniel York

14 February 2013

Kevin, I agree with what you're saying in essence but I think the whole “I want to be cast on my merit” argument can be a little naive. There have been plenty of nice middle class white boys and girls from the “right” backgrounds down the years who weren't terribly good actors but got lots of parts anyway because they were from the same “world” as the gatekeepers.

Likewise, there are plenty of minority ethnic actors who have got lots of work by fitting the standard perceptions of how the (nearly always) white people who are doing the casting view that particular ethnic group. With East Asians this is even more pronounced. Generally the East Asian character is in isolation so their primary function is to be as “oriental” as possible because that's their sole dramatic purpose.

Theatre is led a lot by TV. But if the role on TV is Heavily Accented Take Away Owner is being “the best actor” necessarily going to land you the role? This is where gatekeepers get confused because their system breaks down. A caucasian actor playing a good role on Call The Midwife will be a shoo-in for Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov. But someone playing a Chinese immigrant?
Lucy Sheen

13 February 2013

As we found in the discussion PD is a double edged sword and we discussed “beyond” that and actually tried to penetrate the underling reasoning behind why we even need to contemplate such an intervention.

Perceptions, misguided, incorrect or inaccurate sensibilities, lack of knowledge when it comes to the wider East Asian community, lack of historical and contextual knowledge. These are the issues that should be addressed, educated on?

So that we can get to a position where CD & Theatre's not frightened of casting an EA as a bus driver or solicitor and having to second guess whether this will “say” something that wasn't intended.

The wider community has to recognise that we are as diverse as the next community we have our in variety, dialects, languages, difference in cultures in the same manner that the “English” have
Paul Hyu

18 February 2013

I heard Ed Miliband recently saying that in order to push through equality in the Commons, which is what he believed in, he approved of all-women shortlists. This, in his view, had made a big difference.

My observation is that by adopting the discussion's seemingly simple 4% target for East Asian actors being seen by the major theatres (ie more EA actors are on the “shortlist”), the same effect - of better overall equality - would be achieved (as it has in the House of Commons).
Daniel York

18 February 2013

I would argue that they already operate by quotas. If they really were “colourblind” it's entirely conceivable that on any given round of auditions the majority of “best actors” could be black or EA but (unless the characters are specifically written that way) that never happens.
Paul Hyu

22 February 2013

This Young Vic event was supported by Equity and the question included the qualifier, “Right Now” - yet Equity did not support this motion at their recent Minority Ethnic Members committee, instead choosing to support a generic rewording exercise, which is about updating the wording on their internal policies.

I pushed for it to be considered, but it being a committee, this much milder and blander compromise was voted for. EA specific stuff has no relevance for the black and Asian members of the committee. That's the way it is.

In the absence of the other reports coming up with an answer to the “right now” question, I can only suggest that this +ve discrimination - or “quotas in audition” - idea be supported by getting more EA actors to stand for the Equity committee and for us all to make a concerted, organised effort to vote for one another. If we take over the committee, then we can push this not unreasonable idea through. I like this as a solution, because it would benefit everyone.

Until then, I fear that we will, a few cosmetic castings aside in the short term (which to be fair was happening at the RNT independently of this event anyway), be reconvening in 5 years asking what went wrong. The answer? No one answered the question! What shall we do - “RIGHT NOW” - ?!

This is a direct answer to the question! And I have not seen anything better so far anywhere else!!

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