Opening The Door : East Asians in British Theatre

What do casting directors actually look for?

Amanda Rogers - 12 February 2013




This session was called owing to a feeling that casting directors, particularly at major institutions, are unaware of the depth and breadth of East Asian talent available in this country. In particular there seems to be a mismatch between casting directors feeling that they are open and actively looking for diverse actors (on multiple fronts) and East Asian actors feeling that they are never seen for roles, particularly those that are non-stereotypical, or non-ethnic specific.

Initially we discussed the difference between film/tv and theatre. Particularly whether to come in and start the audition in character (seen more as the preserve of film/tv) or whether to go in and chat with the casting director first. Recent experiences with Chimerica highlighted the difficulties surrounding whether or not to use an accent in auditions. In part it was felt that actors should always research the casting directors they will meet first, or discuss any queries (such as accents) with the casting director/director. Casting directors highlighted that in theatre there are fewer overt expectations around Asianity and stereotypes when entering a room. So ask ‘can I check with you before I read that I am seeing this right?’ There is consideration placed on how people work together, with the audition being a kind of ‘mini rehearsal’ where it is possible to see technique as well as personality. Emphasis was placed on ‘being yourself.’

Casting directors highlighted that they do not use a pecking order of agents, they are open to everybody. On the other hand, they are inundated, and there are various ways of filtering people. So if, for example, a reputable agent says ‘look at this person, they’re interesting’ they will work partly on that basis. The importance placed on training depends on the project and the space – some theatre spaces are technically challenging.

Breakdowns are languages for agents and are not necessarily what casting directors expect. Actors need to push agents to send them for ‘all ethnicities’ and non-ethnic specific parts. Casting directors were open to seeing East Asian actors as actors, not just for Asian roles. When they watch showreels they are less likely to evaluate performances by simply seeing actors ‘being Chinese’ – they will look beyond that, they will look beyond bad productions to see a performance, and are unlikely to judge ability simply on the fact that an actor’s last show was in fringe theatre, or abroad, whereas the one before was in the West End. More of a concern is if there is an absence of theatre work on a CV as it is harder to judge if someone is good at theatre. “We don’t make the judgements you think we might” and there are discussions about every role, including ethnic background.

Discussion also centred on the lack of East Asians cast in non-race specific roles. The phrase came up from that the ‘Lack of East Asians cast in non-race specific roles is not a conscious decision, it’s a subconscious indecision.’ Casting directors challenged this, and stated that they are looking for a range of qualities, that they think about those qualities all the time for every single role. This included a consciousness about using ethnic minority actors, and that the event today was based in a recognition that there needed to be an improvement about this regarding East Asian actors. Casting directors are aware of race and try to redress imbalances. There was a recognition that in U.S. theatre was uncommon to NOT see ethnic minorities in leading parts on stage and that they were in some senses ahead of the U.K in terms of minority representation. Emphasis was placed on needing opportunities, of being given a chance. Casting directors were challenged over the perceived “rule of one” ethnic actor per production.

A big emphasis on the importance of having East Asian initiatives and East Asians need to create more work independently that casting directors can see.
It was suggested also that there is another level of authority above casting directors, including directors and producers, who are more interested in cash returns, margins and stereotypes. Very few shows are star driven enough to make money a driving concern. The idea that these were publicly driven stereotypes was also questioned with the idea that audiences were probably more interested in diversity than was often assumed.

Casting directors look in different places for each show they cast, depending also on who the director wants to work with. There is no fixed formula. They use networks, spotlight and will host an open day with equity for East Asian auditions (see below).

Action points for casting directors:
• There has been a pledge to hold a day of open auditions for East Asians with casting directors from mainstream theatres including the RNT and RSC.
• For breakdowns, add an extra few words to help actors push agents, along the lines of “all ethnicities welcome but especially looking for … including East Asians.”

Action points for actors:
• When you put your showreel on spotlight, lose the montage and the hip music at the beginning; just cut straight to the reading. It’s you in action that casting directors want to see.
• Use the “oriental” tab on spotlight, many East Asian actors (obviously for reasons of terminology) don’t, but casting directors look for it.
• If you write to a casting director, use their name. Express energy and connection in that letter, don’t make it generic. Talk about what they are casting and why you want to be in it.
• If you are in something, invite casting directors to come along and see your work. They are hugely busy, but open to it, whether fringe or West End. Importantly, however, you have to feel that it is really good, that you really believe in the project and it is strong artistically. You also have to give them lots of notice (e.g. at least 6-8 weeks).
• Create work!

Resources we might need:
• More time
• More general Equity/spotlight meetings for auditions
• More open days, there are less than 350 East Asian actors on spotlight and could all be seen
• Workshops

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Paul Hyu

22 February 2013

I think the conclusion to use the description “Oriental” is in the cold light of day a little misguided? Surely a better action point is to remove that term altogether and have the casting directors re-learn their vocabulary, in the same way as they have done for other ethnic minorities? East Asian is the new term being used and I think they can learn that quite easily.


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