Opening The Door : East Asians in British Theatre

WHO ARE THE GATEKEEPERS? Who is responsible for the marginalisation of East Asian actors in UK theatre?

Michelle Lee - 13 February 2013




I asked this question because the first thought that usually springs to mind is that it is the establishment figures – producers, artistic directors, casting directors and so forth who are responsible (even if subconsciously) for the marginalisation of East Asians in the performing arts. An Ideas Tap panel discussion about the more general lack of opportunities for all minorities in UK theatre had been held at the Young Vic a few weeks prior to this event and whilst it had covered many of these ‘traditional’ gatekeepers, I wanted to discuss the role other figures like agents, East Asian actors themselves and audiences might have to play in limiting opportunities.

The session was attended by about ten people in total – three actors and industry attendees from the RSC, Nottingham Playhouse, the National Theatre, Equity, Tangled Theatre, Improbable Theatre Company and the Oval House Theatre.
The conversation was extremely complex, and like many sessions on the day strayed into different areas but I hope I have captured the salient points.

Platforms for East Asian Actors

The session started with how casting works at the National. The writer from the National said that whilst black and South Asian actors were now seen quite regularly in non-racially specific roles, he did agree that East Asians rarely featured. He said that he felt that the type of shows put on at the National were broad in scope and not particularly aimed at a certain type of audience, so he wasn’t sure why East Asians were not often present. As a writer, he said that he did not have specific ethnicity in mind when writing. However, he did say that he, and the casting team at the National, did go to see a lot of theatre to find actors and whilst there are a few established publicly-funded theatre companies for black and South Asian actors, there was only Yellow Earth Theatre to represent East Asians. I explained that, in fact, both Mulan Theatre Company (which was on the scene a few years ago) and Yellow Earth Theatre, had lost their funding and that there were currently no publicly funded East Asian companies (although now I know True Heart Theatre has received some Arts Council funding).

I was asked if I knew why both these companies had lost their funding. I said that I don’t think companies are told why they don’t get their funding but my feeling was that if the work being put forward doesn’t ‘fit’ the idea of what the funding gatekeepers perceive to be their idea of East Asian, then the funding doesn’t come through. In other words, the concept of what is an East Asian story, or what kind of work East Asians should be creating is not led by the artist but by the funders.
In any case, the practical problem appears to be that there is no platform at the moment where East Asian actors can be seen regularly, as even Yellow Earth is not as prolific as the other minority theatre companies. The action from this, therefore, is to find a platform for East Asian actors to be able to create and perform their own work regularly. The question was asked whether it was better for full-length plays or short excerpts to be performed, when it comes to casting showcases. The National writer said that he thought as far as the National was concerned, he felt it was better to put on full-length pieces, although that was his point of view as a writer, whereas perhaps for casting directors they would be able to see what they needed from a range of shorter pieces. The important thing thought was having work being put on regularly.

It was also mentioned that an East Asian networking event was being planned with casting directors from key theatre companies who had pledged to attend, and that this would definitely happen soon. They are just trying to find a date to achieve this but it will happen sooner, rather than later, possibly in late March or in April.

The Role of the Audience

I wanted to discuss the power of audience expectation when it comes to casting East Asians in theatre. I asked if the fear of losing audiences and thereby not selling tickets was a guiding factor, as whilst audiences were becoming used to seeing black and South Asians in non-specific roles, there seemed to be a reluctance to accept East Asians in the same way. It was said that money was not likely to be the guiding factor as most theatre companies don’t make a profit in any case. However, there was definitely a correlation in marketing when, for instance, using a non-white actor in advertising campaigns, that there was a loss in the traditional audience share for that sector. The inference though was not that the traditional audience didn’t want to watch non-white actors but that they might feel that they did not have any affinity for the production in question.

An example of this was the RSC’s all-black Julius Caesar which was easy to cast but hard to sell in Stratford. Yet, the production sold well in London.

This brought up the subject of difference in audience types. It was suggested that there was a generational difference, and that younger audiences would be more open to non-traditional theatre casting or more contemporary stories than older audiences. So, the question was how to attract different audiences to see theatre productions that they might not necessarily relate to at first. This is a strategic problem in a traditionally white-led industry which needs to portray the new UK. Theatres tend to direct work specifically at certain demographics, to achieve their funding for that particular sector. Interestingly, it was mentioned that the Twitter community is most likely to go to see new theatre, though word of mouth, and that the ethnic minority Twitter audience makes up 20% of the share of theatregoers, far exceeding the national minority figures, even in areas such as London. Again, this was seen as a generational difference, as these demographic would tend to be younger and in larger urban areas.

The question was asked if there was an East Asian audience for East Asian theatre. I said that was a difficult one, as whilst East Asians are the fastest growing ethnic minority in the UK at nearly 2% of the population, the diversity within the group is vast, akin to the wide differences between Russians, Italians, the English or the Swedes for example. Even within the ethnically Chinese group, the differences are huge between those who are second or third generation Brits, to first-generation Chinese who are born in countries in SE Asia, Africa or the West Indies, to Hong Kong Chinese or mainland Chinese. Even then, trying to appeal to just the Chinese audience alone is difficult as the Chinese experience is so diverse. Then to factor in non-Chinese East Asians, from Japan to Korea, from the Philippines to Myanmar and so forth, it would be unrealistic to expect to engage such a diversity of cultures and backgrounds at once. However, there are still certain commonalities that bond East Asians – a shared cultural sensibility, stories of immigration and settling into a different culture, feeling part of and not part of one’s own inherited culture and an adopted culture, and these can be drawn upon.

It was asked also how, if you have attracted a certain demographic to see a production who might not necessarily go to the theatre because it is aimed at that particular minority, do you ensure that this same audience will go to see another show which is not specifically aimed at them. It was mentioned that children now are more open to diversity as schools are now so ethnically diverse, and so perhaps in time things would improve as audiences mature and become more diverse. However, I thought that the same problem remains, in that after these children have left school and no longer have the same access to visiting theatre companies or concessionary theatre tickets, do you ensure that the children who have grown into adulthood continue to go to the theatre if they perceive that the majority of work being produced has no relation to their cultural experience.
This particular point was one I heard in several discussions throughout the day, and there seemed to be few answers anyone could up with to this. It does seem, though, that accessibility (cheap seats, exposure when young) and education (regular exposure to the arts and to diversity) is key to building and sustaining audiences in all groups.

Developing East Asian Gatekeepers

One thing that had struck home from this event was the lack of consciousness that there are so many East Asian actors around. It was asked what the term East Asian actually encompasses. I said that, as in Daniel York’s statement, East Asian covered a very broad range of countries including the Koreas, China, Japan, Mongolia to the countries of South East Asia, like Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and so forth.
Yet, it was brought up that whilst an East Asian acting community had clearly been built up, the failing is that there is no significant producing community. Who are the East Asian gatekeepers? As long as East Asian actors are reliant on gatekeepers who are not aware of their presence then it will be difficult for them to find work.

It was mentioned that at the start of directors’ careers for example, oftentimes people are chosen to be mentored by experienced directors who are like themselves rather than unlike themselves. So, like is followed by like, and instead of the experience becoming a two-way learning relationship, like is replaced by like which perpetuates the same gatekeepers.
As far as casting East Asian actors now was concerned, the point was made that whilst there are quite a few South Asian and black organisations which play a gatekeeper role, there were few East Asian organisations that casting directors or directors felt they could approach to ask questions about what was appropriate when casting a new production or where to find East Asian actors that would suit the role/roles. I said that the British East Asian Actors, which had formed in response to the RSC’s Orphan of Zhao casting issue, hoped to provide that advisory role and planned to collate and keep a free directory of East Asian actors, that would be free to join and access, as well as to provide a platform for the community of artists to collaborate.

It also was clear from the things that were said that by just promoting awareness of the East Asian presence, this event had made the first step towards a necessary educational process about East Asians which needs to be developed in order that the community can achieve the same kind of visibility that black and South Asians have in the performing arts.

The Role of Public Funding

Another point that was brought up was that with the steep reduction of public funding hitting smaller companies in the ethnic minority sector in particular, the larger organisations have to try to make up the different strands of theatre for different audience demographics. One participant said that the size of their funding share was directly contingent on including work for certain minority audiences. But if funding is reliant on ticking boxes, so the ethnic minority audience box is ticked, then there is no real integration as you have separate programming for ethnic minorities and traditional theatre audiences. This ultimately compounds the problem because theatres are therefore catering for what the funding bodies perceive audiences will accept or want to see, rather than trying to extend the audiences’ range of experience. It has become the case that theatre companies become enslaved to what the funding bodies perceive audiences want or how the audiences should be served, rather than supporting artists and thereby allowing creativity to determine what audiences have access to and therefore broadening the experience for both artists and the audience. So it appears that in trying to serve the needs of audiences fairly, public funds are paying to support audiences, rather than artists. It has occurred to me since, though, that there is a difficulty in trying to ensure that all minorities are treated equitably whilst trying to allow artistic freedom to develop whilst the traditional gatekeepers are still in place. It was said though that there are fewer artistically-led companies now, and the funding bodies’ relationship tends to be with company administrators rather than to the artists.

Another outcome of this part of the discussion was that there was more that could be done in the marketing of work – and there is a need to stretch the audiences.

The Role of Agents

Finally, it was asked what the role of the agent was in ensuring their East Asian clients were being seen. I said it was difficult to gauge but from my experience and from talking to a few others, our agents had submitted us for non-racially specifically roles regularly but we were just not seen for the parts. I was asked if I thought agents were not taking on enough East Asian clients, and I said that I suspect that whilst the majority of agents only had one male and one female East Asian client, unless they are an agent that specialises in ethnic minorities, this was probably due to lack of demand, and they most likely feel they could not find enough work for more East Asian actors to justify taking more on their books – so it looks like the problem lies elsewhere. Of course, I have heard stories of directors saying that they never receive submissions from agents of East Asian actors, so there is clearly more to this area than meets the eye.

For some participants (including to some extent myself), there was nothing said in the session that hadn’t been heard before and, indeed, many more questions came out of this than I had at the beginning - the perennial question being what can we do about it? But I had hoped by calling this session that for some of those for whom the subject of the marginalisation of East Asians in the performing arts had not really arisen, that it might trigger some thoughts and a desire to delve deeper and I think that this did happen. For me it helped to consolidate some of the ideas and questions in my head. In short, we don’t have all the answers yet but I do feel we are working closer to finding some.




Daniel York

13 February 2013

Wow, you covered so much!

With regards funding cuts for EA companies. I believe one of the reasons cited for Mu-lan's severance was that the company's final production (which played two sell out runs in London and transferred off Broadway New York) was by a white writer and that the company hadn't done enough in London.. I think though that ACE had had a long standing problem with Mu-lan who they felt had been funding “fast tracked” by the previous artistic director who was able to raise private finance. I also remember one particular meeting with ACE where the officer referred to a performance at a venue on tour where she asserted that “you had overreached yourselves”. What did she mean by this? The venue was too big? It did indeed seat around 500 but my memory was of it being sold out and a rapturous reception at the end. I can only conclude that ACE wanted East Asians performing twee exotica in small arts centres,

Which I would argue is what they got with Yellow Earth. The focus was very much on what I would consider to be fairly “traditional” and thereby inherently “foreign” images-lions, dragons, silk, bright colours, acrobatic movements. This has its place but surely it cannot be “representative” of British East Asians in the 21st Century?

I would also argue vehemently that there is little that is “diverse” about YET. The leadership of the company has been passed around between them and the pool of actors they use (despite their extensive and really rather degrading “cattle call” style auditions) astonishingly small.

It pains me to say this but I could never support them having their revenue funding back. Arts funding (especially in the current climate) is not a bottomless pit and that money is money no other East Asian creatives would be receiving. We need diversity not a “representative” authority.

Your observations on audiences are very perceptive and this I think has often stopped us being considered. There is no easily identified “East Asian pound” and this is clearly a barrier to our being given due consideration by the industry. As artists though we are clearly capable of connecting beyond nationalist barriers and this is where the hope is.


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