When you are having a discussion about anything to do with equality from the point of view of a minority, you have to be aware that there will be objections from the majority. This is simply because to the majority, when a minority attempts to level the playing field they are removing the majority’s privileged position. There are many examples of how this works (some good some bad) and equally as many (if not more) examples of how white people object to the idea. Google it. Click here to see both on the same page.
The problems we in the Equity Minority Ethnic Members committee have in trying to equalise the opportunities, are mainly:
The business of acting is run by the majority who often cast in their own image (the unconscious bias theory) and when caught out doing this in an egregious manner cite “the best person for the role argument” and Equity is loathe is get involved in matters of artistic taste (though as argued in another post, they should not be).
Even when the whole issue is regarded as a victory for the minorities, as in the case of the Print Room, whose name has now become an industry by-word for how not to deal with racial casting issues, the other side does not need to agree. In fact not only does the Print Room still refuse to acknowledge any wrong-doing nor come close to issuing an apology, it has in fact gone so far as to threaten legal proceedings against Equity for libel.
All of which brings me to the argument for Monitoring Forms.
They might seem like an invasion of your privacy and oftentimes the two issues are conflated on the form. This one was collected from Yellow Earth’s recent production of Tamburlaine at the Arcola, which I watched and enjoyed on Saturday, and does not ask for your name or any identifying info, unless you opt to give your email address.
The important reason for these forms is simple: Without this data, it is impossible to argue any case with accurate facts. In other words, to flip it around, it is impossible to counter-argue that, for example, the RSC did indeed employ a British East Asian Actor between 1994 and 2012. None of us were hired! They won’t provide the name of any unknown BEA actor they might have hired! It is in the past now and no use raking over it – but the point is: we do not have official statistics. They didn’t hire a BEA actor! But they can pretend they might have! Not having any official data weakens our case. We need this data going forward and you are the only one who can give it!
We are getting there, but it is slow going. And the last two projects mentioned don’t measure audience, which is important if you are in receipt of public money. Theatre companies like the RSC are in receipt of this money, yet they seem not to have thought about who comprises that public, especially not thinking about British East Asians much between 1994 and 2012! Companies receiving public money need to better reflect the public paying for it, and this includes women, muslims, disabled, LGBT and BAME people.
My advice if you are wary of writing down your address or email is to ignore all the personal information the theatre company might want to get from you and give only the diversity information, which will help this fight.
The other advice I am happy to give is that theatre companies take this more seriously themselves. In a world where the nature of identity is being constantly challenged, the theatre producers need to prioritise gathering accurate monitoring data and not reproduce simplistic old-fashioned options that not a single of their own cast or Artistic Director could tick satisfactorily, aside from the “other” or “multiple ethnic background” boxes. If that is your area of expertise, please collect better and more expertly nuanced categories.
This picture shows why I argue for positive discrimination, as a casting policy the actor’s union Equity should be supporting – to redress the balance that everyone now accepts is true and has spawned Act For Change and Lenny Henry’s recent pronouncements etc. But even better, it shows why those who are threatened by positive discrimination, ie those who are privileged and already see over the fence (in the case of actors, those white actors with a certain agent), always argue that positive discrimination isn’t true equality and therefore illegal. It may well be illegal, but that doesn’t mean an actors’ trade union can’t stand for it in principle, as it could have done (but didn’t) when homosexuality was illegal.
I believe that Equity the union, by not promoting what they would call “positive discrimination for minorities”, is not doing its job nor serving its name honorably. I believe this happens because the union is 98% white (or whatever stupidly high number it is) and the elected Council is 100% white. Unless BAME members are elected to the Council this argument will never be made. Even if they are, it still isn’t certain to be made. At the moment I have made it a few times in committee meetings and it has never even been listened to at Council level.
I was incredulous to read a Diversity Objectives memo from the BBC – dated the year 2000 – at a meeting yesterday , and we all realised the situation has not changed one iota in half a generation. In the last 16 years, Equity has done almost nothing to drive change in this area. I think it should take a long hard look at itself and make sure that come 2032 it can look back with pride at how it helped manage to change the landscape. This can only happen by listening to and adopting some new ideas – then leading the way, not retroactively following the crowd.
It is like the recent Iraq bombings getting little to no coverage in the press; no-one in the key positions in journalism at the moment prioritise this story, because they have post Brexit, Chilcot Inquiry and football (and tennis!) to report on. But no one would deny it is massive story! In this example at least it is getting reported, thanks to having a person in a senior position like Jeremy Bowen. Equity doesn’t have this person. Unless someone of high status whose main issue is BAME representation is there making the arguments, then no one thinks to make them. In the same way as people forget to make arguments for disabled and LGBT and all minorities – unless a specific representative is in the room.
Equity believes it has shielded itself from criticism in this regard by having a protected seat for a BAME Councillor – but the facts speak for themselves, no such argument has ever been made, Equity’s history on acting for ethnic minorities is embarrassingly bad (the current leaflet doing the rounds listing Equity’s achievement s in this area is false – a wholly fictionalised re-writing of what stands Equity took; for instance on the Miss Saigon episode) and the current setup is simply not good enough to redress the imbalance, which in turn means Equity is not leading the way.
Polls for the new Equity Council elections closed last night and results will be forthcoming soon. I hope BAME members took my advice in the previous post and voted (in most cases for the first time ever) for BAME reps on Council. My own private interactions with actors tells me that more BAME actors than ever are leaving the union and even less are inclined to join.
If I am elected, which I doubt given my absence from the preferred “list”, I will argue again
for positive discrimination. Even though it may be illegal technically, I do not understand why the Union would not campaign for targets that amount to the same thing, which are not legally binding, but exactly as Sky have set themselves, for example.
Equity the union does not seem very equitable. The new President, whoever it turns out to be, could do a lot worse than to face this issue and make Equity for the first time pro-active in this area.
ps. a friend of mine, who brought this meme to my attention, points out that politically, people have different ideas of what is fair, and your ideas on fairness are, more or less, the determining factor in what makes you right or left wing. Some may even point out the meme overlooks the idea that the people in question have not paid for the spectacle they are watching, which may not be ideal as a meme for actors’ politics!
UPDATE! The results are in and it appears that me and my colleagues on the MEM committee, Daniel York and Somi de Souza did not get enough votes to get on to the general Council seats – but three other BAME actors did! Congratulations to them! Equity’s Council has gone from 3% BAME including the protected seat to 12%, which is far more representative – which alone was what I was campaigning for anyway!
A big thank you to the 600+ that did vote for me.
A poor turn out (as usual) from Equity’s 40,000+ members meant that the President was elected with only 2,300 votes! That is 5.5% of the membership! And some people have the gall to argue that the Tories do not have a democratic mandate!
Don’t just bin the letter from Equity with the candidates and your voting slip (like i have done every time since I joined in 1988)! Get it out, scroll to the bottom of this and vote for the names listed! You can vote for all of them.
For the first time, I have information for BAME members of British Equity, who would like to vote in the 2016 elections and improve the ethnic balance of the Council.
When Equity’s Council was last elected, there was nary a mention in any of the candidates’ statements about diversity – and every single person elected turned out to be white. Hardly a big surprise, since there was not a single BAME candidate to vote for!
If you are a BAME actor, 100% white is how Equity has appeared historically (just look at the pictures on the walls of Guild House) and we have relied on good will, sometimes patronising, to make a case for diversity issues. The slow-drip lack of leadership within Equity on this issue has led directly in my view to the emergence of Act for Change, a drop in BAME membership and the idea that Equity is irrelevant for BAME actors.
If, like me, you are a BAME actor who feels a trade union with over 44,000 members should not be irrelevant, should be more representative, and feel that the mere presence of BAME actors on Equity’s Council will improve matters, read on.
I complained at the time of the last election that there was no guidance available to help BAME actors know who to vote for. I asked around; on Facebook and among friends, and no one had a clue who to vote for to champion diversity. Not to say there was no one who did this (Charlotte Cornwell being a great pro-BAME and pro-Diversity example) but who should we vote for, given no BAME actor had stood?
I discovered that there was a lot of politicking (with an exceedingly small p) that took place in these elections. Factions exist within the union; encouraging people to vote for one group or another. As far as BAME members are concerned this is like worrying whether you should be port or starboard on the Titanic. (Equity’s answer historically is neither – BAME members should be downstairs in the stoking room!). It makes no difference to BAME actors, whether All-White team #1 or All-White team #2 are elected! Neither of the factions have much of a stance on diversity and it was left to us BAME members to choose which of the factions’ lists to follow – or to take random pot luck. Equity’s BAME members mostly did not bother to even vote.
This year it is better. After some positive recent changes in attitude and organisation, (Act For Change, Lenny Henry etc.) Equity has at last made some meaningful changes within its rules, so it can proactively stand up for diversity. Thanks to the Ethnic Members Committee, Equity is now able to make a critical comment when diversity has been overlooked, and did so for the 1st time when it criticised The Rose Theatre’s War of the Roses production last autumn. The impact of this was enormous and has changed some BAME actors’ attitudes towards joining the union already (though it is incredible that until 2015 the union had never before done this).
Equity is still playing catch-up, but in another unprecedented change for the better in the upcoming elections there are BAME candidates you can vote for. 10 of them! Ten – in general seats – and there is still the protected seat, which could mean that BAME members could comprise 12 of the 33 seats if we all were to vote in a co-ordinated way (given that Abiola OGUNBIYI is already elected unopposed into the Young Members Seat). I think that rather than have to guess which white actors have a pro active stance on diversity, (duh – no one is going to come out for racist casting!) and end up with it being overlooked (as usual) or ignored (as it was by more than half of the current ones when I emailed them directly about it) it is better for BAME actors to simply vote for those candidates who are BAME and intrinsically understand the issues.
Of course, being a BAME actor since the 80s, I remember well Equity’s then so-called, “Afro-Asian Committee” struggling to be heard. In those heady days, each meeting descended into a shouting match and there was a lot of rivalry between BAME actors. The idea of coordinating BAME actors to vote for a specific outcome to benefit us all in those years was a long way down the line – but now do I feel we have a chance? And of course, just because a candidate is BAME doesn’t mean they will represent your views any better than one who is not BAME. Of course, you may know someone not BAME, who is standing and like them personally, and cant I vote for them? Isn’t this just a big personality contest? Yes, yes and YES! 🙂
However, the biggest problem Equity has had- and for me why ACT FOR CHANGE even sprung up – is Equity’s appalling record on dealing with BAME casting and diversity.
At this stage, I feel that every BAME actor voted to Equity’s Council (and it is not a huge number of votes required to succeed) makes a massive difference to our union. I am not saying you should not vote for your mates. I am saying that if you are one of the many BAME members who thinks it makes no difference who you vote for, and usually don’t cast any votes at all, then just for an experiment, vote for all the members named here (AND THESE PEOPLE ONLY!).
VOTE FOR: (in the order they appear in the document)
Paul Courtenay HYU (me)
Somi De SOUZA
Nana St BARTHOLOMEW-BROWN
I was under the misapprehension that you could vote online. I was wrong about that. Apparently it is something to do with trade union ballot law disallowing it. What it appears we need to do is reach for the envelope, tick the names above, seal it and post it.
(I have simply guessed that the above members are BAME, by their picture and reading their biogs. I may be wrong. Apologies if so. I may have overlooked someone. Please let me know and I will correct.)
To clarify this post: you may know someone or want to support someone anyway – and that’s fine with me. These are only suggestions for those of you, who like me at the last election, have no idea who best represents your interests as a BAME member and would otherwise throw away your vote, because Equity seems irrelevant to you.
Actors, like any other profession, benefit from a Trade Union, which represents them in matters relating to work. Equity has been this body, representing actors for a long time. An Equity Card formerly stood as a status symbol – a badge of honour.
I became a member in 1989. I did a tour in a smoky van for 6 months doing TIE in schools to become eligible and get my card. Today it is not as difficult as it was then to become a member and membership numbers are flourishing, with over £4 million of income from subscriptions alone in 2013. According to the latest statement available, 2013, Equity are doing pretty well with over £9 million in cash.
I have been working with actors for approaching 30 years and they are not in the least bit racist. The acting profession is one of the most inclusive, it seems. The people are nice and reasonable and it’s a pleasure to be one of them.
The year I joined Equity, 1989, was the year that Miss Saigon opened in the West End. I ended up in that show in 1992. I was cast in 1989 instead in the German language premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-award winning play, M. Butterfly, in Hamburg. I left the UK to do that and was pretty much out of it, being as I was in Germany before the Berlin Wall even had come down.
I did not think of it at that time, but Equity did not make any noise whatsoever about the fact that Jonathan Pryce was playing an East Asian part, complete with make up. It was a different time, with Michael Gambon yet to play a blacked up Othello (as an Arab) and the theme tune of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum was still well known. I only started to think about the issue when, a year later in 1990, US Actor’s Equity kicked up an enormous fuss – in the US the protests were fronted by the playwright, whose play I had been working on, David Henry Hwang.
We all know what happened. Actor’s Equity backed down. Miss Saigon was a big hit. Everyone seemed to forget about it.
But who was right? What is the right side of the argument? As time passes, do the choices seem more or less acceptable?
No one said much (to my recollection) at the time about Gambon’s Othello, but which white actor has plans to play him as a black man today?
25 years is a long time. A generation. A different time. It couldn’t happen today. But are arguments about black representation equally applied to East Asians?
Last year, 2014, very much in the now, Miss Saigon reopened with an East Asian actor, Jon Jon Briones in Pryce’s controversial part. Jon Jon was the actor I replaced in 1992, as it goes. Jon Jon has won awards for his work in the reboot. He does it very well.
In 2013, Cameron Mackintosh’s casting department was unable to rule out again casting a white actor in this role. It seems ridiculous now the point has been tipped, but it’s the truth. I even invited head of casting Trevor Jackson to speak to Equity’s BAME members to tell us about his dilemma, which he gamely accepted. Standing in front of 50+ Equity members, Trevor told us he wanted to do the right thing but could not promise anything. The talent just wasn’t there, or he could not find it. He knew it was the right thing to do but what if he couldn’t? Trevor simply could not make promises.
Those of us present were seeing for ourselves whether society had indeed moved on in 25 years; whether we were indeed living in another time and as this episode unfurled, we looked on, mouth agape. Could it actually be possible that a white actor could play this part? And could Cameron Mackintosh really come to Equity and say it is so without Equity saying a word?
Yes! That is exactly the situation! It appeared as though Equity could and would make no statement about this – even though US Actors Equity did exactly that 23 years previously. As far as Equity was concerned there was no generation gap. It was not a different time at all. Equity was still rooted in the 80s.
In 2012, the RSC decided to produce the play, The Orphan of Zhao, sometimes known as the “Chinese Hamlet”. When casting was announced, of a cast of 17 (yes, seventeen) only 3 (yes, three – minor) roles were actually filled with East Asian actors, the other 14 (fourteen – 82%!) were not. A quick check of the history of the RSC revealed that the last Chinese actor they had ever cast at all was in 1992, 20 years previously! No actor with Chinese heritage at Stratford for 20 years.
It came as a surprise to us all. We know that actors and people who work in acting are not racist. They are in fact very much for inclusivity. Yet somehow here were statistics and proof that Chinese actors had been excluded. Somehow. And to compound the matter, two of the three East Asian actors cast in this production were playing a dog – paying little heed to the long established and well known historic racist conflation of “dogs and Chinamen”. It seemed incredible to East Asian actors, Chinese or not, and to broader members of the theatre community.
So where did these actors turn to make these points on their behalf? Their trade union, of course. Equity. Equity is comprised of these very inclusive and non-racist people. Could Equity speak for them in this matter?
What I discovered shocked me again. I was at that time a member of Equity’s “Minority Ethnic Members” committee – an anachronistic term in itself. The only other East Asian on that committee at that time was Daniel York and we both asked why Equity would not say anything on our behalf. Make a statement. Do something – anything – for the right side of the argument.
What was wrong with Equity? We could not believe they were twiddling their thumbs. We were long standing members and yet, looking back, they had done very little on the behalf of BAME members that we could recall. In fact, Equity’s record on this was not very good. Anthony Hopkins played a blacked-up Othello for the 1981 BBC film, after Equity had refused to allow James Earl Jones in to play the role. Mike Newell has also stated recently that when he was casting Sour Sweet, he had a meeting with Equity, which actually advised him to cast white actors and make them up.
It often seems as though Equity has a legacy of favouring white actors over BAME actors.
So it was in keeping with this legacy that in 2013 Equity would not make a statement backing the BAME actors, who felt so discriminated against. Equity could not support them.
To make matters worse, the BAME actors were told that it was actually their own fault.
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.
We can propose what we like, but the other Equity members need to vote for it – and the membership is 98% non-BAME. These 98% are the same people who I have worked with for decades, am friends with and like. They are not racist. If they understood how we have been discriminated against (20 years without a single Chinese actor working at the RSC has affected me personally, for instance), they would surely listen, sympathise and be willing to help. In theory we thought it would be easy enough to get the changes through and approved. Sadly it hasn’t been.
It is now nearly three years since that meeting and that original ineffective Policy is still in place. Equity appears still unable to say anything in any matters of casting controversy to do with race. And these controversies are still happening. The film, Exodus has had its share, with one of the actors actually apologising for it. We don’t blame Joel Edgerton, he’s one of us. An actor. But we do blame whoever thought it was a good idea to cast him and make him up dark-skinned – as do a lot of people all around the world.
Equity should be able to make these statements on our behalf, so we don’t jeopardise our careers, which may or may not have already happened in the case of Daniel and me. Equity in actual fact, however, said precisely nothing at all: leaving us in effect isolated by making public protestations such as this. http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/19/royal-shakespeare-company-asian-actors How could a trade union, supposedly set up to protect actors’ work rights, who supposedly agrees with casting inclusivity not do anything to protect its BAME members? How could it stand by and say nothing as their two East Asian “Minority Ethnic Committee” members denounced the decision as individuals?
During the last 3 years, we on the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” have tried to remedy this (seemingly obvious) contradiction in Equity, and have failed. Now in 2015 we are still concerned that the same outcome would happen again, were the Zhao situation to repeat itself. Would Equity say nothing at all and again leave those of its membership brave enough to speak out (for what most people believe in, lest we forget), hanging out to dry?
However, Equity is now on the cusp of making a change. The “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” has drafted and sent to Council a rewrite of the unfit-for-purpose Policy, in which Equity now “advocates” good practice. The council needs to approve it and that is why I am writing this. To encourage them to vote for it while perhaps feeling a touch guilty that this has not happened years ago.
Getting to this stage, the Committee met with obfuscation, mis-direction, needless arguments and bad temperedness. It has not been easy. We were told by Equity staff we would get professional help to word the Policy. None came. Daniel York resigned in frustration – a sad end for the most effective member the “Minority Ethnic Members Committee” has ever had. Equity, it seemed, did not want to change. I have been close to resigning, also out of frustration at the slow pace and seeming resistance to what I consider to be just the right thing.
At our last meeting, we were warned by an experienced Equity staff member that the new wording , below, would not be accepted by the Equity’s Council. Look at it, the proposed new “Inclusive Policy Statement”. It is puzzling to imagine what any of the actors on Equity’s Council could possibly object to and yet we really remain worried that it will be rejected by our friends and colleagues and fellow Trade Unionists. No one on our side can understand how this can possibly be.
But something seems to scare Equity from simply adopting this. At the first reading, the Council decided upon a tactic, which an old Equity Council member recalls as “kicking into the long grass” – a tactic, which I have never before in 4 years encountered; not voting straight away, but first asking other committees to examine it and take a view.
This is OK, but when I asked why we were not told this might happen, so we could have saved time by contacting them first, instead of wasting even more time than the present 3 years and counting, I was openly pilloried by an Equity staff member.
I was used to that by this stage, though. This is my own trade union, just to remind you!
The situation can be summed up as: Given that actors are not racist, Equity members are not racist and Equity staff are not racist; yet Equity’s BAME members feel that they are discriminated against (as in these two specific examples of Miss Saigon and Orphan of Zhao alone), what is going on?! Is Equity itself racist?
Equity does not want to commit to the generally accepted correct side in the above inclusive casting arguments. Equity does not want to commit to making any statement on matters such as the ones outlined. Why? Because Equity views that by doing so it would in effect be criticising (albeit on behalf of its BAME members) other members (ie the actors who have been cast ). I think the staff believes this scenario can’t and won’t work and foresees it eventually becoming a potential ethical nightmare.
Why is Equity scared?
Equity, you understand, does not want to get involved in matters of artistic choice. Equity believes that the decision to cast a white actor in a BAME part is an artistic one, so they must not interfere. This point of view – for an arts organisation – would be acceptable.
However Equity is not an arts organisation. First and foremost it is a trade union, protecting its members working rights, which includes protection from discrimination. And the question for Equity is whether artistic rights trump workers’ rights.
What about the BAME member of Equity, whose right to be seen and considered for this part has been harmed by an artistic decision? Who is speaking up for them? Protecting them? When the outcome of these artistic decisions always seems to exclude actors of colour, someone needs to speak. When the artistic decisions all seem to be exactly the same i.e choosing a white actor and excluding an actor of colour even from the casting process, it is not artistic. It is prejudice, bias and convention.
Equity is compromised and has chosen to hide behind the status quo, which everybody accepts provides poor outcomes for BAME actors.
Equity feels scared because it has placed artistic license extremely high up on their priority list. Equity needs to look at this and re-set the dial. Surely when the right of the BAME member to work is in direct opposition to an artistic ideology, at least in cases such as this, then the actor – the member who pays his subscription fees – should be a higher priority to his Trade Union? In this day and age (after all), which of the two oppositional standpoints do you think should be set as a higher priority for Equity?
I believe that Equity needs to re-prioritise itself. I also believe Equity is the correct place BAME actors should turn to in cases like this. Equity should be proud to support its BAME members instead of running scared and saying nothing.
Why is Equity scared?
The fact that Act for Change and British East Asian Artists have formed in the past 3 years to make these arguments, shows that these arguments have a great deal of support among UK’s BAME acting community. Equity has donated money to Act for Change, supporting their ideology. Lenny Henry argues the point so very well. There is a general feeling in society that it is time for a change with regards to depictions of race, portrayal and representation. Yet Equity itself stays silent, rooted in the ’80s (and arguably before even then).
Equity, I believe, wants to support its BAME members but is scared of being compromised. I don’t think it should be. I believe it should be bold and brave and be leading from the front, not playing catch-up from a generation ago.
The rewritten policy document states :
Because African, Caribbean, South Asian, East Asian, Arabic and other minority ethnic artists continue to be the subject of discrimination they should be given preferential consideration in the casting of parts specifically written for these ethnic minority groups. Equity calls for this to be attempted wherever possible.
To lead from the front, Equity and its members must try and redress historical imbalances before worrying about any artistic points of principle. It should not tacitly approve of any productions casting a white actor in a black role or any role of “colour” by making no comment. This lets down its BAME members and is not the way forward.
The change in Policy does not call on Equity to denounce the actor – but to disapprove of the process of making that choice as not being best practice. It’s simple, and to us all paying our subs, very important.
If Equity can’t do that then no matter how nice the members are and how non racist they are, if they don’t allow this change to become Equity’s policy, they are supporting an old fashioned status quo, which discriminates against BAME members and puts the white members in a position of privilege, wittingly or not.
By adopting this new policy as best practice, Equity will, for the time being at least, be redressing the historic imbalance that has long seen minority groups be discriminated against in the past. Equity will become truly a vocal supporter of inclusivity. It is long overdue and about time too.