Monitoring Forms at theatres and their importance

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:

  1. The business of acting is hardly fair anyway.
  2. 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!

What  Equity needs, in order to be able to argue for fairness, is facts. We need therefore to have the presence of minorities actually quantified, in both on-stage roles but also back-stage roles and, crucially, audience.  Equity is pressing for this and is running a campaign which itself runs alongside an industry wide TV/Film initiative, The Diamond Project, which seeks to do the same.  BAFTA have even announced that unless you have a diverse cast and crew, you wont win any award!

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.

Grade: B- could do better
Not the most helpful categories, especially for a British East Asian theatre company who supposedly has a nuanced view on British East Asian identity

Freakonomics and the acting industry and why you take it or leave it if you are an actor

Please watch this video.  It explains one of the chapters in the hit book, Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner.  It is counter-intuitive but it shows why, using a flat rate commission model, your estate agent is not really looking out for your best interests if you are a seller.

I am of the opinion that the Actor / Agent / Casting Director relationship is similarly skewed against the interests of the Actor.  ie when he/her is offered a job, the system is skewed against his/her (I will use the masculine pronoun henceforth) best interests.

As we know, the hardest thing about an Actor’s life is getting work.  Barring the famous and in-demand actors, who can open a show or film or carry a TV show  (like, say, Benedict Cumberbatch / James Nesbitt), there is not a high proportion of Actors, who are offered enough work to keep them busy throughout the year.

For these working Actors, the majority of them rely on their Agent to find them work and put them up for it.  The Agent (again, barring those Agents who represent the Cumberbatch/Nesbitt actors) has a stable of say 100+ Actors, all of whom are looking to get a slice of what is available (incidentally, the money at this level is not very impressive either,  having been decreasing in comparative terms including inflation almost every year since Equity membership was  no longer a requirement to work as an Actor.  A West End job today pays less than I was paid in Miss Saigon in 1992).

There are some Actors (most of the well known ones), who do quite well at this level – and while not famous enough to be in the Cumberbatch/Nesbitt order of magnitude, have a name from previous shows, maybe, or simply a reputation for being good and (impressively!) they are making a living from the profession.   Others make a modest living but do not have to do anything else.  I am more or less at this level –  my work as ChineseElvis subsidises my acting career and allows me to turn some acting work down.

The vast majority of Actors (if this survey is to be believed)  do not make a living solely from acting and are basically in a position, where they are expected to be grateful for anything that is thrown their way.

The Agents (feminine pronoun henceforth) are themselves trying to make a living (and pay for offices and staff) by taking commission from the ever-diminishing earnings of their coterie of barely-employed actors, and the ever-decreasing smaller number who make a living. The overall diminishment of these Actors’ annual earning power is why Agents have slowly pushed up the commission rate from 10% in the ’80s to, in some cases, 20% and 25% today.

It is therefore obvious that an Agent would rather an Actor were tied up doing a job in theatre – even if this in no way is going to enhance an acting career (or even be interesting to do as an Actor).  A year’s contract in The Mousetrap playing to uncomprehending Japanese tourists is not on many Actor’s to-do list, but 15% of a £500 weekly wage is a reliable source of income for an Agent as well as keeping that Actor from hassling the Agent, moaning about not being seen for this or that.  Actors, especially the 75% of Actors earning less than £5K a year, find themselves often pressured into doing things that are not  really good for them, but good for the Agent.

How many times have I and other UK Actors done work for free – or for much less than what US Equity would call “Scale” – because of the “potential exposure” this might bring in the future or the “doors this might open”?!  It is the idea that you scatter groundbait in the hope you collect later!  I turned 50 in March and if the doors are not open for me yet, then they never will be!  I should be in the collecting stage of my career from all the free stuff I have done, surely?!  But I digress…

What I want to address in this post is that  I have realised that even when an Actor, who is among the rarefied ones making a living from the industry, gets a decent job offer on a TV or film, say, then their Agent is not really incentivised to negotiate any better deal than that initially offered.  Not perks, not billing,  not a better money offer – but in the same way as the video above describes, is more interested in locking down the deal for the sake of the commission – and to preserve/enhance their relationship with the Casting Director / production.

By way of another digression and to illustrate this point, I was asked to go up to Granada Studios in Manchester to audition as a doctor for Coronation St in 2011,  I didn’t want to spend the approx £100 for the return ticket from London (they don’t even pay your fare any more, it is ridiculous) and waste an entire day for one day’s work, especially given I had played a doctor in Coronation St already twice before! I had no desire to do it just for the sake of the day’s work.  So I decided not to go.  My Agent (at the time) went completely batshit!  Given I had only just moved to this Agent, I agreed to travel all the way, wasting the whole day, in a bid to smooth the transition to her and demonstrate goodwill to this new relationship.  My reasons for not going, (perfectly sensible given the part was less good than the two other times I had already appeared in this soap) made this Agent no money and by me spending £100 of my own money it gave her the chance of making a few quid – and strengthening her relationship with Granada TV!  The same agent could not comprehend why I turned down 9 months work at Stratford Upon Avon and would not leave my 12 year old son at home alone!

This youtube video below (to digress again) is a funny – and incredible – mashup of my very first appearance as a Doctor in Corrie intercut with almost identical scenes with me dressed identically in EastEnders from the same year (2008).  The scenes are identical!  FFS!

Back to the point.  In the same way as the Actor doesn’t want to compromise his relationship with his Agent (as recounted above), the Agent doesn’t want to compromise her relationship with the Casting Director or production.  The Casting Director is looking to place suggestions of actors in front of a Director or Producer for some project or other and it is entirely up to the Casting Director who they pick for this.  So the Agent, understandably wanting her stable of actors to be in the frame, doesn’t want to compromise being on the Casting Director’s “For Consideration” list by causing problems and insisting on anything more than offered.  This compromises the interests of the individual Actor who has been offered a role via this mechanism.

What may not be widely known is that the Casting Director also negotiates the money with the successful Agents on behalf of the production.  I disapprove of this and feel this is where it gets opaque.

In the case of the Casting Director negotiating the fee with the Actor’s Agent, the perceived wisdom is that the Casting Directors are merely the go-between, taking the hassle out of negotiating the cast’s fees for the production. I am sure that is true in most cases. However, I have noticed a flaw in this wisdom, which further compromises the individual Actor after having been offered a role. Although it is only (perhaps) theoretical, it is one which Actors should think about.

Let us imagine I were a Film Producer and wanted to only spend £100K on my cast for the entire film.  To incentivise people to achieve that goal, would it not make sense to say to a Casting Director (who I had hired and works for me, don’t forget) that I would allow her to keep any money she had saved underneath this budget?  And let’s say I allow a 20% contingency from the budget to give me some wiggle room for one or two actors who are big enough to stand firm, making the Casting Director’s budget £80k.  It would make complete sense for The Casting Director to try and cast the film spending only £75K (or less) because of the £5K bonus they would earn!  If targets were achieved, I would be delighted because I save £20K!  This would actually be the clever & Freakonomics way (from the Producer’s perspective) to carry out this task.  But the Actor is helpless if this is what is happening.

In this hypothetical case, the Casting Director would say to the Agent that the budget was low.  “Take it or Leave it”.  The Agent, because the relationship with the Casting Director is more valuable than the measly extra £150 she might earn by demanding another £1K on top of the £10K already offered for the Actor (as explained in the Freakonomics video)  would say to her Actor the exact same, “Take it or Leave it” and the Actor would be no better off than when the offer was initially made.  And while I am discussing the dynamics of negotiation, it is worth observing that no serious negotiation, Brexit included, starts off with a best offer!  It is very common, however, for an Actor to be told what their money is and there is no negotiation whatsoever!  Take it or leave it!

Whether the above hypothetical scenario has actually ever happened or not, (ask yourself how you would know) the end result is the same for the Actor, who is told,  “It’s a small fee because the budget is low.  Take it or leave it.  It’s only a week’s work – so it’s better than nothing” etc.  All actors have heard this.  And all Actor’s just accept this and give everybody in the process the benefit of the doubt.  They will complain about their predicament – but never have I heard any Actor discuss and complain about this idea.

The question is, would a production or Director really prefer to re-cast than add 10% to the fee?  If yes, then the Actor has no leg to stand on and he is probably among the 75% who are not making £100 a week.  If no, and I postulate that this is the case in most scenarios, the Actor is able to negotiate a higher fee.  But this works only if the Agent actually asks the Casting Director for this and then again, only if the Casting Director relays the same back to the production.  It’s a lot of hassle and the Actor is trusting a lot of parties who, as explained, do not have his interests at heart.

It is worth thinking about.

If an Actor is relying on an Agent to simply find him work he would never have otherwise heard of, (which is my position) then all this is a perfectly acceptable situation.  If the Actor gets offered work and is relying on the Agent to negotiate more money, he needs to be willing to lose the job to achieve these ends.  This is why some Actors don’t perceive their Agents as being worth the cost.  In the mere process of seeing whether there is any more money, the Actor is calling the Casting Director’s (and Production’s) bluff and putting his Agent in a predicament as described.  It is not a very powerful position for the Actor – and now he has been offered the job he is better off without an Agent, arguably.  The idea that an Actor’s Agent is always looking out for his best interests (especially when he has secured a job offer) is NOT the exact reality.

To finish with another anecdote, I was once cast in a show and the money was agreed.  I was then asked to undertake understudy duties instead, while still appearing in the show, but now I was to be understudying the role I had initially been offered.  The new guy they had now cast was too young to do all the understudy duties of the other parts that would have to be covered.  I agreed to this but the Casting Director made the argument that I could hardly understudy a part and be paid more than the Actor playing it!  This was one I was willing to quit over, (and holding already an offer and agreed money) so I held fast.  I am now the only Actor in the West End who has been paid more (50%) than the Actor he was understudying! Actors, especially the ones making a living, need to be more brave about holding out for more money, because their Agents are not incentivised to do this.

They will still take the commission, though, if you succeed!

1994. Life was exciting as a busy, young actor.

As a young actor, (well not so young actually … 27, in fact ) over 20 years ago, I was booked to do a show for Aquila Theatre Company.  2 shows, in fact.  It was early in the company’s development and my flatmate, Robert Richmond, was their new Artistic Director and employing all his mates, much as he still does nowadays!

I had been cast in two shows, Philoctetes and The Wasps – two classic Greek shows in an all male cast of four.

Miss Saigon logo
Logo for the world-wide hit musical

I had to leave the West End show, Miss Saigon, to do this job, envoking my “betterment” clause.

This betterment caused some distress to the Miss Saigon company, they having just appointed me to be the understudy to two main roles in that show, Thuy and The Engineer.  But the point of the “betterment” was to get out when something “better” came along.  Or so I thought.  It emerged that it was customary that the actor did not get to decide what was better for his career!  This came as a shock and after  a bit of a shouting match with the resident director,  I eventually left the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and started rehearsals in a church hall in Peckham with three other actors, all of whom I was putting up in my flat for the duration!

The Aquila job was to tour all over US, playing at Universities, doing these two plays and workshopping with the students.  Aquila Theatre Company were developing a reputation for this (and have done exceedingly well in the meantime).  I was young, had done Miss Saigon already, was ambitious and the decision to take this job was a no-brainer for me.   The only down side was the fact that there was to be a 6-8 week gap between tours, during which we would not be paid (and a consequence of which meant it was 99% certain we would be unemployed in that time to boot). This was annoying, but what could any of us do?

We all duly signed these two separate contracts and our passports were sent off to the US embassy in London with a particular work visa application (I forget what it was called) to work as specialists in education. The cast comprised 1. me, 2. Robert Richmond (directing and in it), 3. Dennis Conlon, who brought his young son, Sean, to stay with him, in my house for the rehearsals and 4. a grizzled-looking older geezer called Steve Owen.  We all had varying experience and competence – but we knew how to party and were close mates.   (Incidentally, Dennis’ son, young Sean, soon was to become a multi-millionaire boy band member, known for being the talented one in 5ive!)  But back to the main cast: Steve Owen filled in his visa application form by ticking “yes” in the box, asking whether the applicant had ever been convicted of a drugs-related offence.  There were only 5 questions altogether!  One of them was whether the applicant had ever been a member of the Communist party!  He then scribbled his “mistake” out and ticked “no”, which was the correct (and true) answer. His passport picture could not have looked more stereotypically like a pot-head if you tried, with uncombed thinning hair and incredible un-uniform teeth, like wonky and dilapidated tombstones in an unattended graveyard.  He and the other two, Robert and Dennis, had already been in receipt of one of these visas, and it was considered a formality.

It was a hectic time and the flat was full to bursting.  It was compounded by the fact that there was for some reason an official water shortage and so we could not go to the loo, wash up etc. and we had to fetch water from a stand-pipe outside the notorious and criminal Peckham Rye pub, “Kings on the Rye”.

As we rehearsed, I was offered a job:  Lead part in a new German TV series, paying a huge amount of money and 7 months filming in Hamburg.

It was un-turn-downable.  I was offered a fee that could have easily paid off, even after tax and agent’s deductions, my flat in East Dulwich (worth at time of writing  in 2016 circa £850K+).

Filming of this, my “breakthrough role” started after the Aquila Theatre company 8 week hiatus.  So… I was theoretically able to do the 1st part of the tour then the cast would be able to rehearse a replacement in the unpaid 8 weeks.  I offered to pay for the entire cost of these rehearsals, including all wages and venue hire as well as putting everyone up.  It was the least I could do, given I was now minted!

However, this is where I discovered having success as an actor makes actors bitter.  This was to be my Withnail and I moment.

Incredibly, the company were not happy with this offer!  I had signed the contract (actually both contracts!) If I even attempted to leave, I would be sued for breach of contract, I was warned!  There was some lawyer or other, who was connected to Aquila and he was, I was informed by the cast, who as I have already explained had worked for the company already (unlike me), a stubborn and ruthless man.  Like the owner of the company.

This preyed heavily on my mind, but the 2nd Aquila contract (after the hiatus) in question started around February 2005 and it was around July 2004.  There was time!  We were to start the 1st half of the Aquila tour sometime in September.

I was then offered a job in Croatia;  2 weeks on a US TV film, with Pierce Brosnan!  My immediate future was looking like: 2 weeks in Croatia on Pierce Brosnan job, return and go on tour to the US for 10 weeks, have a 8 week hiatus, be sued and then go to Germany for 7 months!

The fly in the ointment of all this was the thought of being sued – and this was preying heavily on my mind.  I went to Croatia, had a laugh for two weeks on the film The Nightwatch. 

The Nightwatch, TV Film 1995
DVD Cover of The Nightwatch, 1995, Shot in Croatia during the war!

When I came back to London, I had no idea what to do about the problem of being under contract and having by now signed my German TV contract.  I had in effect signed up to two things, which clashed.   My offer of paying for everything was not taken up.  Why?  I have no idea.  Maybe jealousy?  I was sick with worry.  It seemed to me that if I went and did the 1st part of the tour, then Aquila would have a better case that I was letting them down for the 2nd part and the lawsuit would take me down.  However, the threat of being sued did not make me particularly amenable to the idea of even doing the 1st part of the tour.  The owner of the company was not exactly dealing with this in a reasonable manner!

It was left to the migration policy of the USA to help me out.

We then received our visa applications back.  Steve Owen, looking like he was Howard Marks’ best client, with his scribbled out wrong answer to the drugs / busted question was granted his visa.  To everyone’s relief.  So were Robert and Dennis.  However, my application was denied!  wtf?!  I was the only person with a real reason to come back – having just bought a flat!   Was it just a racist policy to ban foreign-looking people (this was 20+ years before Donald Trump!)?  Who cares?!  I was free!  Even I  knew Aquila theatre Company could not very well force me to work for them in direct contravention of the explicit ruling of US immigration dept!  It would be illegal!  My contract with them was null and void!  Also my offer to pay for the rehearsals, which had been turned down, no longer needed to be on the table!  So off it went!

I did the German job.  It was called Echt Harder.  I managed to get a mate of mine, the actor Kay Siu Lim, ( who had a big part in the Pierce Brosnan film, incidentally) a part in an episode.  For a short 6-7 month period, I was the main role and I loved it.  Kay Siu said to me, “It’s like in Croatia, except you are Pierce Brosnan!”  It was true!  I was!  I earned a London house!  I loved it too and was not going to be sued – and it was all down to a bewildering and apparently racist US immigration policy, whose decision I never appealed.

I’m a BAME actor – who do I vote for in Equity Elections 2016?

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.

Laurence Olivier And Maggie Smith In 'Othello'
Laurence Olivier holding the hand of Maggie Smith in a scene from the film ‘Othello’, 1965. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images) . Picture also helps get people here from Facebook, who respond better to pictures

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)

  1. Paul Courtenay HYU (me)
  2. Somi De SOUZA
  3. Wesley GUREN
  4. Muhith HAKIM
  5. Maureen HIBBERT
  6. Martina LAIRD
  7. Sandra MARVIN
  8. Tanya MOODIE
  10. Daniel YORK

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.

The Fu Manchu Complex – less a review, more a commendation

The Fu Manchu Complex is a new play currently playing at the Oval House.  It is written by Daniel York, a colleague of mine, who I have known for over 20 years and who like me, is British born Chinese.  Like me too, he grew up here in UK and trained to be an actor in the 80s, like me not thinking his whole career would be defined by the fact that his father was born in SE Asia.   In fact it is arguable that were it not for the fact that his father is Singaporean and mine Guyanese (not exactly close, geographically – though they do look similar) Daniel and I would never have met, let alone done so many projects together.

Our entire careers have been defined by this one thing.   And guess what?  Given how little significance it had on my (our) lives growing up this is a frustrating thing.   We both dealt with this in similar yet different ways.  At the recommendation of the Chinese detective himself, David Yip, I changed the spelling of my professional name 20 years ago to appear more East Asian.  Daniel recently adopted this cynical approach, adding the name Loh to his actual name.  It is a smart move in this shallow industry.

When I first saw Daniel, he was acting in a production of Chay Yew’s first play, Porcelain.   It was in a tiny fringe venue, the Etcetera, and the house was not even full.  It was a great performance in a great show and this led to him going to the RSC for a season.  When my flatmate, Tony, started in Stratford, around 1993-94, Daniel was already there and we were introduced.   I even went to watch one of the plays he was in, Moby Dick.  We both, 20 years ago, did not realise the significance our being East Asian, albeit only half, would have on our fledgling careers.  Here was he, at the RSC, playing non-ethnic parts and I had just finished playing Hiawatha at the Royal Lyceum, and Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice at the Sherman and a big tour of Wales.  There was good reason for optimism that our ethnicity would not affect our careers.  It didn’t pan out that way.

Cut to the RSC’s Orphan of Zhao 20 years later in 2012 and it is incredible and saddening to think that Daniel York (Loh)’s 1993 appearance in that season was the last time an East Asian actor had been employed at Stratford before then.  I don’t remember Moby Dick very well, but I do recall Dan having a significant part, which only highlights how retrograde a move the casting of The Orphan of Zhao (where only three East Asians of 17 were cast – in minor parts) actually was.

Daniel and I have dealt with this unforeseen and enforced straitjacketing of our acting careers in similar ways.  We have both become activists for the rights of East Asian representation in the industry, being the two East Asian Equity reps on the committee which got the Opening the Door thing going,  have both been brave enough to speak out about it in an industry where this is mostly feared, and we have both written satires to highlight the relative low status the East Asian has at the Equal opps / diversity table.

The play, The Fu Manchu Complex, is Daniel’s.  I won’t attempt a conventional review here. You can read other bloggers and reviewers, who have done that.  What I will say about it is this.  Go and see it.  I saw it myself on Saturday and laughed out loud on numerous occasions.  It is genuinely funny in places and the entire cast is East Asian in heritage.  Its cheap and its easy to get to and its funny.  And its short.  All the things that I like in a show.

More importantly than all of that, however, and what makes it more significant in my opinion than any of the other wonderful plays that can be seen this month featuring East Asian actors, ( Chimerica, World of Extreme Happiness, Golden Child ) is that this was written by a British East Asian writer.  This is so rare that surely this in itself needs to be supported.  That it aims to turn a spotlight on the whole issue of East Asian stereotyping itself, which Daniel and I know from 1st hand experience all too well, and does so in an at times hilarious way, is the bonus.

The Opening the Door initiative, which is in some quarters being debated as responsible for this current unprecedented showing of East Asian actors is nothing of the sort.  The Fu Manchu Complex is the nearest thing that is of real significance in opening any door whatsoever.  While I am all for China being the flavour of the month and am a great fan of the great American Asian playwright David Henry Hwang, the fact that a new British East Asian playwright is being brave, funny and clever is the one thing that I don’t want to overlook.  I predict in fact that in another 20 years, of all the productions this year, this play will be the one with the most historical interest and significance to the advancement of British East Asians and our struggle to be taken seriously.

There’s no business like publicly funded…

Last week, I read the part of the Father in a rehearsed reading of new Vietnamese talent, Tuyen Do’s,  play in development, Summer Rolls, as mentioned in a previous post.

The evening was part of Tamasha theatre company’s development programme for new writers, which they call “Scratch Night” and the excerpts we read were followed by a panel discussion and audience debate around the topic, ““Creating from where we are” which pondered the notion that ethnic artists are under pressure to represent their ethnicity.

One conclusion was that in order to get anywhere (at least commercially) the answer is “Yes, you have to accept your pigeon hole in the short term and maybe once you are successful, you can transcend your race”.

This doesn’t sound so good when you flip it around.   What this message means, to many up and coming ethnic minorities is, “We know what you should be writing about.  Your community.  Whether you like it or not.”  This is not as far fetched an extrapolation as it might seem.

A  BBC Film Executive once said to me at a high-powered film meeting about a romantic comedy script I had written (about a Chinese Elvis), “Can you rewrite it to be more “A Big Fat Chinese Wedding”?!  The fact that the theme of my film was identity,(the Elvis in the film was West Indian Chinese and felt he belonged neither to the Chinese community nor the English one, hence his being drawn to being Elvis) was either totally lost on him or he didn’t give a shit.  This guy wanted something totally different!  Needless to say my film is still available to be picked up/developed and this guy is now a massively successful film producer.

On a fateful day in 2002, I had a conversation with an “officer” of the London Arts Board about why I had chosen to produce a play about being Chinese mixed race, Sun in Shining.  It wasn’t so much the play itself they had a problem with, from what I could gather, but they could not comprehend why I had produced this play with their money, when I was developing East Asian writers.  Sun is Shining was written by Matt Wilkinson, a white writer who is one of my closest friends, and even though he had undertaken extensive research under my direction with the company, and I am mixed race Chinese myself, the Arts Board had decided this was not acceptable.

Not only was my choice incomprehensible to them, it was, I was about to learn, grounds to cut the company from their revenue funding portfolio.  It was incredible to hear their reasoning, especially as it happened to be also the very day that the production of Sun is Shining I had mounted at The King’s Head in Islington, just up the road from London Arts Board’s offices, had made its way into Time Out Critic’s Choice  (where it subsequently remained for the rest of its sold-out run, before returning the following year at the ‘Best of Critic’s Choice season’ at Battersea Arts Centre, from where it appeared at 59E59 Theatre in New York – it became arguably the most successful British East Asian play ever produced in UK ).  It was an incredible conversation because, here was a well meaning white guy, telling me that his panel of well meaning white guys were disappointed that I had decided to go with a good play, rather than a much worse play by an “ethnic in development”.  The fact that I am myself mixed race and judged it a good play (correctly, it seems) was not pertinent and, well, that was that.

As it turns out, the East Asian theatre company that the Arts Council did continue to fund for the next 6 years failed to produce a show with anything like the artistic success of Sun is Shining.   The Arts Council then withdrew funding from them too, primarily (it is understood and accepted) for failing to be of high enough standard, leaving British East Asians totally unrepresented in the national portfolio and in a vastly worse position than ten years previously.   And confused!  I wish they would make their minds up!  Does the arts council want a good show or does it prefer well intentioned gestures approximately in the right middle-classed direction, and to hell with artistic excellence?  By not knowing, then changing its mind, the Arts Council put the entire East Asian performing arts community back a decade.  We East Asians still have not a single revenue funded company, incidentally.

With all the East Asian shows being suddenly produced this year, none of them by an established East Asian theatre company, the following question can legitimately be asked: What is the relevance of a specifically “ethnic” theatre company and does any such company, defined by its ethnicity, such as Tamasha, Tara, Yellow Earth only marginalise the very people they claim to represent even more?

Interestingly, Summer Rolls, the  Vietnamese play, is not being developed by an East Asian theatre company  but by Tamasha, predominantly known for its (south) Asian output.   I think its possible that Tamasha is like that fictional successful ethnic, mentioned at the beginning of this post in the post show discussion, who has transcended their own ethnic identity and is now using its success and expertise to produce and develop material that is not confined to their ethnicity.   Or is it?  Is this such a big jump?  Its about another ethnic minority’s ethnicity!  It would be much more bold if they were to attempt to produce a play written by, say, an Irishman about, say,  motor cars.  But then they would stand accused, like I did that time, of not serving the ethnics they receive money to represent.  Being ethnic really does define what you can and can’t do in this business.

Where does this current predicament leave us East Asians?  Still no theatre company revenue funded.  Yellow Earth, the last to hold such status, is not really looking relevant at all.  Ad hoc groups are having to scrabble around, independently and in competition with one another, which is extremely difficult.  Is it too much to ask for an organisation, funded by the Arts Council, which could provide help to produce the shows that are currently being produced, and develop the plays that are currently being developed outside of our community?  This would add the skills and talent within the community.  Just please, this time, Mr “Officer” don’t assume that you know what’s best for us.  Leave us alone to find out for ourselves.

My Chinese Elvis film is still unproduced (and mostly unread).  If there is an Asian producer, who has ‘transcended’ Bollywood and wants to use his skills to produce something different and is interested in a clever idea for a (probably TV) film, do get in contact.  In the meantime I will be working on trying to transcend myself…

Opening the door … and keeping the door open

I did my first bit of acting in some time yesterday, rehearsing a reading which will  be performed later tonight at a Tamasha Theatre “scratch night” in Shoreditch.  Its an extract of a new play, Summer Rolls, written by a British Vietnamese writer, Tuyen Do.  I have yet to meet her, but it is a good solid play and will do well, I think, and she is obviously highly talented.

My old colleague and comrade in arms, Daniel York, has his play, The Fu Manchu Complex, currently in rehearsal for a run that starts soon at the Oval House theatre.  He first mentioned his incredulity at the racist language and imagery present in the Fu Manchu novels (by author Sax Rohmer) to me some 14 years ago and I am pleased for him personally that he has managed to get funding for it.  I can’t wait to see it. He has worked hard for years to get to this point and congratulations to him.

At last it appears that British East Asians are getting their voices heard on British stages – as well as appearing on them.

The industry is currently pleased with itself for putting on Chimerica (Almeida and West End) and #aiww (Hampstead) and The World of Extreme Happiness (The RNT’s Shed),  not to mention Miss Saigon and employing an enormous number of East Asian actors.  This year we also had a resurfacing of David Henry Hwang in the capital, with an excellent production of Yellowface before summer and Golden Child coming soon.  Its all looking quite exciting.  It is as if the RSC’s Zhao-gate crisis has started the ball rolling.  But has it really?

Before anybody starts noshing anyone off about how great things are now and how things have turned around, I feel I need to add a note of caution.

Just over a year ago, the RSC had not employed a single actor of East Asian descent on their stages for 20 years.  The RNT had hardly done much better.  They acknowledged this, and  a mini online movement, dubbed Zhao-gate, ensued.  This eventually  resulted in an Equity-led event, “Opening the Door”, which was designed to spotlight this historic imbalance and.. er…open the door for us East Asians.  Given the unprecedented action in the industry at present, it appears to have worked

But does Zhao-gate and Opening the Door have anything to do with what is happening now?  The current fascination with China has led to the above 2013 productions and it’s not before time.  But does this really mean that the industry’s slate of historically overlooking East Asians on its stages has been wiped clean?  Has the door been opened?  NO.  Emphatically not.  

Employing East Asian actors in an East Asian play is not really something the RNT should get overly praised for, it is only the done thing.  Zhao-gate notwithstanding.  Of course I acknowledge it’s good that they are doing the play at all, but not only is it about time the RNT produced something about / set in East Asia, does a production in the Shed really  give the Royal National Theatre a get out of jail free card after all these years?   Hmmm…  After careful consideration, I conclude no.  Not in itself. They could do better.  As could the RSC and others.  I am worried that they actually might feel they have done their bit for East-West race relations, when they could in fact make a more impactful statement and do it easily now.  

It is very simple and has been in their power all this time.  The RSC and the RNT (in fact any theatre – though these big publicly funded flagship theatres should lead the way) must cast East Asian actors in roles that are not East Asian, in much the same way as they cast black and (south) Asian actors.  In fact, when they are about to cast a black or (south) Asian actor in a non race specific part, if they really wanted to redress the historic imbalance they should look twice and recast him with an East Asian!

Film and TV are not excluded from this, incidentally.  It is rarely the case that an East Asian pops up on the telly in a part that is not specifically related to his being from East Asia.  Casting directors are not open to receiving a submission for an East Asian actor when the part in Casualty is calling for a Dr Gupta to say a few lines.  But why not?

Opening the Door should have been called Opening the Eyes (subtitle: of the Industry).

In the Casualty example, the writer is making his intentions clear to the casting department that this Doctor can be played by any ethnic actor.  Yet the chances of being seen for this part as an East Asian actor are low.  It happens, but not that often.  You just need to watch tv to know this is true.

TV and theatre don’t even do ethnic monitoring of their auditionees, something we East Asians all think they should to avoid this institutional racism, if Opening the Door is anything to go by.

Even when Ethnic & Diversity monitoring happens, we as a group are all bunched into one afterthought, as you can see from the BFI Ethic and Diversity Monitoring Form, below.

monitoring form

Note that while on this form it is acknowledged that people can be ‘Black British’ or ‘Asian British’, there is no such similar acknowledgement given for the Chinese or (to add insult to the Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Malays, etc.) “any other backgrounds”.

We still need to keep an eye on that door.  It doesn’t look open to me yet.

Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon yesterday broke box office records.  I just heard Cameron Mackintosh on 5 live.  He was on good form.  Sounded very modest and cool.

I auditioned for this production.  I auditioned for the infamous Jonathan Pryce “Yellowface” lead role, The Engineer.  I had good reasons to think I would do well.

1. Because I am British.

2. Because I am Eurasian (the very ethnic mix they are looking for).

3. Because I am the right age.

4. Because I can sing it.

5. Because I can act it (admittedly this is subjective, but I am one of very few British Eurasian actors who has worked at the RNT, Hampstead, Soho, Birmingham Rep and Royal Lyceum theatres in main parts not to mention having been nominated as best actor at the Manchester News Awards).

6. Because I was in it before, when I understudied the part, 20 years ago, 1992-1994 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

I was delighted therefore to get a call from Cameron Mackintosh’s casting director Trevor Jackson, a few months ago, to prepare a few songs and strut my stuff.   This I did and dare I say it, I did rather well.  It was obvious to all present that I could sing it.  After all, I had remembered to warm my voice up, and had learned the words.

Trevor had called me in after his appearance at the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee annual Open Meeting, earlier in the summer, which I had arranged.  Trevor had initially approached a group I am a member of, British East Asian Artists, to ask how he could avoid the trouble the RSC had got themselves into 6 months previously with the casting of The Orphan of Zhao.  I will blog about this story another time, but you can get an idea of it from this article below.

I spoke with him at length, and suggested he officially speak at an Equity annual Open Meeting, given I was (and still am) also a member of the actor’s union’s “Minority Ethnic Members” committee.  This was agreed, hastily arranged and Trevor made an appearance before 60 ethnic Equity members at what was quite short notice.  It was quite a brave thing to do.  He spoke engagingly and acquitted himself  in a potentially volatile environment, despite a few early faux pas.  The general mood of the meeting was actually very good natured.   I have witnessed other such meetings degenerate into a slanging match.

What Trevor said, among other things, was that he encouraged us (as an ethnic minority) to never given up the fight  (against being discriminated against) and he hoped he would be able to avoid the Pryce casting controversy of the late ’80s, by casting an East-Asian actor in this role.  All this sounded fair and reasonable, but as always the proof would be in the pudding.

So I auditioned,  and did so well, with Trevor sat on the panel alongside 2 or 3 others, some weeks after this.   I was flabbergasted to learn 2 weeks later that I was rejected.  Without recall.

I was tempted to call him and ask how this could be.  I still may yet.  I was extremely disappointed.  Not because I expected Cameron Mackintosh to open a multi million pound musical starring me – I didn’t.  I don’t.  But rejected without being seen again?  After this one audition?  After what he had said in front of 60 other actors of ethnic origin? I was disappointed because this threw into doubt the veracity of Trevor’s platitudes that day at Equity and with it, perhaps all the strides the group British East Asian Artists (think they) have made this past year on behalf of East Asian actors.

I was certain that I deserved a recall.  To be fair, my agent said that Trevor had told her they didn’t want to waste my time with a load of recalls when the outcome was already clear.  I would not be cast in the role so why waste everybody’s time?  I agreed with that and again, I am not naive enough to think I would have been cast in the role, so I appreciated the gesture.  Initially.  But this occurred to me: why am I not being considered to be cast in the show at all?  Perhaps I could have understudy responsibilities?  That is surely feasible?

If I was able enough to do exactly this 20 years ago (in 1994 I simultaneously understudied The Engineer & the role of Thuy (for which I am now too old)) – and now I am the right age, having 20 more years of performance experience under my belt (not least as ChineseElvis!) then I am surely capable as a performer?

It seemed unfair and implausible.   But that’s show-business, I suppose.

It seems equally implausible that they would sell £4 million worth of tickets in advance sales and have no idea who is playing  the lead part, which is the story at the moment. Show-business really is unfathomable.  To quote Canadian comedian, Stewart Francis, who made the same observation,”In the UK, Sharon Osbourne judges talent”!

I just hope this current ‘worldwide search for a cast good enough for the show’ is not an exact replica of what happened back in the day a quarter of a century ago and it is not all a smokescreen so they can cast a white guy.  Not again.  25 years after this shameful episode, it would be extremely bad for race equality and much else.

Incidentally, one problem we learned at that meeting of the Minority Equity Committee is that Equity has no idea or policy to guide what they would do about it.  Much like in 1989, they will be clueless and not able to lead the arguments.

The only thing that is different this time is that British East Asians have found a political voice, using the power of the internet and social media to get worldwide support.  It is not well organised, which is perhaps one of its strengths, but it has demonstrated itself to be quite powerful and not to be taken lightly.

So we are left with the situation, that we have to keep our fingers crossed that Trevor lives up to his promises.  Otherwise, it will be up British East Asian Artists to flag it up again and it may look like sour grapes, when it is really not just that.

Let me put one thing straight.  I am a fan of Miss Saigon and want the show to do well and employ many of my British East Asian friends and colleagues for years to come.  I would love to be considered seriously to be in it.  I just don’t want to see a white actor playing the part of The Engineer.

Who knows what he is doing in this picture
Tony-winning actor, Jonathan Pryce, makes an interesting gesture