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…