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.