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City scope; the castaways

Anna Chen in London


Was it when I reached for my second bag of cheese 'n' onion crisps that my greed was exposed? First I'm demanding equal opportunities as a British person of East Asian extraction; then Hannah Miller, the Royal Shakespeare Company's head of casting, catches me red-handed grabbing bag No2 at the end of lunch.

"Oh. Two? I suppose they're small," said Miller.

It was a spooky moment of déjà vu as I'm sure I made a similar comment when the RSC cast only three East Asian actors (all in minor roles) out of 17 in its production of "the Chinese Hamlet", The Orphan of Zhao.

Our little chat took place at the Open Space "Opening the Door" event for East Asian actors and creative types at the Young Vic in London.

It was an unprecedented meeting put together by London company Improbable Theatre, British actors' union Equity, Arts Council England and various other theatre bodies, following prolonged talks with British-Chinese actor Daniel York (one of those who auditioned for Orphan and didn't get hired) and materialising only after the British East Asian Artists organisation spearheaded an international protest over the RSC's casting boob. This day would allow us to network and have that debate.

The noise we made over Orphan meant that, for the first time, we were heard clearly across the media and the industry. As Samuel Johnson might have observed, is not a patron one who looks with unconcern on a person struggling for life in the water, and when she has reached the ground, encumbers her with help? No matter. It was happening and it looked great.

With some 160 performing-arts practitioners - half theatre types, the other half East Asian artists of other hues - gathered before them, then, the response of the RSC, which had sent a promising five representatives, was eye-watering.

What had Miller and her colleagues learnt from the Orphan protest and what would they do differently? Nothing, it seemed. She merely repeated the claim that they had searched Spotlight for East Asian auditionees and "saw lots". And yet, I cut in, we double-checked and could find only eight who were auditioned out of 100-plus candidates.

It was disappointing to find the RSC still complacently unaware of why we were angry in the first place. Still, it promised to team up with Equity and casting directors to meet more East Asian actors and "widen the pool of talent" by early summer.

So, watch this space.



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City scope; the castaways

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