Will door to Asian actors in Britain truly be opened?

Jingan Young says as calls for equality grow louder, there may be hope for Asian actors in Britain struggling to find work that does not typecast them

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 5:03am


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A new year means new resolutions, or in the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company, damage limitation following The Orphan of Zhao casting controversy last year, which saw the company cast East Asian actors in just three out of 17 roles in the Chinese classic.

Next month, several British arts institutions including the Arts Council, Equity, and the Casting Director's Guild will form a barricade around the concerns raised by petitioning artists. They will host an "open forum" designed to "improve the situation" regarding the apparent lack of employment for British East Asian actors in film, theatre and television. Baptised "Opening the Door", this well-marketed attempt to quell the disgruntled community will undoubtedly return us to the old adage, "Is casting colour-blind?"

There is a vicious catch-22 for any non-white performer, because there are simply not enough parts to go around. If a production with a narrative that calls for a predominantly Asian cast does miraculously make its way onto a main stage - for instance, last year's Wild Swans at London's Young Vic - you will be most certainly guaranteed a run-of-the-mill second world war story ultimately stereotyping the Chinese as communists, ignorant peasants or fleeing victims of circumstance.

But is this simply a case of racism, or bad market research? The problem isn't whether the predominantly white theatre-making community is racist, but whether it is actively looking for material that depicts East Asian actors as more than, as Anna Chen in The Guardian asserts, "dogs and maids".

This closed loop prevents any change or innovation to the proven formula. As a Hong Kong-born Eurasian with both Chinese and Western roots, my world is a shared one; as a working playwright, my world is particular.

I have had many discussions on the "non-marketability" of my Chinese-centric text - even a bourgeois coming-of-age story with one Asian character was dismissed as "not relatable" enough for the general public. Does this mean the mixed-race story cannot, does not, appeal to a mainstream audience? How do we know, if there has never been any attempt made to do so?

More and more new writing programmes are springing up in Britain, aimed at championing unheard ethnicities, East Asian voices included. But where are the products of these feats? Where are the commissions? They are few and far between.

Despite the presence of critically acclaimed production companies that do attempt to break down the barriers, their work could also be seen as a form of segregation, presenting one culture to one culture on one stage. When will we begin to see many nationalities on stage and screen together, without the irony?

When the debate rages on next month, leaders in the arts will be under great pressure to propose a resolution. It's unlikely that "Opening the Door" will resolve this outcry for casting equality in the next few years. However, we should remain hopeful, for the door has now been flung wide open.

Jingan Young is a Hong Kong-born playwright and freelance writer currently reading for a masters in creative writing at Oxford