As an inter-cultural theatre company we strive to find ways to represent the people who live in our city. We are not alone in the desire to be heterogenous and representative on our stage. Most theatres strive for this. But theatre does fall behind the times compared to other performing arts, like dance for example. Over the weekend I noticed that on two continents there are high profile public discussions going on about casting.
It is reported in the New York Times that “Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris has called for a boycott in Germany of theatre productions in which white actors are cast in roles explicitly written for black performers.” That statement got my attention. As I read on I discovered that it was a personal act as well. Mr. Norris is upset about casting in “ his Tony Award-winning play, “Clybourne Park” at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, in which a white actress had been cast to play a black character.” I can see why he would be upset. This is 2012 and you would think that this sort of practise is no longer acceptable. After much correspondence with management Mr. Norris found that his patience snapped when they wrote to him to say that this situation would not be a problem because “the color of the actress’s skin would ultimately be irrelevant, since they intended to ‘experiment with makeup.” This is jaw-dropping stuff.
Then I turned to The Guardian to discover that “…of the 17 actors cast in the forthcoming (RSC) production of The Orphan of Zhao, which will be overseen by new artistic director Gregory Doran, only three (members of the cast) are of east Asian heritage. James Fenton’s new version of the fourth-century play, which is attributed to Ji Junxiang, is the first Chinese drama the RSC has produced.” The Chinese acting community feels particularly aggrieved because the RSC has been so successful lately producing “Doran’s all-black Julius Caesar – for which the company struggled to recruit enough black actors – and Iqbal Khan’s all-Indian Much Ado About Nothing, both part of the World Shakespeare festival.”
Actor Paul Courtenay Hyu, who has worked at the National theatre and Birmingham Rep, called it “an incredible, gob-smacking episode. They have an all-black Julius Caesar and an all-Indian Much Ado, but when they decide to do the Chinese Hamlet, they cast 14 out of 17 actors and all of the major parts as non-Chinese. In the 21st century, that’s unbelievable.”
The challenge for the RSC is that “The Oprhan of Zhao is part of a three-play season. A single company will also perform Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and a new version of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo by Mark Ravenhill. ‘The RSC have led the way in non-culturally specific casting, but there was no way I was going to do this with an exclusively Chinese cast that would then go through to those other plays.’ said Doran.”
“However, British-Chinese actor Daniel York, who has worked with the RSC in the past and auditioned for The Orphan of Zhao, believes the problem runs much deeper: ‘The whole industry is kind of reluctant to cast east Asians in non-race specific roles. We are generally only thought of as the Chinese takeaway man or the Japanese businessman. It’s incredibly hard for an east Asian person to build up the track record that would enable the RSC to feel confident in casting them in a decent role. We’re not on the radar because we’re not working very much.”
Unfortunately, AD Gregory Doran made things worse. He was quoted in the article as saying that ”I look at as many actors as I can, and choose not on ethnicity but the best actor for that role. That’s the only way to do it,” he explained. “I have to say, partly, it feels a bit like sour grapes.”
Turning back to look at our own community we recognize that many artists feel justifiably marginalized. It is clear that as institutions we all have further to go if we are ever going to truly wrestle this problem to the ground.