Casting: Part 1

I am a bit pre-occupied with casting practices at the moment. To be fair, I am always pre-occupied with casting practices and I think it’ll form the basis of my first few posts, largely because it is the moment in theatre-making when inequality gets writ large and the political economy underpinning theatre shines through. Well, I think so anyway. It is also the area where Equity UK are trying to tackle discrimination. So whilst the arguments may all seem c.1990s multicultural identity and the politics of visibility, the stakes are high when it comes to casting practices.

Just to kick things off in this regard and get myself going, I’m going to post a letter that I recently wrote to Michael Grandage about the selection and casting of his next play PRIVATES ON PARADE, a farce about the Malayan Emergency in World War II. This is the first time I have actually written a letter directly to an individual artist, one whom I greatly respect and admire and it was a bit of a wrench for me to do because I like to see all sides of an argument. [I exclude from this my frequent complaints to the BBC about their depictions of East Asians on radio and tv, that’s for another time]. But I am increasingly thinking that without making some noise, without being vocal, and without having a balanced discussion of the issues, then East Asian representation in this country will never get anywhere. I know it avoids massive cataclysmic issues like ‘what about creative freedom?’ or ‘don’t lots of actors ‘rest’ at any one time?’  But then I thought, well if you say that, then you’re most likely in a position of power, and the problem is that the people you are representing aren’t. Yet. You could say my political leanings won over in the end. I just guess that I will never be researching a Michael Grandage production.

Dear Mr Grandage,

I am an academic working on East Asian theatre and performance – both in Asia and the diaspora, including the U.S. and U.K. I am writing to you with regard to your forthcoming season of plays at The Noel Coward Theatre, which looks immensely exciting.

I notice that your first play is Privates On Parade and I know that you have been casting for this production among the East Asian sector. This is a classic and funny play; it will no doubt prove hugely enjoyable for audiences. However, I have serious reservations about how Privates On Parade portrays the two Chinese characters  who remain on stage, mute and wearing their ‘black pyjamas’ whilst the main (presumably all white?) protagonists speak to them in a rather offensive pidgin English. This smacks of the all too oft seen stereotypes of the Chinese as inscrutable, powerless and emasculated – and in the worst possible way – because they are simply mute figures who move the set about.

I realise that the play was written at a particular time, is set in a particular context and era, and that imagination is required to help construct these worlds, but imagination is a powerful thing. Such representations reinforce stereotypes and a sense that East Asians in this country can be treated with contempt. There is such an exceptional paucity, indeed invisibility, of East Asian representation in contemporary cultural life, despite their growing numerical presence.  I cannot imagine black Africans or South Asians within the theatre industry and wider society standing for these kinds of portrayals. I am saddened by this particular situation because I had hoped that London theatre was starting to turn a corner with recent Young Vic successes such as Wild Swans and Hamlet, The Orange Tree’s King Lear, and indeed Enron, all of which included East Asians from this country, in meaty roles that didn’t pander to stereotype.

I am sure that you will have no difficulty in filling parts like these that do not require experienced actors. Although they provide an opportunity for East Asians to work with some of the UK’s leading theatre practitioners, this type of role does a huge disservice to the many East Asian actors in this country who are genuinely talented but frustrated by the lack of opportunities to show it. I know of many who have been approached to audition for these roles but principles have made them conveniently busy. So much of the East Asian presence on stage and screen is risibly one dimensional and bound up in a very outdated idea of  what these groups are actually like. It is so rare that the theatre industry sees East Asians as part of British society (particularly without recourse to accents) irrespective of the fact that so much of the community is born and bred in this country, or at least, highly integrated into it.

A director of your standing and talent, should, surely, be able to be more progressive in this regard. I very much hope that you will be able to provide a twist on these two characters that the script itself does not call for. And I hope that you will consider East Asians, and indeed actors from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, in the casting of your future work and the challenging roles on offer – irrespective of whether or not the parts actually call for it.