East Asian actors call for public forum to discuss casting concerns

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A group of British East Asian actors, led by the vice-chair of Equity’s ethnic minority committee Daniel York, has called for the Royal Shakespeare Company to host a public forum in response to the controversy around casting decisions for its forthcoming production of The Orphan of Zhao.

Followers of the RSC’s Facebook site, including a number of performers, have criticised the company for only casting three actors of East Asian heritage in the play, which has been billed as the “Chinese Hamlet”. A group of East Asian performers has now issued a statement calling for a wider discussion on the issues raised by their protests.

The RSC has defended its casting decisions, stressing that the production and its company was cross-cast with two other plays, although it acknowledged that “the lack of visibility for Chinese and East Asian actors in theatre and on screen is a live and very serious issue.”

The group is seeking an apology from the RSC, a “public discussion forum to be held in London with [RSC artistic director] Greg Doran and the two directors of the other plays in the trilogy, with speakers of our choosing to represent our case”, and ethnic monitoring of auditionees for both race-specific and non-race-specific roles and for that data to be freely available.

York said: “This exclusion has been going on for far too long within the British stage and film industries. Colour-blind casting is a wonderful concept, unfortunately, it’s all one-way traffic. Something has to change. We are asking for fairness and a level playing field.”

York, together with other representatives from Equity, met with the RSC earlier this week to discuss the group’s concerns.

Equity spokesman Martin Brown said the union would also be meeting with Arts Council England this week to discuss the issue. He added: “It is clear to everyone that there is massive under-representation of East Asian citizens in UK drama and as a result significant under-employment for Equity’s East Asian members. This is an issue which goes across the industry and is not confined to the RSC. Equity staff and members are now raising this matter with both employers and funding bodies and is calling for urgent action.”

The RSC confirmed that its casting director Hannah Miller and producer Kevin Fitzmaurice had met with Equity to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, in a statement, Doran and RSC executive director Catherine Mallyon said: “We understand that the casting of our World Elsewhere season of three plays has led to much concern and are sorry that this is the case. We do recognise that the lack of visibility for Chinese and East Asian actors in theatre and on screen is a live and very serious issue. We are beginning the process of talking to industry colleagues, representing employers and actors, to set up a forum for wider debate which we hope will make a meaningful difference.”