British east Asian theatremakers hit out at ‘biased, out-of-touch’ industry

Daniel York
Daniel York
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British east Asian theatremakers have called on an “out-of-touch corner” of the industry to recognise them as Britons and not “east Asians living in Britain”.

Leading theatre practitioners and industry experts gathered for a panel event at Theatre Royal Stratford East in London to discuss the barriers facing BEA artists and the actions that can be taken to ensure there is “no more yellowface casting”.

The event followed recent outcry at the casting of Caucasian actors in Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love at London’s Print Room, despite it being a play set in ancient China featuring characters with Chinese names.

The Print Room later responded to criticism by claiming the production is a “very English play” and had been “cast accordingly”.

Speaking on the panel, actor Daniel York argued that even if a production is an 'English play', British east Asian actors should not be consigned to stereotyped roles and should be recognised in the industry as English artists.

He said: “If you cast a play with all middle-class white actors and you are calling it an English play that has been cast accordingly, the argument they are making is that Englishness is whiteness.

“It goes to show that to an out-of-touch corner of the industry, Englishness is very much about not being east Asian.

“Even for those of us who haven’t grown up here, if you live here, if you pay your taxes here, that's a very strange position for them to take, but that goes to show the challenge we’ve historically faced.”

Director and writer Mingyu Lin, who is creative producer at Trikhon Theatre Company, added: “What we are pushing for is for people to see us as British east Asians, not east Asians living in Britain.”

Lin argued that while some casting decisions are conscious choices, many BEA artists are also subject to an “unconscious bias”, and to combat this, casting directors should consider using diversity quotas or undertaking “unconscious bias training”.

Members on the panel, which also included Clarissa Widya from Papergang Theatre, also said that all theatremakers, especially ones receiving public funding, had a responsibility to diversity.

Artistic director of Yellow Earth Theatre Kumiko Mendl, who also spoke on the panel, said: “It is about having artistic freedom, but also artistic responsibility.

“Theatre is not a bubble, it’s performed in a social space. Artists are not there to make people voiceless."