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Theatremakers hit out at ‘harmful’ stereotyping of British East Asian actors

Kumiko Mendl and Lucy Sheen. Photos: Suki Mok and Sarah Lam
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Theatremakers including Yellow Earth artistic director Kumiko Mendl and actor Lucy Sheen have slammed “harmful stereotyping” of British East Asian actors in theatre, film and television.

Sheen, whose credits include the film Ping Pong, argued that while East-Asian actors are “pigeonholed” into certain roles, their white counterparts are allowed to play “everything and anything” they choose across races and genders.

The pair were speaking at a conference called Sight/Unseen: Amplifying Voices of Southeast and British East Asian Theatre Playwrights at Goldsmiths University in London, organised by Goldsmiths, Aurora Metro Books and Tara Arts.

Sheen said: “When it comes to actors of an East-Asian heritage, we are stuck firmly in these small pigeonholed parameters beyond which we are not often allowed to go.

“It is the seeming cultural right for white colleagues to be able to do everything and anything, and that means crossing genders, races, ethnicities, and nobody bats an eyelid, but there are so few roles that East Asians are allowed to do and then you take that away from them.”

She said there was a “whole heap of talent out there across the diversity of British East Asian artists, front and backstage, which is going to waste and not being used”.

Mendl argued that theatre was progressing in terms of representation, but claimed there was an “appalling” amount of work to be done in film and television.

She said: “If you’re not represented, that reflects your self worth. I think it’s really key that we start to see a lot more representation.

“In theatre we are moving forward, we’ve had some really watershed moments. But we’ve got a long way to go with film and TV.”

Also speaking was Clarissa Widya, artistic director of BEA-led theatre company Papergang, who said the industry needed to look at how East-Asian people are represented on stage, not just how many there are.

Actor Stephen Hoo also claimed that stereotypes were especially “harmful” to the younger generation.

“When they do see themselves represented on screen and stage, it’s in a very limited way,” he said.

He added: “That has an effect on those people growing up, like it did with people projecting their ideas on to who I was, which was very far away from the truth.”


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