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Annie Rowe: East Asian actors are starting to get the visibility they deserve

Gemma Chan, John Schwab and Ben Starr in Yellow Face at the National's Shed Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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I’m a big fan of David Henry Hwang’s writing and wanted to come on board as casting director for his play Chinglish at London’s Park Theatre, having previously cast his play Yellow Face (Park and the National) in 2013.

Since casting Yellow Face, I’m pleased to see that the talent pool to source from has grown, standards have improved, more East Asian actors are attending drama schools and initiatives such as the Yellow Earth Academy are providing support, information and encouragement for more aspiring British East Asian actors to make informed decisions about training and further education.

A specific challenge when casting this production was finding multilingual performers. Chinglish requires six fluent Mandarin-speaking actors, five British East Asian and one white, Caucasian English. Most British East Asians are familiar with Cantonese (the language of Hong Kong) as opposed to Mandarin (the language of mainland China, where the play is set). So having filtered out the non-Mandarin speakers, we were left with quite a niche group.

This meant we had to cast in a slightly different way. We considered less experienced newcomers with no formal training but lots of raw talent, and actors with backgrounds in TV, stand-up comedy and opera, as opposed to conventional theatre. We also invited people over from Europe to London to audition. Each potential cast member had to have great comic timing (it’s a comedy after all), so I was also tasked with finding actors with funny bones.

I pared down the CVs, watched lots of showreels and researched each actor before bringing them in to meet director Andrew Keates, or asking them to self-tape if they couldn’t attend a casting. We also needed to find an exceptional actor to play an English ex-pat business consultant; we were thrilled to cast recent Royal Scottish graduate Duncan Harte who impressed us with his fluent Mandarin and natural comic timing, and gave a sensitive and intelligent portrayal of Peter. The whole creative team and I panned for gold until we found the rest of our sparkling company.

In a year in which Chinglish, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Snow in Midsummer and Yellow Earth’s Tamburlaine are being staged, it’s heartening to see British East Asian actors being acknowledged via high-profile platforms to showcase their talents.

Read our Q&A with Lourdes Faberes, who is appearing in Tamburlaine

Work creates work and visibility is key to this. Until we see these actors playing ‘normal’ roles (policeman in crime thrillers, family with a market stall in EastEnders, in theatre roles from Shakespeare to Jack Thorne) and not just ‘takeaway boy’ or ‘Chinese laundry worker’, this acting community will continue to feel marginalised, frustrated and overlooked.

Yes, there’s a shortage of older performers, but the new wave of younger actors entering the profession is an excellent move in the right direction. So my challenge to producers and directors is: come and see Chinglish as an example of the growing East Asian acting talent on offer. And then cast them again.

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