Sunday, 22 January 2017

Some more Letters on The Print Room Fiasco from a UK Theatregoer of Chinese Descent

Letter 1: To The Print Room and Mr Howard Barker cc HRH Princess Eugenie c/o HRH The Duke of York; Editor, Daily Telegraph
Letter 2: To Equity, Mr Kevin Shen, and every UK-based actor of the stage and screen

Letter 1: To The Print Room and Mr Howard Barker

Dear Sirs

As the Chinese New Year is approaching, I am afraid that I will not be able to make it to your production. I have, however, read of your production and seen photos, and am pleased and surprised that you might have actually noted my twitterings. As a member of the public, thank you for listening, for your honest explanations (especially Mr Barker's), for pushing ahead with your production, and for risking your reputations. I accept that you did not realise how deeply you would offend.

I accept that you sincerely want to apologise, and I believe that you have already changed attitudes within and outside theatreland. All I ask is to please apologise for the statement on 'thoroughly English mores', and to try to have a less cynical view of our shared culture. Although all of us have to live with the consequences of distortions based on falsehoods, your actions have shown that some of us really have been treated worse than others because of such distortions. We now know we have friends to help us, and that we can make a change together.

Mr Barker ought not to say that what he has done is not political, because he must expect public debates to result from putting his work out in the public domain.

I hope that positive change will arise from your meetings with Equity and others in your industry, and that no-one will lose their job or be scapegoated, bullied, and censored. I also hope that you will continue to support the visibility of British-based East Asian/Chinese artists within theatreland, and to allow these artists to realistically portray the British people of East Asian/Chinese descent who exist outside of it. 

Break a leg for your future productions.

With kindest regards and best wishes for 2017, yours faithfully, B 

Letter 2: To Equity, Mr Kevin Shen, and every UK-based actor of the stage and screen

Dear Sirs

I am a member of the public who has no connection to the arts apart from consuming it. Despite my criticism of The Print Room's production of 'In the Depths of Dead Love' by Mr Howard Barker ('Depths'), please consider that The Print Room and Mr Barker, in going ahead with their production in spite of accusations of racism and the protest by British(-based) East Asian artists, have helped to make British(-based) Chinese/East Asian artists and people more visible. I am also writing to ask you to please, please, not push for 'Chinese/East Asian parts for Chinese/East Asian actors', and to instead adopt UK-friendlier changes.

I have read Mr Shen's suggestions about levelling the playing field for minority actors, and I stress that I am not attacking Mr Shen, but offering my observations 1. as a member of the British public who consumes British screen and stage offerings, and 2. as a British-born Chinese. Sorry for the rant that follows.

I was the second Chinese in school (the other was my sibling), and for months, the only other Chinese people I would see were my parents, who are also British-born. I therefore had to look for the best in everyone who was not in my family, and found it in my neighbours, friends and schoolmates, who were physically Caucasian, Black, and Asian (ie descended from people from the Indian subcontinent).

The US notion of ‘white being superior to non-white’ was something we read about but never practised, and could not fathom. What we shared was identifying with our families (physically Chinese, Caucasian, Black, Asian etc), the class system, and one or more of the Home Nations of England (and the regions), Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, plus Cornwall, Manx, Guernsey, Jersey, the Orkneys, the Scilly Isles, Jewishness, Romany (Gypsy/Traveller), Irish Republic etc.

I therefore think that using the US notions of 'diversity', ‘black and white’, ‘majority and minority’ in terms of ‘ethnicity’/’race’ as the benchmark for visibility on the stage and screen in the UK is simplistic, unworkable in the UK, futile, and will alienate a lot of people. I do not want US race notions in my life.

In the UK, ‘an East Asian part for an East Asian actor’ will mean that only Scottish actors can be in Macbeth  - a move that recalls ‘thoroughly English mores’. More importantly, in most current UK scripts, ‘East Asian parts' are written and cast through the lens of box-ticking, sheer stupidity, ignorance, laziness, carelessness, and stereotype. Thus, in 'Ripper Street', brothers speak Cantonese to Mandarin-speaking sisters they've been brought up with. On stage, you'll see the first East Asian of two being cast as a mute puppeteer of a demon mastiff that only exists in the English adaptation of a Chinese call to arms, but not in the original Chinese drama itself ('Orphan of Zhao'), and in the same production, you'll see the second East Asian of two being cast as a character who dies, but who actually survives in the original Chinese drama.

Characterisation isn't there, passion isn't there, and storytelling isn't there. But could we see that there was an East Asian present? Yes! Let's tick the diversity box! It'll sell!

'An East Asian part for an East Asian actor' will increase East Asian visibility, but  no-one will have respect for the actor who takes such a part, and no-one will respect British East Asians.

The problem is not just tokenism in scriptwriting and casting. If you consider that 'Depths' was first performed as a radio play on the BBC back in 2013, which was the year following the public furore and condemnation surrounding The RSC's adaptation of Ji Junxiang's version of 'The Orphan of Zhao', then it becomes clear that the promise to involve more British-based East Asian artists in the performing arts in Britain was mere lip service. 

What must follow is that The Print Room, and Mr Barker, have risked their reputations to expose this sham. They put on their show in the face of the protest by British(-based) Chinese/East Asian artists, accusations of racism and yellowface, and negative publicity. In doing so, they have made audiences, passers-by, theatre critics, newspaper readers and even royalty think about what yellowface is, and see that real British people of Chinese/East Asian descent exist. 'We will cast the white chap because we cannot find a Chinese/East Asian' cannot hold water anymore, not when practically all of the British(-based) Chinese/East Asian acting community turned out on 19 Jan.

Real British people/actors of Chinese/East Asian descent have wit ('Give East A Chance', anyone?), and are able to argue, are passionate, and are, as it turns out, quite noisy. It is also now clear that real British(-based) Chinese/East Asian people who stand up for themselves have to put up with unpleasant language and foul behaviour from certain unsavoury types. And these are the gentler ones, compared to these.
I am angry that my fellow human beings have been taken as mugs because of political correctness and lip service, and as a consumer, I am also angry that I have to put up with second-rate shit that pretends to be art because of political correctness gone mad. Let me explain. 

Nearly all the non-Chinese Brits around me of every background are Tilda Swinton. They ask questions, sometimes really clumsily. They are not racist, because they are trying to change. Yet, they are sometimes unfairly labelled as racist. So instead of having proper dialogues, they clam up, because they don't want to be seen as racist.

When Tilda mentioned her Celtic background to Margaret Cho, I sympathised. I am more likely to see a fictional show set in Denmark or even modern-day South Korea than modern or ancient Scotland/Ireland on British telly, which even a few years ago had 'Father Ted', 'Chewing the Fat', 'Rebus', and 'Rab C Nesbitt'.

Shows that captured Britain's hearts were twee and slightly fusty. Characters ‘said and did the wrong things’, but they were true to life, good-natured (you really rooted for the poor sod you were meant to root for), and they spoke without fear like real people in Britain do. Such shows even mocked racist behaviour - look at 'Fawlty Towers' and 'Mind Your Language'. This identifiability and realism does not exist in any UK TV show anymore, and if I miss that sort of diversity which made shows ‘British’ but not 'white' in the US sense of 'white people' and/or 'white superiority', I wonder how Tilda must feel.

Yes, racist behaviour on screen and onstage (blackface, the black and white minstrels), as well as the real world, were problems that had to be tackled, but in the effort to root out genuine racism, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. New British comedies are not funny anymore because characters are not identifiable, and dramas and tragedies lack authenticity because characters, again, are not identifiable.

I can see why Margaret felt like a house servant, and I feel her frustration, anger and sadness when Tilda wrote that for Tilda to be cast as The Ancient One was the right thing to do, despite such an action further reinforcing the invisibility of East Asians on the stage and screen and implying that East Asians should only be sidekicks. I am angry, because I know that in the absence of Marvel writing about The Ancient One applying for American citizenship and relocating to the Rockies, a high-profile, intelligent actress like Tilda being cast as him, and Margaret and her working together to expose this, was the next best thing.

What Marvel did with Tilda Swinton and The Ancient One is a practice which the UK film, TV and stage industries must not follow, because it is not true to life.

Other Brits who do not identify as 'British Chinese/East Asian' need to see it like this. No-one is robbing a white actor of a role, and I'm not saying, 'you can't play a Chinese person if you're white'. What I'm saying is, is that if more British(-based) Chinese/East Asian artists start being cast in meaty roles in eg Shakespeare, then what we will all see on our stages and screens will be the first step to something that is more realistic and relevant to us all, because we will see more of the true Britain on our stages and screens.

What I want to see is a story involving someone who can be a neighbour, a colleague in an office, a doctor in a hospital or clinic, a nurse, a takeaway/restaurant owner, a policeman, a politician, a scientist, an artist, an engineer, a lecturer, a writer, a videogamer, a chef, a student in a school or uni, a housemate, an adoptee, a lawyer, a teacher, a shopkeeper, a designer, someone doing something with their lives, an enemy, a lover, a friend, a human being. They don't have to look like me (that would be impossible), but the British(-based) East Asian actors and actresses who were very visible at the protest outside The Print Room could and should have a go at playing them. Since very real British people of Chinese/East Asian descent exist in Britain, they should exist in British dramas, comedies and tragedies on British stages and screens.

So here are my suggestions:

1. Attitudes to storytelling must be changed; the character must always come first.  Actors, if your character sounds dodgy, they are dodgy. Perhaps directors and scriptwriters should work with actors to make characters more human and lifelike and not 'more [insert identity here]'.

2. Open-minded and open casting with statistical monitoring must be the norm. 

3. Cast members should be allowed to let their acting ability - using their bodies and voices - shine. Cast members must not be present just to tick diversity boxes. 

I hope that positive change will arise from your meetings with The Print Room, and that no-one will lose their job or be scapegoated, bullied, and censored. I hope Dr Tara Lo of 'Holby City' (played by Jing Lusi) will not remain the only realistic British Chinese role onscreen. Lastly, I hope the visibility and talent of (British) East Asian/Chinese actors and actresses can be properly harnessed to tell the stories of the British people of Chinese/East Asian descent who exist in the real world. 

With kindest regards and fingers crossed that real change will happen, B x

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