The Stage recently asked me to send them a 50 word paragraph on what I thought the main issues for theatre were and how they should be addressed in 2018. (the short version is here ) I was unable to include many of the events and thoughts that have been preoccupying me this year.
So here’s a stab at a fuller picture.
It’s been an unprecedented roller coaster couple of years for British East Asian theatre and also for our world, as we know it, or thought we knew it.
Few of us could have predicted the seismic shift in the political landscape of the UK and the wider world that has engulfed us. The increasing polarisation of political thought at times has been very scary. I am well aware of the effect social media has in driving this polarisation but the amount of overt racism PoC have experienced post Brexit has been at times truly scary. I worry what the future holds for my two mixed heritage sons but at the same time there’s a part of me that is excited for their future; they are in the vanguard and can lead the way.
The increasing ‘normalisation’ of extreme right wing views should send collective shudders down our spines. It means the work we as theatre practitioners commission, produce and develop is more important than ever. Yes the work should challenge and provoke discussion but it must also acknowledge our similarities, celebrate the human spirit in adversity and bring about better understanding amongst all people, whatever their views.
We must continue to strive for better representation and equality in our industry and we need it. 2017 has also seen another ‘yellowface’ production. This autumn Music Theatre Wales produced The Golden Dragon, a contemporary opera set in a pan Asian restaurant following the story of a Chinese illegal immigrant that ‘highlights the plight of the many people who find themselves on the edges of society’. Yet it was created and performed by an all white group of people. Opera has always been notorious for undiverse productions, in part due to the costs and length of the training required but also because opportunities for singers are dependent on a small group of casting agents who appear to decide on behalf of everyone. There was an outcry on social media and media coverage, Hackney Empire, a venue known for its diverse output, cancelled the intended tour date in London. The Artistic Director of MTW and his team responded positively to the many people who sent emails and made themselves available to discuss the issues, despite the initial official statements in defence of their actions (‘post Brechtian’ was one of the reasons, I’m still working that one out). It has however led to some good, open conversations that I hope have sparked the beginnings of some real changes in the opera world but we know it will take more than a few people to make that change long lasting.
Most recently I was invited to sit on a panel at Leicester Curve organised by Suzanne Gorman of Maya Productions and Doris Eikhof from CAMEo at the University of Leicester. Suzanne was launching a new ‘Pocket guide to BAME role models and leaders – how to find one and make a difference’. Together they have published a paper on BAME role models in theatre that looked closely at some of the barriers preventing BAME artists and those who work backstage from entering the industry. The conclusions they draw and the recommendations they make deserve to be distributed far and wide.
Earlier in the year a number of BEA organisations namely Papergang, Moongate and Trikhorn came together at Stratford East to discuss what being English meant in the wake of The Print Room protest. This led to us organising a workshop with industry people to examine ‘What exactly is an East Asian actor?’ There seems to be a lot of fear and confusion out there, which often leads to misunderstanding. As a result there is a plan to draw up some guidelines and best practise for casting agents and the industry.
This all felt like forward progress but then we encountered a difficult step back. This was the recent airing of a pilot for a potential new comedy series on BBC3,- ‘Chinese Burn’. I believe the intentions of the writers were all good – to make a comedy about their lives as Chinese women and actors living in the UK but ultimately the show has caused more offence and hurt than laughter. There has been an out pouring of criticism in particular about the portrayal of East Asian men and much of the vitriol has been directed at the two female BEA actor/writers. That’s never a pleasant thing. Women are often targeted more intensely and misogyny has played a big part here. I think we should remember it’s a pilot – you have to lay out your stall in just 20 minutes which is no mean feat and many pilots flop.
Despite the fact it’s not my kind of humour, I do feel the stated intention of smashing stereotypes has totally missed the mark and ended up just perpetuating them. I have written to the BBC to complain because I think they need to take a major slice of responsibility for this. The commissioners and script editors have a duty of care when working with what appear to be fairly new and inexperienced writers approaching the risky area of race comedy where one person’s joke is another person’s offence. This is a major minefield, none of which were properly thought through as far as I can see. How clued up is the average BBC3 viewer on Asian stereotypes? It’s trying to smash all stereotypes in one go but in doing so has ended up reinforcing them with crude humour, cartoon characters and lack of context.
We are in desperate need for BEA and EA lives in all their diversity to be seen on our stages and screens and this is precisely the problem – there are none. There is no context to play off; there are no other BEA and EA comedies. So expectation and weight has been placed unfairly on young inexperienced shoulders and now it hasn’t hit the mark, I fear an opportunity for a green lit series has been lost to all of us for a good many years. This is not something any of us want.
I know there are a number of good BEA writers developing comedy pilots and a few also involved in the Writers Room. I would love to see the BBC present a BEA comedy pilot season with a variety of styles, subject matter and characters, it’s the least we deserve. Because we lack the representation it does mean that any representation fails by not being every single thing that each of us want, it’s an impossible burden which BEA theatre is only just coming out of and which clearly TV has some way to go.
As the year draws to an end I’m going to finish on a more upbeat note. I am excited for the future of the company and for BEA theatre. A definite highlight has been working with our 4 talented writers on our new Writing Programme to develop 4 producible plays over a 2 year period. I’ve discovered new plays are notoriously difficult and slippery things to create so whether that is achievable or not remains to be seen. Creating one producible play would be a great result but I am hopeful there will be more.
Next year we have a dazzling new production to look forward to; Mountains; The Dreams of Lily Kwok by In-Sook Chappell, directed by Jennifer Tang opening at the Royal Exchange Manchester on 22 March and then in London at Stratford Circus from 18 April and then on tour. This is an adaptation of an epic family memoir Sweet Mandarin by Helen Tse, founder of one Manchester’s best loved Chinese restaurants. It will be a landmark production – the first time we will see an all female creative team with a BEA writer and BEA director hit the road visiting mid scale venues (approx. 300 – 700 seaters) so it’s very exciting.
For my New Year’s resolutions I will continue to wrestle with the best ways to attract, grow and develop the pool of talented BEA writers, actors, directors and creatives on stage and backstage. I will continue to find, create and develop the stories and voices we are not hearing or seeing on our stages; stories that are both challenging, bold, surprising and thought provoking, and strive to place that work centre stage in the mainstream. I will continue to reach out and work in partnership with other organisations that have similar values and goals. Last but not least the company will be undergoing a few radical surprises so WATCH this space!
Wishing everyone a very happy festive season