The recent case of The Printroom deciding to stage Howard Barker’s play In The Depths of Dead Love, a ‘fairytale’ play set in Imperial China with an entire cast of white actors is just an example of the industry deliberately ignoring the an important aspect of the debate. Since a wrong turn at The RSC sparked a hopeful change in the industry towards progress, more and more companies have had a hard look at their diversity opportunities. Yes, I am conflating diversity with progress. Don’t like it? It’s only going to get more beige. But this isn’t about diversity. It’s about totally ignoring one sector of the community completely and thinking it’s acceptable.
While, on the whole I am talking about Race and Sexuality because that’s my experience but I know full well that Diversity is a more inclusive tickbox.
Now, I’m not one for diversity for its own sake, but I am one for encouraging the theatre and film industry to be open for everyone. For that end it needs to have visible role models for every child (and parent for that matter) to think that this is a viable industry to go into. If BAFTA can stipulate that by 2019 films looking for 2 awards (Outstanding British Film and Outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer) they are going to have to have either diverse casts or crew (or both!) Of course this also started a debate about ‘Why can’t it be based on Talent alone?’ (Good, question, I’d like to know why it can’t be based on talent alone and not just giving the producer’s mates a job.) If this industry wants to have diverse stars of the future, with a diverse crew inclusive of everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality and disability and economic background (I’m going to throw that one in there too); it’s going to have to start nurturing those people, encouraging the industry to give those people their first step on the ladder so they can gain the experience that other people have handed to them; those people just out of training who aren’t that well connected; whose uncles aren’t major directors; people who are just as passionate. Without a kick up the arse saying “BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME” no one will think that there are any diversity actors out there, no one will think there are diversity roles out there or diversity stories. Until the time when we say “Yeah, we’re sick of those stories, those single-issue stories, can I just play a mum and get on with it?” we have to encourage it to grow.
Why then does @WestEndWilma thinks that we can’t moan, now that directors are making ‘off the wall casting choices’?
The argument being “THERE’S A BLACK MAN PLAYING A DOG, STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT LACK OF DIVERSITY’. West End Wilma, this is not your stop, where do you get off?
By the way, the ‘small European man’ is none other than Saikat Ahamed, a British-born Pakistani actor with whom I had the pleasure to work in 1998.
Of course, it’s great that our stages are being filled with more diverse actors. But it’s not a one-in-one-out policy. If you’re making a play about China, make sure you have the cast to fill it. Apparently there weren’t enough black actors 35 years ago to make Dreamgirls in the West End. SO THEY DIDN’T MAKE IT UNTIL THERE WERE. For years the Black acting community had been nurturing Black talent in their own theatre companies that bloomed to counter the lack of roles for young black actors to play.
The East Asian acting community is younger, 15 years ago I could count on 1 hand who was going to turn up to the castings with me. Now, it’s a growing community of actors, writers, directors and theatre companies that (way before the The Orphan of Zhao debate peaked in 2010) have strengthened themselves to bring to light every time the film or theatre has chosen to be lazy and not look for East Asian actors for roles that specify it. Because it’s not right. Because the only time we think of East Asian roles in television or film is as Triads, Takeaways and Tarts. The opportunity to challenge the perception must be first given to those that don’t have the opportunity. Nurture that talent. Let them know that in 15 years time, seeing East Asian faces in the West end will be the norm and that they will be taken on merit. Until then, let’s push for diversity. Yes we probably will have a period of ‘tokenism’ that happened in the US, but that changed and it became the norm
(well, I’m still not sure about 2 Broke Girls, it might just be shit comedy). British writing can take from that and form its own version of visibility.
Is it still about the tickbox? Will I be offended if I am given a role in a film or play because they needed a Gay or Asian in the cast or crew? Nope. I’ll just learn the lines, collect the paycheque and mark it on my CV. Will it make writers’ work be more bland? Or will it force them to think outside their box? “I don’t know how to write for a wheelchair user?”. Then research it. Don’t let your lack of ability stop you. That might sound like a familiar trope.
Diversity hasn’t diminished the storyline in Rogue One, why should diversity be a threat to the quality in the industry. As an example, Gabby Wong plays an X-Wing pilot in it. She’s a perfect illustration how opportunity grows talent. After working for years in smaller stages, she landed a role at the RSC, then, in the West-End in Dr Faustus with Kit Harrington and finally in the Star Wars saga. That’s how you nurture talent. But I’m not saying that Gabby was a tickbox. She’s also very good.
West End Wilma asks us to “…mix it up and create great shows. We are all members of the human race, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or whatever!” Great! Yes! Lets! Let’s mix it up for 2017. But let not that mix be all white. We need some heroes.