Madam Miaow makes mincemeat of the RSC over non-Chinese casting

(c) RSC

I have to admit to feeling just a little bit sorry for Greg Doran, appointed new artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and actual director of its upcoming World Elsewhere season.  After all, who wants to be made into cat’s mincemeat by the magnificent Madam Miaow?  Madam Miaow, aka steampunk poet and Chinese cultural activist Anna Chen, is leading the campaign to ‘out’ Doran and the RSC as culturally insensitive (at best) or institutionally racist (at worst) after they cast predominantly non-Chinese as leading roles in the classical Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao, by Ji Junxiang (紀君祥). To add insult to injury, the poster only mentions the name of its adaptor, James Fenton.  Furthermore, the three Chinese cast members play ‘two dogs and a maid’… Admittedly, the maid is a fairly main part and the dogs are talented puppeteers, but in all the RSC’s research did they not realise the cultural significance of equating Chinese with dogs? So ok, the infamous ‘No dogs or Chinese’ sign over the gates of Huangpu Park in foreign controlled 1920s Shanghai may be an urban myth: what the notice actually stated was ‘no dogs or bicyles’ – oh yes, and that the park was for ‘foreigners’ only. But surely, in a series that also contains a German and a Russian classic, Brecht’s Life of Galileo and Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, the RSC could have stretched to a third of the cast being British East Asian, at least.  Madam Miao’s campaign has not only hit The Guardian, it is rapidly going global, now taken up by the AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition), who are calling for a US campaign to resist the RSC bringing ‘their practice of exclusion’ with them when they take two family productions, Matilda and the young people’s King Lear, to New York.

Spot the ‘ethnically ambiguous’ BEA. Yellow Academy Summer School, 2012 (c) Yellow Earth

Now, I have to confess that on one level my interest in this story is personal.  Not only did I live in China for five years, but my daughter, currently doing A-levels, is hoping to go to drama school.  One day she suddenly said, unprompted by anything I had said, ‘What’s the point of me doing drama? Even if I get into drama school, I’ll only ever get a chance to play waitresses or a Thai prostitute! I mean, you never see East Asians on telly – I could never do Shakespeare or a costume drama!’ My daughter is half South East Asian (Lao, not Thai, but most people don’t know the difference).  Alarmed by her defeatism, I passed on to her an advert for a youth drama summer school run by the BEA theatre troupe Yellow Earth.  She successfully auditioned and spent 2 weeks last summer at the Yellow Academy.  Out of the sixteen participants, she was the only one of non-Chinese descent.  Initially, she was a little disappointed by this: clearly she was marginalised within the marginalised, but then a casting director came to talk to this eager group of young wannabes.  This man was sympathetic to issues around casting faced by BEAs.  Unless there is a real cultural shift, their only likelihood of getting work is still by playing waiters.  Then he looked at my daughter: ‘You’re lucky though.  You’re ethnically ambiguous.  You could play any type of Asian.  In fact, I could even cast you as Romanian!’ Mmm, so her future holds being represented as a Thai prostitute or a trafficked Eastern European… Of course, things are changing.  A young actor at the China in Britain: Myths and Realities: Theatre/Performance and Music conference held at the University of Westminster earlier this year bitterly noted that BEAs could get major TV  roles – in SciFi.  Afterall, since Star Trek, there’s always been a geeky or a sexy (or a geeky, sexy) Chinese or Japanese in  any self respecting team of alien fighters.

At China in Britain, BEA theatre stalwarts, the actor David Yip (best known for his role as The Chinese Detective in the ’80s), actor/writer Lucy Sheen, and David Lee-Jones, who was recently the first BEA to play a Shakespearean king in the UK, pointed out that it was not only the fault of casting directors if they failed to cast Chinese actors.  They needed to have Chinese actors to cast.  If Chinese parents don’t value their children participating in the arts, then where is this new generation of Chinese actors going to come from, Yip asked.  Interestingly, both he and Lee-Jones are dual heritage and Sheen is adopted: as was the case with the majority of participants at the Yellow Academy. The change has to come from within the community, Yip argued, as it did in the Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities.  (For US readers, ‘Asian’ in the UK tends to refer to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, East Asian to Chinese and Japanese)

However, if our national theatres, arts funding bodies, and government (through funding said theatres and bodies) don’t actively participate in ensuring that all sectors of British society are represented on our stages and our screens, aren’t they indeed perpetuating the marginalisation of certain groups in the arts?  Yellow Academy has had its British Arts Council funding reduced so that now it only covers the teaching. As there was no funding for travel and accommodation, it’s not surprising that nearly all the participants came from the South East.

(c) RSC rehearsal photo for 'The Orphan of Zhao'Let’s get back to the RSC.  Why is it a problem that the cast of The Orphan of Zhao is predominantly non-Chinese? The RSC have been making efforts to be less, how shall I put it, white-washed. The current production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Iqbal Khan and starring Meera Syal and Paul Bhattacharjee, is selling out in the West End.  Deborah Shaw was behind the World Shakespeare Festival, and she and her husband’s Iraqi Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad literally shook the RSC audiences out of their comfort zone last spring.  And Greg Doran’s civil partner, Anthony Sher, returned to his native South Africa, bringing back a multi-cultural production of The Tempest which was both a post-colonial critique and a cautious celebration of the new South Africa.  However, the RSC’s following argument is deeply problematic:

We intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare.  Having absorbed something of Chinese conventions and dramatic idioms, we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality. (Follow this thread on their facebook page, too)

Firstly, the phrase ‘our own way’ is (unintentionally, I believe) culturally imperialist. What do they mean by ‘our’? And who is the oppositional ‘their’? BEAs? Secondly, a Chinese company presenting Shakespeare’s characters as Chinese is about appropriation, and, until very recently, about subaltern appropriation: Caliban getting the island.  When Lin Zhaohua presented Hamlet as a contemporary urban Chinese youth back in late 1989, early 1990, he wasn’t aiming for ‘universality’, a concept which was exploded by cultural critics decades ago.  Nor was he bowing at the feet of a great Briton. He was rejecting a Soviet model that presented Shakespeare as depoliticized foreign theatre, and instead usurping Shakespeare’s tragedy for his own dissenting purposes (see Li Ruru, Shashabiya). Thirdly, although Doran’s cast is multicultural(ish), it’s still not enough precisely because Chinese and East Asians are so invisible in the British media and arts in the first place.

(c) RSC. Would this production be less controversial if they hadn’t gone for these beautiful ‘Chinois’ costumes?

I opened this piece by saying that I felt a little sorry for Greg Doran.  He’s not a racist – but he is blinkered, and he does have a tendency to say some very odd things (much to Madam Miaow and her readers’ delight).  A few years ago I challenged him about the lack of diversity in RSC casting during a Q&A at the British Shakespeare Association’s Global/Local Shakespeare conference, convened by Sonia Massai, who edited Worldwide Shakespeares.  He acknowledged that the RSC needed to be more inclusive, and this season is part of that acknowledgement.  He also said that he would never not cast anybody because of their race.  All roles are open to all actors whatever their ethnicity, so long as ‘it won’t confuse the audience. I wouldn’t cast different races within one family, for example.’ Pardon?! I pointed out that many people in the audience, including myself, came from families comprised of different races! ‘Oh, um…’ he began.

But do you know what, deep down I’m glad that Doran got it wrong, and that Madam Miaow noticed. Why? Because by the time my daughter graduates from drama school, if indeed that is what she decides to do, she might get to play Shakespeare’s queens, or Helena, or even her namesake, Imogen.

And I will try to catch all three productions in a World Elsewhere.


25 thoughts on “Madam Miaow makes mincemeat of the RSC over non-Chinese casting

  1. Saffron, like your daughter, I belong to this culture, and yet I can’t be seen. I hope by the time your daughter graduates, Asian actors are a norm. Can’t believe the RSC seriously thinks we’re going to cheer on white-bread depictions of us. Thank you for an illuminating piece on the issue. Doran’s assumptions about family resemblance is most telling.


  2. Thanks Anna and Lucy for your responses – it was your contributions at the China in Britain day that got me thinking about this properly – and that made me realise that audiences can challenge the status quo, too. I went to see the RSC’s ‘Much Ado’ this afternoon which was fabulous. If they can get together an entire British Asian cast (some of whom, including the lead, Meera Syal, hadn’t done Shakespeare before) then I can’t see why they can’t do the same with BEA performers!!!


  3. Mmmm. Wow, Saffron. You’ve opened my eyes, especially to the argument about SE Asian actors wishing to break beyond the waitress/prostitute zones; and what I thought did show progress for them in the equality for ALL actors campaign, via ‘white bread depictions’, are simply that – white bread depictions.


  4. It’s always so interesting when perceptions about what is ‘acceptable’ to an audience (and who that audience is) changes at different speeds in different parts of the industry. Last year’s King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, which was broadcast in cinemas in collaboration with ‘Live from the National Theatre, London’, had black British actress Pippa Bennet-Warner playing Cordelia to Derek Jacobi’s Lear, and this type of casting has been present, though not prevalent, for decades, yet Doran can still make that statement.

    I’m seeing different variations on this theme in the Netherlands at the moment, in a music college and classical music/opera context . One of my classmates on the graduate classical singing programme, who is Chinese Canadian, submitted a proposal for her masters thesis on investigating racism in opera casting. She is personally concerned, as she does not wish to lose opportunities, get type-cast as Cio Cio San, (Madama Butterfly) one of the few explicitly East Asian roles in opera, when that is not appropriate for her vocal fach. The supervisor of the classical department discouraged her from this research topic on the grounds wasn’t a ‘real research subject’ and ‘it might upset people’.


    • The response to the research proposal is shocking but not surprising. If your friend is on facebook, she should have a look at the British East Asian Artists page that has been set up in response to this debate.


      • The other comment the supervisor made was that ‘it wasn’t really a problem anyway’. It’s been pointed out to me this contradictory set of objections resembles Freud’s kettle logic: when someone rebuked a neighbour for returning a borrowed kettle in a damaged condition, the neighbour argues that a) he had returned it undamaged; b) it was damaged when he borrowed it; and c) that he had never borrowed it in the first place.I think this is very revealing of a tendency in the Netherlands to think that because the country has a reputation for ‘tolerance’, engagement with racism may reveal uncomfortable facts that shake that image.


  5. Pingback: A World Elsewhere: Boris Godunov at the RSC « Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

  6. Below is the post you requested (originally posted on my facebook account on 19 Dec) – hopefully this article is the best one to post it on as a comment? I would note that another commenter on my original post has pointed out that ‘blackface’ usually refers to a specific tradition with its roots in minstrel performances, and therefore may not be the most correct term to use for the use of dark makeup to signify Moorish or African identity in opera, which has a different origin and rationale. However, I believe the term ‘yellowface’ is the usual terminology for indicating East-Asian origin in opera and operetta, so I’m not sure.

    The weekend (15-16 December) was interesting. After some intense conversation on the use of blackface in opera, media responses to this phenomenon and related issues, I went to the cinema to see a production of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, beamed live from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Wonderful singing, but of course, in an opera which does not have a single white character, there was not a single black artist in a principal role, and the two Ethiopian characters, Aida and her father, were in dark makeup, to differentiate them from the Egyptian characters.

    I looked on the Met’s website to see their casting for this season. In a season of 29 full scale opera productions (including an ‘Otello’ – yes, white tenor in blackface), there are maybe 5 people of colour named in principal roles on the website. One African American artist, one East Asian and a small handful who would maybe identify as Latino/Hispanic. Does this represent the balance of available talent? I doubt it.

    I’ve tended to think that for achieving racial justice in the opera industry (some way to go yet…) so-called ‘colourblind casting’ would usually be the best option – casting solely on voice-type and ability, not necessarily relating the race of the character to the race of the performer. But this is not what I’m seeing at the Met this season: instead, what I’m seeing is an overwhelming bias towards hiring white performers in all roles. Is there one solution for the opera industry? Does a more just state of affairs involve hiring only black artists for ‘Aida’ and East Asian artists for ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot’ and by extension, only white artists for ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and the ‘Ring Cycle’? That looks something like justice but seems restrictive to me, given that a dramatic tenor, say, may be equally well suited to Otello, Radames, Siegfried and other roles, and should not be restricted to a smaller number on account of race. But the current situation is outrageous. Is it time white artists started turning down roles like Aida? Singers and scholars, I’d welcome your thoughts.


  7. Pingback: The Yellowface Debate: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable « Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

  8. “Afterall, since Star Trek, there’s always been a geeky or a sexy (or a geeky, sexy) Chinese or Japanese in any self respecting team of alien fighters.”

    George Takei wasn’t geeky. He was the swashbuckling action hero of the group.


      • But why did the actor at the conference “bitterly” note that Asians can get work on SciFi shows? Is there something wrong with that genre? Is it not as high cultured as westerns or detective stories or period dramas? Is SciFi less inspiring than medical drama or situation comedy? He also chose a poor example if he’s complaining about racist hiring practices and screen presence of minority groups. The original Star Trek series was one of the first shows to have among it’s main characters someone of Japanese origin as well as a woman who wasn’t just eye candy (and equally as important, she was black) plus a character of Russian origin – and all that in the 1960s none-the-less. The series and it’s creator took a very strong stance on civil rights issues and the portrayal of different minority groups in mainstream media. I don’t know if SciFi is any more (or less) progressive in casting minorities than other genres. I have to admit that I haven’t particularly noted the distribution of different groups by genre but assuming that the actor was correct that SciFi serials DO hire more Asians, then it seems poor form to disrespect that particular genre. If anything, it should be promoted as an example of the desired hiring practice in the industry.


      • This comment was made during the mingling rather than a presentation, so she was using a more informal tone. I’m pretty certain that she wasn’t criticizing SciFi as a genre, or the fact that SciFi has a good track record of hiring actors and presenting characters from a wide variety of races, sexual orientation – and alien species… What she was bitter about as a young, classically trained actor who had hoped that a range of roles would be open to her after graduating, was that casting agents only ever considered her for SciFi roles. So, whilst SciFi as a genre has been open for casting, ironically this has resulted in larger society now stereotyping East Asians as waiters, illegal immigrants or alien fighters… Sophie Okonedo is a black, Jewish actress who has managed to cross genres and forms (RSC lead, Nancy in BBC’s ‘Oliver Twist’, numerous films – and, of course, Dr Who), as have a couple of Asians (in British English this means Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi), but Chinese and other East Asians are almost invisible on stage and screen – and many have had enough. I came of age in the 80s under Thatcherism and her new Victorian values. Feminists and Queers made a right old fuss about about marginalisation, under-representation, and stereotyping at every opportunity, and we were largely ridiculed or ignored or told to shut up and stop moaning. We didn’t, of course. And gradually people start to think about these things and gradually society changes. I think that’s what is going on here. That’s why it’s so important to have this debate.


  9. So she wants to play role in a play by the likes of Shakespeare (whose plays include no Asian characters)? By this can we presume that she also supports the idea of non-Asians portraying Asian characters?


    • I think the main point of this debate is that talented East Asians, young and old, are struggling to get cast as anything other than ‘East Asian’ roles. This means that, whilst casting directors, directors and audiences can happily accept seeing the white majority playing a wide variety of roles, when they see East Asians they can often only see them as ‘Other’, and a very specific ‘Other’ at that. Actually, one BBC drama dealt with this recently. In a story-line about a lonely single white dad, he appeared to mail-order a Chinese girlfriend. This was very cleverly turned around at the end when it was revealed that she was a British born Chinese working for an international bank: it was common or garden internet dating, after all, confounding the presuppositions of the other characters and, perhaps, the audiences. These debates were held in relation to representation and inclusion of Afro-Caribbean/Black minorities in the 50s and 60s, and Asians in the 70s and 80s. Although Laurence Olivier would not have seen himself as racist when he put on black make-up and black-gestures when he played ‘Othello’ – nor was his interpretation seen as racist at the time – if an actor were to do the same today it would be seen as problematic by most people because, however good the intention, the result would be seen as a caricature because he performed race through stereotypical imaginings of what ‘black’ is. Many people at the Performing China day would probably accept in principle the concept of colourblind casting in its true sense. If our mainstream theatre companies were multicultural in the first place, the terms of this discussion would be very different. The situation at the moment is that colourblind simply means being blind to the fact that many minority groups in this country are still invisible or are misrepresented. In answer to your question about the representation of Romanians and other Eastern Europeans in UK culture on my Madam Miaow post, one of my mature students did a fabulous creative project on just this a couple of years ago. She searched ‘Romanian’ on the Daily Mail website (the Daily Mail is a popular right-of-centre tabloid) and then wrote a poem in response to each reflecting her own experiences. Headlines came up about Romanians as benefit frauds, human traffickers, child abusers etc etc. She related this representation to the reality of the majority of hard-working, law-abiding Romanians in this country, to the casual racism she experienced: ‘Romanian bitch, go home.’ It’s hard to imagine ourselves into somebody else’s shoes, and it’s easy to dismiss Equal Opps as tokenism, but changing representations of minorities and increasing our public presence in a positive way actually transforms how we are treated in society and helps develop a sense of self-worth. I know it seems like nit-picking to a lot of people. Perhaps the argument isn’t as nuanced as it would be in an academic setting, but the purpose of the current campaign isn’t to have an academic debate (although academics are debating it as well) – the purpose of the current campaign by British East Asian Artists is to raise public consciousness, offer support, and bring about a change in casting practices. I’ve posted a link about Chinese Britons and racism on my Yellowface Debate post. And I hope we get to have you around for a game of Scrabble again some time if you are ever in Blighty 😉


  10. I have no doubts that racism exists in the media and other domains. Nor do I have any doubt that other forms of inequality in society exists. I can completely understand and sympathise with people who have been subjected to racism or excluded from certain activities based on numerous factors beyond their control and which may be irrelevant. I agree that racism, sexism, ageism, prejudisms against people who are fat people, transgendered, or those with little formal education and such are all bad things. But how should the problem be combatted?
    What is the desired outcome? Is it simply to give every group proportional (or higher than proportional) representation? According to Wikipedia (I know, I know, but it’s not a refereed debate so I’ll accept their figures as being accurate enough) the RSC employs a staff of 700. I couldn’t find the number of actors. Wikipedia also indicates that east Asians in total account for 0.8% of the population of the UK. For proportional representation they should have 5 or 6 East Asians on staff. Like I said, I don’t know how many actors they employe – maybe you know? I gather from the article that they have at least three Asian actors. If they have 375 actors (or less) then the 3 Asian actors that you mention would be at least representative. I would say that from this point of view, representation is being made. If you know the numbers, I would also be curious about whether 0.8% of applicants to professional drama schools have parents from East Asia (i.e. whether they are culturally East Asian). From working in education in East Asia, I am very confident in saying that parents do NOT want their kids planning for a career in the arts. They want their kids to get an office job making money. They strongly push their kids in that direction. If you look at what types of after school classes they send their kids to attend, it’s rarely the arts. By far, it’s subjects that the kids will be tested on for university entrance exams.

    This doesn’t meant that racism doesn’t occur but this is a separate (albite inconnected) problem. Even if different groups are not being represented in different areas of the work force or the arts or politics, will reverse discrimination actually fix the problem? Forcing hiring practices that place people of different groups is only treating the symptom. It’s not treating the root of the problem, which is society’s views on discrimination and what is acceptable and unacceptable. If reverse discrimination hiring practices are put into play, will that encourage a sense among the (non-minority) public to naturally be more inclusive in the future? For example, if a grad student applied for a grant and this student knew that approximately 20 people applied for it (or at least 20 people who were equally qualified to receive it applied) he or she would probably accept a 1 in 20 chance of receiving the grant. Now if this same student knew that the university or grant foundation was being pressured to make sure that certain groups were represented in who received grants (perhaps the past recipients of the grant had all been of a similar ethnic group or shared other characteristics) then if the person who DID receive the grant belonged to a group favoured by the policy, what would the other people feel towards that group? Would they think to themselves, “Well. I didn’t get the grant, but at least I know that our society is progressing towards equality.”? Or would they feel resentment because they were equally qualified but not equally advantaged? It would be no different in any other form of competition. This is counter productive. It’s not going to integrate minority groups or make them accepted as part of the national norm. It’s going to isolate them even more.
    Racism is a social problem. It has to be resolved by altering the public’s views on this topic. I don’t profess to have the solution but I’m sure that campaigns to raise public awareness of the diversity in the UK population and ethnic make up would go a lot further than reverse discrimination in hiring practices. (And the same would be true anywhere really. I just mention the UK because of the origin of the discussion.) Show people what the population of 2013 is made up of. Show them that Britain isn’t as homogenous as it was 60 years ago. Show people that this diversity is something to embrace and not to shield themselves from. Encouraging discrimination does nothing but emphasise the concept of “them” and “us”.

    I can understand that if someone is subjected to racism they would like to speak out about it. They would obviously like to do something to stop it. This is natural. What’s also natural is that the average person (of any ethnic group, anywhere in the world) is short sighted. If you complain about something, on any topic, you need a clear and concise argument – what’s the problem, what do you want, clear facts. Quantity of examples does not equate to a stronger argument. If you complain about every possible minor example of potential racism, you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot. Or at least you’re giving your opponents the amunition to shoot down your argument. If you present 100 examples of possible racism, if an opponent can show how 90 of them are just frivolous claims from someone with senstive feelings or worse yet can be proven factually wrong then they can give the impression that the problem is over-exagerated without actually addressing the seriousness of the remaining 10 claims. When dealing with the public and to win their favour, you only have to deal in generalities or “common sense” superficial type logic. It’s not difficult to blind the listener to certain facts or lead them away from inconvenient truths. In over presenting the case, you’re giving them the ability to hide the true problem or examples of it behind a mountain of easily dismissed incidences. The other thing that some of these protest groups are doing is contradicting themselves. In this case for example, some people are saying it’s racist for non-Asians to portray Asian characters. Others are saying that Asians aren’t being permitted to portray non-Asian characters. These two statements are contradictory or at least hypocritical. If both are put forward by the same person or same group, then their opponents now have the option of which argument they’d like to shoot down. The protestor is giving his opponent the opportunity to choose the battle. If you want to win an argument, you have to lead your opponent (or at least the listener) to the single outcome that you want. You have to direct the argument in your favour. You don’t let the your opponent choose which direction and which points are easiest for him counter-argue.
    And an example of this is drawing a parallel between racism towards black people and racism towards Asians. No one in their right mind would believe that these two examples of racism are on the same level. By trying to equate the two, it gives the appearance that the protestor is simply complaining without merit (or worse yet that the protestor himself is very ignorant of the issue and insensitive).

    So, I think that the solution to this problem is not reverse discrimination. A solution based in social education is needed. At the same time, those pressing for change, need to clearly figure out the root of the problem and address it in a more effective manor.

    (Sorry if that was a bit disorganised and non-flowing. I wrote parts of it throughout the day.)


  11. I haven’t played scrabble in years. If ever I’m in England, I’ll make sure to let you know so that we can set up a game.


  12. Pingback: A World Elsewhere: The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC Review Part 1 « Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

  13. Pingback: An International Symposium: Performing China on the Global Stage, 26 and 27 March, 2013, University of Leeds | Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s