Feature | Barker’s Play Doesn’t Erase Minorities – The Print Room Does

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by Daniel York

I actually sat down and read In The Depths of Dead Love last night.

If anything, I’m even more angry now. The argument put forth by the Print Room is that, although the play is set in ancient China and the characters have Chinese names, the characters are not “Chinese” and it’s a very “English story”.

Is this true? Well, there are a lot of “deep bows” and talk of emperors but reading the work leaves me wondering just exactly how ethno-specific a play would have to be before the people who programmed and presented this one would consider that, yes, we might just have to cast some actors who aren’t actually Caucasian and middle-class.

The thing that really does disgust me, though, is the Print Room’s argument that they should have the right to cast “the best actors for the roles, independent of ethnic origin”. Leaving aside that being “independent of ethnic origin” appears to be a privilege that only applies to white people, we have the Print Room citing Christopher Hurrell’s defence that, “the characteristics [Barker’s play] seeks in actors are not social, cultural or ethnic—they’re technical, aesthetic and artistic.”

Let’s just pause there. Would it have to be written in pidgin English before the demands were relegated to “social, cultural or ethnic”?

And this is what is utterly despicable about the whole argument I’ve had so many times in the past and, I hope, not too many more in the future: the sheer racial and social snobbery embodied by organisations like the Print Room and the Wrestling School when they assert that they cast “the best actors for the role”. What they’re actually saying is “you little ethnics just aren’t up to the job”.

This would be bad enough but we’re now all pretty much certain that they never met or considered any actors of any other ethnic background other than white Caucasian for this production. This play which was produced on the radio in 2013, which Christopher Hurrell maintains was given a reading at the Print Room in 2013. They’ve had FOUR YEARS to develop this. FOUR YEARS in which it looks as if they never once even considered casting actors who weren’t white. I presume, they never once considered that actors who weren’t white Caucasian were up to the “technical, aesthetic and artistic” demands of the play.

The racial and social snobbery is compounded by the Print Room alleging that the protests have come from “some members of the public” when in fact it’s mainly members of the theatre community. When they argue that the references to China are merely “oblique”. When they give trite lectures about The Great Man being a “fabulist” whose work “is poetic and often difficult to pin down in time or place”.

Yes, we do understand all those things. Because we’ve actually read a few books too. We understand the arguments perfectly because, believe it or not, we’re “artists” as well.
And, as artists, we politely but firmly reject this cultural ethnic elitist high-handedness.

Please join us in in our protest this Thursday Jan 19th. If you can’t physically make it (or even if you can) please partake in the “thunderclap” social media protest.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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Editorial | An Open Letter to the Print Room

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I never make New Year’s resolutions. They work for other people and that’s great, but they aren’t my thing. But Daisy Bowie-Sell’s tweet from a few days ago asking what theatre’s resolutions should be for 2017 resonated with me. An industry making resolutions? Now that’s something I can get behind – people working together for a common goal is what theatre is about on a microcosmic level anyway, and more unity is surely a good thing in a world becoming increasingly polarised.

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Feature: Scenes From A Yellowface Execution

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By Daniel York

Before we go any further, let me lay a couple of things out there:

Howard Barker is a first-rate dramatist.

The Print Room in Notting Hill is a great small-scale theatre.

But they have epically and catastrophically screwed up their casting choices in Barker’s latest offering, In The Depths Of Dead Love. According to the theatre’s website, the play is set in “Ancient China”, concerns an “Emperor” and “Imperial Court” and features characters called “Chin” and “Mrs. Hu”, with an entirely white cast who (without wishing to sound too ironically stereotypical) one would normally expect to see on TV taking tea with Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey.

It’s also doubly ironic that in post-referendum, post-truth Brexit Britain, we’ve spent the last few months being told that you simply cannot call people stupid or racist.

Well, here’s the deal. We don’t actually have to be stupid to do stupid things and we’re all perfectly capable of perpetuating systemic racism without actually being consciously racist. Yes, it’s a subtle one, folks, and interestingly, I can honestly say, hand on heart, I have never once heard the immortal words “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” said by any person of colour. Not one. Because people of colour are ten times as aware of racism as white people. It’s just a fact.

Now, what that hotbed of London fringe theatre that is the Print Room have done, in a play by one of Britain’s most eminent playwrights, is perpetuate the practice of “yellowface,” i.e. when a person who is not of East Asian descent plays a character of East Asian descent. Yellowface, like blackface and brownface, is a remnant of a time when actors of colour were simply not allowed on our stages.

There’s often confusion about a couple of things here. People like to kid themselves that blackface only ever happened in some bygone Edwardian hinterland and only then because there were no black actors around to play Othello. However, this isn’t actually true. The last blacked up Moor of Venice on our stages was as recently as 1990. The practice was only ended by protest from black actors.

Yellowface has lingered on a lot longer, unfortunately. We did however think we’d finally laid the culturally appropriated beast to rest (on British stages at least) in 2012 when, after the Royal Shakespeare Company elected to cast only 3 (out of a cast of 17) East Asian actors in minor roles (including a dog and a maid) in the Chinese classic, The Orphan Of Zhao, a mass social media protest that went viral globally caused considerable embarrassment to both the RSC and the British theatre industry as a whole.

Since then we have seen a whole slew of productions in major theatres: Chimerica, #AiWeiWei, The World Of Extreme Happiness, Yellowface, You For Me For You, P’yongyang, Shangrila, The Sugar-Coated Bullets Of The Bourgeoisie-in major venues, achieving enormous success with casts of real-life East Asian actors, not Caucasians doing an “ethnic turn”. We will also shortly see Snow In Midsummer, at the RSC no less, and Chinglish at the Park Theatre. These are cast with actors who can actually trace their roots to Eastern Asia.

The other confusion that lingers about yellow (and black and brown) face is that if you don’t have the make-up on, the taped eyelids and the dodgy Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s accent, this somehow ceases to be dodgy theatre practice and magically becomes instead a perfectly valid form of “colour-blind casting”.

But this is the deal. If you take an East Asian character and cast it with a white actor, you’re effectively saying there is no East Asian actor who was good enough/clever enough/talented enough/capable enough to play it.

Or they simply did not exist.

In other words: erasure.

 Daniel York (sometimes known as Daniel York Loh) is a mixed-race British East Asian actor, writer, filmmaker and musician. As an actor he has appeared at the RSC, National Theatre and Royal Court, as well as in the feature films The Beach and Rogue Trader. His short films have been seen in major film festivals where they have been nominated for awards. His first full-length play, The Fu Manchu Complex, ran at Ovalhouse in 2013. Along with composer Craig Adams, he won the 2016 Perfect Pitch award to create an original stage musical, Sinking Water, based on events around the 2004 Morecambe Bay Chinese cockle-picker tragedy, which is currently being developed under commission by Theatre Royal Stratford East. He is one of 21 writers of colour featured in the collection of essays, The Good Immigrant, which won the 2016 Books Are My Bag Reader’s Choice award. He is one-third of the alt-folk trio Wondermare whose self-titled debut album is available to buy on itunes. He has served on the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee, is a founder member of British East Asian Artists and has worked with Act For Change to promote diversity in UK media.

Feature: Silent Snacks

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Rejoice! If you are the sort of theatregoer who has signed the Theatre Charter, and is regularly outraged by the appalling behaviour from other audience members who may not have the same high standard of culture or upbringing as yourself, you will adore Today Tix’ latest initiative, Silent Snacks. No longer will you have to endure the incessant rustling of sweet wrappers, the crunch of crisps, the post-coke burps, the mobile phone lights, the whispers, the fidgeting, the breathing, the poor and the young wreaking utter havoc on your evening of cultural consumption in the proper Victorian fashion (I say, what did those Elizabethans know about theatre!). The selection of sophisticated, upper-middle class, white people snacks come delivered in red cloth pouches so at no point in the consumption process will they make a sound that could offend surrounding ears. They also contain enough elite ingredients to satisfy Whole Food shoppers, and are bland enough to not offend Home Counties and Middle England palates.

Available through the Today Tix app, savvy audience members can pre-order this etiquette cure-all that enables guilt free theatre snacking. It’s only too big of a shame that these snacks cannot be forced onto all audience members that dare to eat during a performance, especially the group of urban teenagers who never attended the theatre before.

First on offer are Quiet Pop(corn) bites. A base of ground popcorn and dates creates a truffle-y texture, but with the dates and coconut blossom nectar, they are more sweet than savoury. They don’t particularly taste of popcorn, but neither does any other flavour dominate. They lack a satisfying crunch, but are indeed silent. The crushed popcorn does tend to get in between the teeth, so there is potential for some discomfort until you are able to pick out the offending particles in private – we can’t have teeth picking in the stalls, obviously!

The flawless, leading lady of Silent Snacks are the Muffled Truffles: rich, dark chocolate indulgence. Instead of popcorn, smooth cocoa powder is blended with chewy dates. They are not one for commoners who prefer sweet, milk chocolate and are more substantial than conventional truffles due to the presence of the dates.Very classy and adult, like theatre audiences should be.

Silent Slices are dainty, soft slices of dried pear. Chewy and subtle, these tiny nibbles have no added ingredients and pear is such a delicate flavour that drying greatly diminishes it. Apple with a sprinkle of cinnamon would have a stronger taste, but the pear is less offensive to those with delicate constitutions and aversion to anything stronger than the blandest of foods.

These snacks would not be complete without a suitably refined beverage. The Anti-Gas Lime and Mint drink is a questionably lurid green concoction of grapefruit, lime, mint and water. Oral and anal gas expulsion is banished, as is the risk of noise in opening the container. A branded silicon cup is a smart vehicle through which to show off your culinary choices, despite terrible mouth feel and the bitter flavour of the drink.

Silent Snacks are available for a limited time only though Today Tix, so we can only hope that the entire theatregoing populace uses the app to procure their theatre tickets and sees the error of their noisily munching ways. Though we will mourn their eventual disappearance, we can hope their legacy lives on by serving to return theatre to it’s rightful, middle class audiences.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Feature/Review: Children & Shakespeare, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Whilst there’s plenty of Shakespeare at the fringe, it doesn’t get much coverage. It’s understandable – the Bard doesn’t count as a potential Next Big Thing, and he’s favoured by student and international groups that usually have short runs and are deemed less worthy of critical attention. It’s obviously necessary to recalibrate expectations and vocabulary when evaluating children and young people’s performances, but directors and teachers can and should be held accountable for the quality of their own creative work and bringing out the best in their students or young cast. They do have the additional pressure of incorporating an educational element and ensuring that their work is suitable for the children and young people they are working with, but that specialism is no more or less different than any other in the performing arts.

To completely ignore young people’s work at the Fringe when sampling the Shakespeare on offer cuts out a large segment of the Shakespeare productions on offer, and considering that these are often international schools as well, the cultural differences can be considered when critiquing. Over one day at the fringe, I watched three distinctly different Shakespeare adaptations – a Scottish stage school including children approximately aged eight through sixteen that looks at Twelfth Night, an American university’s analysis of Shakespeare’s baddies and a Notts young people’s dance-theatre company’s deconstruction of Macbeth.

Admirable Fooling or What You Will by Little Shakespeare School’s Michelle van Rensburg had the most challenging remit in that it is a show suitable for performers over a big age range, but the show she invents is a nonsensical mess. When she sticks to her simplified script with sections of original text more the more able students, it is standard children’s fare – able to be followed, giving the kids a chance to show their skills and including everyone. The random sections from Titanic, though? Inexplicable. None of the children on that stage or in the audience would have even been alive when the film came out, so crowbarring in pop culture references that they wouldn’t understand is gratuitous and self-absorbed. There are also numerous off-text clowning sequences that are unconnected to the story, and a lengthy exposition setting up a storytelling premise that isn’t consistently followed through. The one, shining moment of kitschy, creative inspiration that epitomises fringe Shakespeare is the tiny blond girl who plays the letter Malvolio finds in the garden. She wears a bright yellow sack with felted letters on either side and enthusiastically delivers the text that Malvolio reads from the letter in Shakespeare’s original. She looks about eight years old, maybe nine, certainly no more than ten, and it is an adorable thing of wonder. There are some good actors who are confident and speak well, particularly the eldest girl who plays Olivia, but the show itself is a baffling construction with little through-line or sense.

Bad Shakespeare, by Oklahoma State University drama students, isn’t bad, but it’s just as much of a lecture as it is a performance. Showcasing their intensive summer Shakespeare studies, they work their way though Shakespeare’s development of his villains. The exposition that sets up their five act structure is too long, but the acts’ increasing complexity is a nice touch. Most of the ethnically diverse ensemble are good performers, and all bar one are women – great work towards increasing diversity from the programme director. They handle the language and verse with muscularity and confidence, though there is no evidence of work towards convincingly playing men. Their emotions tend to read more as upset rather than angry or vindictive, and their physicalities are distinctly feminine. The show’s director has chosen faux-period costume; some are in dresses and some in doublet and hose. Neutral, modern dress would suit much better, especially considering the large amount of instructing the audience with contemporary language and pop culture references. Bad Shakespeare is great for learning more about Shakespeare’s characters and some of the scholarship behind them in a relaxed, easy to follow format, but it’s more of a learning experience than a show. However, they wear their confidence and passion for Shakespeare on their sleeves, which is a wonderful thing to see.

Fortitude Dance Theatre’s Macbeth has potential to be the most promising of these three adaptations, and whilst it certainly has some great moments, there are also some misguided creative choices and interpretations, and an inconsistent application of style. The young company demonstrates competence in their dance and verse delivery, though as a whole, they struggle with achieving moments of emotional intensity and staging on a  thrust. The pace was great, but tone consistently conversational. Their opening sequence was a great capture of the 90’s club scene with text and contemporary dance obviously inspired by Frantic Assembly, but the dance element is absent until the discovery of Duncan’s body, about half way through this abrupt edit. There are missed opportunities to incorporate movement into Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s scenes showing their fluctuating power struggle. This dynamic between characters later between Macbeth and the witches inspires some good tribal, threatening choreography. Macduff’s monologue on hearing of his wife and children’s deaths is a stunning blend of movement and text that the company could to stylistically inspire their future work. They could also do with a stronger director, or dramaturg familiar with Shakespeare pronunciation, to confirm any line interpretations – “Out, damn spot” is not referring to blemishes on her face.

It’s brilliant to see young artists finding their way through making work and discovering styles and forms that work for what they want to communicate in their Shakespeare interpretations. Even though they won’t be up to professional performance standard unless they are extraordinarily gifted, their teachers and directors should be strive for clarity. Though none of these three productions quite reached that point, they each had their merits and watching children and young people discover and explore the joy of performing is a marvelous thing.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

 

RED Women’s Theatre Awards, Greenwich Theatre

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This year sees the launch of a new playwriting competition, RED Women’s Theatre Awards. Co- produced by Edinburgh-based academic and playwright Effie Samara, Greenwich Theatre and Female Arts, the awards are “aimed at anyone who identifies as female who has an inspirational, questioning and challenging social and political voice.” There are three regional heats in the competition; the first was at Greenwich Theatre with staged readings of four plays. Completely differing in tone and style and at various stages of development, this heat showcases the huge variety of female voices in English playwriting.

I spoke to founder Effie Samara about the awards and her reason for founding them.

What do you hope to achieve with these awards?

When I first spoke about RED to James Haddrell, Artistic Director of Greenwich Theatre, I must admit, I was dreading that it was going to achieve absolutely nothing. As a theatre artist, he engages with that female-led theatre aesthetic by producing Broken Leg, Smooth-Faced Gents and now RED. Is he a revolutionary? I think he is. Is he an exception? He is a valiant exception but we are actually witnessing the beginning of an epoch in politics and in theatre. They follow each other. My view is that the State, its governance, its justice, its policing, its education and its performativity are about to undergo a female-authored revolution. RED positions itself at the forefront of this development.

What criteria did you use when selecting plays for the heat?

The award is for political theatre. Our first concern was to ensure the writer’s engagement with the notions of justice, resistance and her ability to problematise those dramatically.

RED Theatre Awards currently cover the south of England, Wales and Scotland. What are your plans for expansion in the rest of England? Is N. Ireland a goal as well?

Northern Ireland is absolutely a goal. In the first instance, we’re including N. Ireland in the Scottish round. We can’t wait to hear some loud Irish voices! Scotland is also underrepresented on a national level.      

What can theatre makers do now to counteract the gender disparity?

The solution is very simple and I’m afraid it begins with us women. Us, being able to handle our own freedom: express it in the ownership of our person, define it in politics, and dramatise it in our consciousness and on stage. Women who robotically follow institutional missions fuel that gender disparity through their own complicity with these structures. Numbers are on our side in this argument: There are a lot of us. Over 3 billion. If we meant business, if we did this together, actioning solidarity within our cause, this injustice could be culled in no time.

What message do you want to communicate with the RED awards?

Words are loaded pistols. And we, women, can cock a gun way better than any establishment pointing one at us. Throughout the history of humankind we have been told we’re not allowed to fathom our own course, to govern our own person, our own body, its production and reproduction. RED is here to provide a platform for women.

The four plays selected for this heat are Under My Thumb by Cassiah Joski-Jethi, Spurn the Dust by Sian Rowland, Dissonance by Isabella Javor and Gone by Kate Webster. Some are more blatantly topical that others, some look at broader female issues and group dynamics. All are short plays with potential for development and by female voices that have a lot to say.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

An Invitation to D&D 11

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If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

Improbable Theatre’s Devoted and Disgruntled (D&D) events bring to mind this poem, Invitation, by American poet Shel Silverstein. They’re open to absolutely anyone with an interest in theatre or the performing arts, whether you are devoted to and/or disgruntled by them or not. Are you a theatre maker? A teacher? An am dram enthusiast? A theatregoer? A student? It doesn’t matter whether you work in the performing arts or not, there is a place for you at D&D and you will be welcomed with open arms.

Though I’d known about D&Ds for a while and they’ve been happening for over a decade, I finally plucked up the courage to attend my first D&D last year. I felt uncertain and vulnerable, like a fraud sneaking in somewhere she’s not supposed to be. I was about to return to theatre after a career break working solely in education, but was worried that because I hadn’t been a practitioner for several years, I wouldn’t have anything to contribute or gain at the event.

I was about as wrong as I could possibly be. I left D&D 10 feeling confident, motivated and welcomed back into the industry. Despite being a person who can feel extremely uncomfortable in new situations and around people I don’t know, the open space format of D&Ds gives participants the freedom to participate as much or as little as they please. D&Ds are warm, inclusive, and empowering to the individual. It’s not a networking event. It’s not a conference. It’s a space to meet other passionate people to discuss issues in theatre and the performing arts. It’s a place to think and reflect. It’s a time to plan. Or, you can just be in the room and listen.

So, come along. D&D 11 is at Birmingham Rep next weekend and there are still tickets available. If you’re not sure about how it works, have a rummage through Improbable’s website dedicated to D&D. Ask questions in advance on twitter or facebook or email, and if you’re still feeling nervous on the day, look for the lovely people with heart badges who can give you the support you need.

You see, there’s a lot to that needs doing in theatre and the performing arts, and the best way to cultivate change is to facilitate a bunch of passionate people coming together. There’s no predetermined agenda, but a question: What are we going to do about theatre & the performing arts?

It’s up to us to find the answers together.


The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.