I was having a discussion recently about Sex in Vancouver, an episodic series of plays from Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. This serialized play “centres around a quartet of modern women dealing with life-changing relationship issues: infidelity, commitment, and marriage.”
This sort of thing is so disinteresting to me. Episodic plays are, universally, a recipe for disaster. In my experience, they’re poor copies of TV sitcoms, with less wit and weaker performances (I see that this company associates their production with Sex in the City). But, while it’s not my cup of tea, I applaud the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre for creating an opportunity for more Asian performers to get seen.
In my conversation, I also observed that, given that I had never, ever seen an Asian actor on a stage (any size stage–from Havana to the Stanley) in BC, I wasn’t optimistic about the quality of the performers. We paused then, and tried to think of any play we’d ever seen that included an Asian performer. We could think of some dance pieces, but the closest we came was that the New York-based touring production of Rent featured an Asian woman in the role of Mimi. I also thought back to when I was in theatre school and then ran a small theatre company (and my wife worked for a big one), and there was nary an Asian face to be seen.
UPDATE: I did think of one. John James Hong, who appears often at the Arts Club. Mind you, he’s only half-Asian, so I guess he half counts.
Why is this? I imagine that there are two main causes: Asian cultural stigma and casting directors. Certainly none of the parents of the Asian kids I grew up with would have approved of a life in the theatre (a life, as David Mamet teaches us, spent giving things away). Also, I expect there are plenty of directors who aren’t keen to cast Asian people, for one reason or another.
All of this leads me to colour-blind casting. In most circles, people believe this to be a good thing. While I agree with its spirit, I can’t really buy into it. When we cast actors for theatre (or TV or film), we consider every aspect of them: their height, their weight, their hair, their demeanour, where they put their hands, their pronounciation. So, why would we consider everything but ethinicity? A person’s ethnicity has a lot to do with who they are. To ignore it, in my opinion, does a disservice to the production and the actor.
For example, if I’m trying to produce a historically-accurate version of, say, She Stoops to Conquer, I’m not going to cast African-Americans. Why? Because it’s set in London in 1773. The only reason I would cast a non-Caucasian person is if I wanted to make a specific point about race.
Generally, Shakespeare and Moliere are more flexible and historical accuracy is less of a concern. For example, I might intentionally choose to cast slight Filipino actors (if I could find them) in the roles of Hamlet and Gertrude, and cast Claudius as a tall, wide Caucasian. This would highlight the daunting task put before Hamlet and the ‘counterfeit presentment of two brothers’. Presumably Hamlet’s Dad dyed his hair to acquire ‘Hyperion’s curls’.
Of course, ethnicity in casting becomes less important in late twentieth century plays. Who cares about the race of the actors in Glengarry Glen Ross or Arcadia? It’s a factor to consider, just like height or weight.
By recognizing that ethnicity should be a casting consideration, are we denying minority actors work? If we recognize weight (or, dare I say, attractiveness) as a casting consideration, are we denying overweight (or ugly) people work? Of course. Acting is a cruel business.