Guest Blog: Daniel York on the Orphan of Zhao casting controversy

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Orphan of Zhao, which opens tonight (8 November 2012, previews from 30 October), hit the headlines recently for its casting of three East Asian actors out of a total of 17.

Here, actor Daniel York, a leading member of a group of British East Asian artists who have spoken out on the issue, puts his side of the argument.

Read director Gregory Doran and executive director Catherine Mallyon’s statement on this issue here.

It’s my opinion that the press coverage regarding the storm over the RSC’s decision to produce the Chinese classic The Orphan of Zhao with a cast of 17 but featuring only three of East Asian descent (and none in a leading role) is doing scant justice to what is surely a monumental event when it comes to diversity in mainstream British theatre.

Of course “disgruntled actors” is a well worn cliché and, yes, actors are at the very centre of this most organic and “un-organised” of protests but many writers, academics and people from all walks of life have contributed to our cause as even a cursory glance at the RSC’s Facebook page will attest.

From the States the outrage and anger has been palpable as has the love and support towards their fellow East Asians with statements of solidarity from Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang and all of the major East Asian theatre companies there. This show of very vocal protest from a minority group so long thought of as silent, passive and obliging is unprecedented but most welcome.

For too long now we as an ethnic group have been the forgotten corner of Multicultural Britain and in terms of the performing arts we’re usually bypassed in the most brusque of fashions, left to scrap over tokenistic roles, often comprising of heavy accents and minimal character, that make building any kind of career next to impossible. And when we have complained we’ve often been told to “stop whining” and “get over it”, such is the animosity we sometimes arouse when we have the temerity to request parity with black and (South) Asian actors (themselves under represented). Someone even referred to me as a “selfish, stupid ethnic” when I suggested on a Guardian comments forum that we wanted equal treatment.

Amongst all the anger and hurt there’s a sense of deep regret that we’ve found ourselves at loggerheads with a company like the RSC that most of us have loved and respected down the years. I did actually work there as a young actor and longed to go back. That door looks closed now unfortunately but hopefully it will open for others.

Orphan director Greg Doran has had a lot of flack over this. All I can say is that when I met him he came across as an intelligent, sincere and kind man. He’s clearly made an error of judgement but I can’t help feeling the entire apparatus behind him is also culpable. So often have they cited the “cross casting demands” as an excuse for not casting more East Asians that we can only assume the powers that be in the world’s biggest theatre company for whatever reason simply couldn’t countenance the idea of people from our racial background playing central roles in works by Brecht and Pushkin. A conservative view at best, I would contend.

On the bright side the RSC have since engaged in discussions with Equity on the issue and wish to partake in a series of initiatives along with the Arts Council and SOLT/TMA including a day-long event early next year designed to facilitate introductions, increase understanding and broker partnerships between East Asian actors and theatre makers and the wider theatre industry.

Let me be clear on this. It is not “positive discrimination” we are requesting but equal and fair opportunities. The theatre is surely a place of inclusion and possibility. Therefore I would urge all lovers of theatre to support us in our efforts to raise this issue. Thank you.

– Daniel York

The Orphan of Zhao continues in rep in the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon, until 28 March 2013