British East Asian Actors Call for Public Forum over RSC Casting Controversy

I received this update today, re- ‘yellow facing’

at the RSC:





British East Asian actors have challenged the

Royal Shakespeare Company over the casting in

its upcoming production of the classic Chinese

play, The Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang. Support for

the British East Asian actors has spread

globally with statements flooding in from Asian

actors’ groups in America, Australia, Canada and

other countries; as well as messages of support

from theatregoers and the public on the RSC’s

Facebook site.

Only three actors of East Asian heritage have been

cast out of 17 and none have leading roles in any

of plays in the World season trilogy of which The

 Orphan of Zhao is one. The RSC has only cast an

estimated four East Asian actors in the last 20


Actor Daniel York said: “This exclusion has been

going on for far too long within the British stage

and film industries. Colour-blind casting is a

wonderful concept, unfortunately, it’s all one-way traffic.

Something has to change. We are asking for fairness

and a level playing field.”

British East Asian Actors have released the following

statement in response.

London, UK – For more than three weeks, we have

protested to the RSC and the Arts Council England

about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of

the Chinese classic The Orphan of Zhao.

Our concern is that there are only three actors of

East Asian descent in a cast which consists mainly of

Caucasian but no other Asians. This does not, in our

opinion, represent “multi-cultural casting” as the RSC

insists it is.

We have identified the following issues:

1)                        The RSC states that “It’s certainly not

the case that we’ve not employed any Chinese or East

Asian actors”. However, we have only been able to

ascertain two actors of East Asian descent employed as

part of regular seasons in the past 20 years, as well as

two others in stand alone productions – a clear shortfall.

It also appears that, as far as we can gather, none of the

three RSC Winter Season directors has any noticeable

track record of employing East Asian actors and, in fact,

only Gregory Doran appears to have done so, once, in

the last ten years.

2)                        Of particular concern to us is the under-

representation of East Asian actors in what is often

described as “the Chinese Hamlet”. Unfortunately, this is

reflective of the entire UK theatre industry.  The RSC

assures us that the three East Asian actors (who we wish

well) are playing “key” roles. Whilst we value and support

all actors and would hope that all roles in a play are “key”,

none of the three East Asians in this particular production

appears to be playing what can be described as a “leading”

or “protagonist” role: a character who is central to the action

and who drives the play. It is also clear that all three are

roughly in the same age demographic and this belies the

diversity and experience that exists among British East

Asian actors.

3)                        British East Asian actors wish to participate

in their own culture but this is being denied us. We are

too often excluded from roles which are not East Asian-

specific, yet when roles arise that are, we are also

excluded. We applaud colour-blind casting, but colour-

blind casting was created as a mechanism to afford

more opportunities for all minority actors, not to

give additional opportunities to Caucasian actors.

At present, colour-blind casting fails British East Asians.

4)      The RSC has cited the need to cast actors across

three different plays as one reason for the low number

of East Asians in the cast. It appears they were unable,

for whatever reason, to countenance the idea of British East

Asians playing leading roles in works by Ji, Pushkin and

Brecht. It appears that white (and in some cases black)

actors are able to play Chinese roles but not vice versa.

5)      The RSC states that they met “lots and lots” of

East Asian actors, yet we have only been able to

Ascertain eight. Aside from the three who were cast we

only know of one who met more than one of the season’s directors.

6)      The RSC insist they cast “the best actor for the roles

available” yet the visibility and quality of work available

for the actors chosen to be leading players in the

Company simply isn’t attainable for actors of East Asian


There is no level playing field.


It is clear to us that there is an industry-wide problem

regarding the opportunities available for East Asian

actors. Too often, actors from our background can only

access auditions for poorly-written and stereotyped roles

on television that require a heavy emphasis on being

“foreign” as opposed to being integrated and three-dimensional

members of British society. In the theatre, with the

occasional rare exception, we are shut out completely

from all but community and children’s theatre, with

opportunities to appear in classical and mainstream drama

extremely rare.

We welcome a time when actors can play across race,

Gender, class or disability.

However, this can only meaningfully occur on a level playing

field to which we must ensure we have fair access.

As a publicly-funded company, the RSC has a responsibility

to reflect the make-up of society. In order to tear down

the limitation on East Asian actors, it is our heartfelt

wish to see far more active outreach to our sector. When

the Harry Potter film franchise was casting for an actress

to play Cho Chang, applicants queued around the block,

disproving the notion that people from East Asian

backgrounds have no interest in the performing arts. At

present, the message being sent out to young people from

East Asian backgrounds is that a career on the stage is

not available to them.

We welcome greatly the closing paragraph from the RSC’s

most recent statement on the subject:

“We acknowledge that there is always more to do and

recognise our responsibility in this area. We want to explore

the rich seam of Chinese drama further, and engage more

often with Chinese and East Asian actors. We want to

integrate them more regularly on our stages and hope

that this production, and indeed this debate, will be a

catalyst for that process.”

In order to enable this to happen we request:

1) An apology and acknowledgement for the lack of

consideration afforded us as an ethnic group with

regard to the casting of The Orphan of Zhao and for

the way East Asian actors have been marginalised.

2) A public discussion forum to be held in London with

Greg Doran and the two directors of the other plays in the

trilogy, with speakers of our choosing to represent our

case. Similar to that held at La Jolla Playhouse, CA, when

a comparable controversy occurred with their musical

adaptation of The Nightingale, the purpose of this is to

enable us to work with the RSC in leading the way for the

rest of the industry.

3)    Ethnic monitoring of auditionees for both race-specific

and non-race-specific roles and for that data to be freely

available. We would also like to remind all Arts Council

England funded theatre companies of Recommendation 20

From the Eclipse Report which highlighted several

recommendations for theatre practice with regard to ethnic

minorities including:

“By March 2003, every publicly funded theatre organisation

in England will have reviewed its Equal Opportunities policy,

ascertained whether its set targets are being achieved and, if

not, drawn up a comprehensive Positive Action plan which

actively develops opportunities for African Caribbean and Asian


For too long East Asians have been left out of “Asia”.

4)    Further to the above we would like to see a clear

measurable target in terms of engaging and developing East

Asians actors as you do with a broad range of socio-

economic and ethnic minority backgrounds with a view to

seeing and casting them in future RSC productions.

5) We feel it is absolutely imperative that there be no

“professional reprisals” with regard to any recent

comments from within our community. East Asian actors

and professionals have shown great courage speaking out

about the clear inequality that currently exists within our

profession, and we would like that to be respected. Too

often, there exists a climate of fear in the arts world

and we feel this is detrimental to free speech as well as

to fundamental human rights.

We hope very much that we can all move forward together

and gain greater understanding for the future. We look

forward to working with the RSC, a company for which we

all have the fondest love and respect.

British East Asian Actors

30th October 2012

Daniel York – Vice Chair, Equity Minority Ethnic Members’


Anna Chen

Dr. Broderick D.V. Chow – Lecturer in Theatre, Brunel University, London

Kathryn Golding

Paul Hyu – Artistic Director, Mu-Lan Theatre Co; Equity Minority Ethnic Members’

Committee member

Michelle Lee

Chowee Leow

Hi Ching – Director, River Cultures

Jennifer Lim

Lucy Miller – Associate Director, True Heart Theatre

Dr. Amanda Rogers – Lecturer in Human Geography, Swansea


The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC)

statement of support can be found here:

The British East Asian Actors Facebook page with links to background articles can be found here:

The statement from the RSC regarding their casting of The Orphan of Zhao can be found here:


Dr. Amanda Rogers’s article on the casting of The Orphan

of Zhao can be found here:

Dr. Broderick Chow’s article on the casting of The Orphan of Zhao can

be found here:

One response to “British East Asian Actors Call for Public Forum over RSC Casting Controversy

  1. Thanks Kaite, finding this all very interesting.

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