Friday, February 17, 2012

Outtakes from my story for NPR (National Public Radio) on why Asian Americans are not cast on New York stages

I had the pleasure this week of finding an article I wrote on the homepage of NPR, National Public Radio.  I had been following the story for months and felt compelled to write about it.  The piece, entitled "Asian Americans: Why Can't We Get Cast in New York City," still appears on the homepage on the "Art & Life" box.

Please read the piece:

I'd like to offer a few outtakes from the NPR story, since I did an incredible amount of reporting on the subject, and not everything landed in the final version.

To give you a sense of the issues involved, here is an excerpt from the NPR story:

At the RepresentAsian conference, a three-hour wrangle at Fordham University on Monday, it wasn't about slogans, signs or sit-ins. Cold numbers, pie charts and bar graphs told what Asian-American advocates say is a sad fact about casting. Based on data the group compiled from the past five theater seasons, Asian-Americans are the only minority group whose share of New York acting roles declined, and they were also the least likely to be selected for roles that would traditionally be played by white actors. 
More than 400 people — nearly three-fourths of them performers — converged for a roundtable with 17 theater-makers: Broadway director Bartlett Sher, Vineyard Theatre head honcho Doug Aibel, playwright Douglas Carter Beane, plus producers Nelle Nugent and Stephen Byrd, Actors' Equity boss Mary McColl and more.

To read more, here is the link:

A Few Outtakes:
Actor Pun Bandhu at the RepresentAsian conference
The actors who organized the roundtable took out online surveys of actors, playwrights and directors to gauge audition practices and the attitude of theater artists toward casting non-white actors in new works. Said actor Christine Toy Johnson, a steering committee members of the event, "Our movement is not reactive, because there was no single event or production that spurred us to act. Of course there was a catalyst. Questions about casting and access were raised on Facebook. How do we engage in dialogues with the New York theater community without placing blame?"

Christine Toy Johnson
Johnson, who co-chairs the equal employment opportunity committee of Actor's Equity Association, the trade union for actors, argued that nontraditional casting is applied in a "black and white fashion." "In my years of doing advocacy work in the arts, rarely are Asian Americans included in the diversity dialogue. Our issues are real. They have not been addressed. For the first time our community is galvanized to action."

At the conference, Hwang said, "I'm thinking about how easy it is to overlook somebody. It doesn't help anybody when we don't have equal access."

Most opportunities available for Asian American actors to work come from auditions for shows where the characters are not specifically identified in the script by race or ethnicity. The problem, the actors argued, centers on the inequities of how nontraditional casting has been defined and employed in New York theaters.

“This is not necessarily a programming issue,” said actor Pun Bandhu. “Whether or not there are new plays with roles for Asians, this should not deter Asians from working in the theater. I see a great range of Asians. There are Asians who are older, who are younger, who are fat, who are skinny, who are leading men, who are character actors. Yet we are all vying for the same role just because that role is written as an Asian role. I am not seen for my talents as an actor or for who I am. Rather I am being called in just because I am Asian."

Asian American actors convene at LaMaMa E.T.C.

Francis Jue, the Obie Award–winning actor and singer, said, “I do not believe that everyone is right for everything, but I wish actors of color were deemed not right for the same reasons that other actors are. Even when non-traditional casting is used, there are often caps on how much. If too many people of color are cast in the same show, there is the perception that the production would be regarded in an unintended conceptual way.”

The nonprofit theater companies the employed the most Asian American actors in the past five theater seasons were the New Group, Signature Theater, the Public Theater and Second Stage Theatre. The companies that employed the fewest Asian American actors are Atlantic Theater Company, Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons and Roundabout Theatre Company.  The Signature far outpaced all other New York companies in terms of hiring black actors, because it produced seasons of plays by August Wilson and the Negro Ensemble.

Mary McColl of Actors' Equity and other longtime advocates of nontraditional casting stated that the “RepresentAsian” roundtable discussion is a first step in a long and complicated process. “I was blown away by the results of this study,” said McColl, executive director of the trade union for actors. “I can’t quite reason out why that is the case. The issue is access. Making sure the right people get into the audition room, because a great audition can change what you see on stage.”

“The numbers are the numbers,” said Sharon Jensen, executive director of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. “I think theaters have a chance to respond, and theaters can do their own research. The point is that this has to be about creating collaborative dialogues across the industry. I think this is a wakeup call to the industry. Practices have been in place for decades and haven’t been sufficiently challenged. As Harry Newman who founded the Non-Traditional Casting Project once said, ‘This is more a question of benign neglect.’”

Actor Angel Desai said: “Art isn't something we can expect others to create around our expectations. But I hope people will move toward realizing that Asian American actors deserve the chance to be considered equally for roles that don't need to be depicted as white. If theater is not to be a dying art, it mustn't just keep up with the times. It must anticipate them, bend them and illuminate them. I hope eventually people will consider writing for us in ways they'd never thought of before, or in ways that deliberately challenge perception and expectation." — Randy Gener, In the Culture of One World

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