Back in the Booth

We had some fun last week back in the sound booth for the Our Place soundscape that Bridget is creating. I had a sneak preview of the first cut and I was incredibly excited. I think my colleagues will be really thrilled and surprised. We have so many fascinating resonances with one another, so many echoes of space, time, and words. I felt like I was trying to ‘tune in’ to the building and its people. Like a radio with static (this is not a quality of the recording – more my sensory impression!) Bridget described it as looking in through all the windows. Each with its own special place and frame. You can’t see into them all but you get glimpses. The feeling, the impulse, is similar I think.

Anyway, more voice overs for additional text were needed, so a few of us duly obliged. I have learned quite a bit about my colleagues. I know who does excellent impressions of local Welsh legends (Burton, Hopkins, et al), I know who has a career doing Al Jazeera documentary voice overs if academia falls through, and I know who has completed the dreaded (read: terrifying) media training course.

It’ll be ready by the end of April for staff, students, visitors, folk from across the university to listen to……

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Having Been Absent for a While…..

I haven’t blogged for ages. Then, I had coffee with two people: Bridget Keehan and Steph Januchowski – separately.

They both encouraged me to write more.

I don’t write enough – whether papers, books, articles, blogposts. I think it is a dyslexic confidence thing. Ironically when I do write, I write too much.

Anyway, a brief update on stuff I’ve been doing. I largely spent much of last year silent because I was on sabbatical and trying to process the work I’ve done on Cambodia and dance in the last few years. I came up with a book plan and more ‘things I’d like to do if I got funded’. Then I applied for fellowships and, amazingly, was awarded one from the Leverhulme Trust last week on ‘Dance in Contemporary Cambodia: Nation, geopolitics and identity.’ I will start this when I’ve finished up some of my other projects, including working with Bridget on the Our Place soundscape and my British Academy-Leverhulme Trust grant on the 1990 Cambodian National Dance Company tour to the UK.

Autumn semester is always manic for me teaching wise, but I was part of a panel on Creative Migration at Journeys Festival International, which was a great experience with some wonderful artists. I managed to do some writing for an edited handbook on Geographies of Creativity on Cambodian dance and YouTube but learned from that experience that I value my sanity and family time! I also Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 16.09.23gave a public lecture on my work on Cambodian dance (see left) as a Learned Society of Wales public lecture. This was linked to my award of the Dillwyn Medal last year.

In this lecture I talked about some research I had recently conducted in Cambodia. I returned to the country in January for a few weeks to meet artists amid a very rapidly changing environment. I was super lucky to coincide with the Royal Ballet performance, though not so lucky as to coincide with the Contemporary Dance festival, but you can’t have everything! I was also funded to research the 1990 tour and the reason the Royal Ballet performance was so key in this regard is that many of the master dancers were there from across Cambodia for this one weekend. This meant that I was able to spend time with them and talk to them about their experiences (many of the dancers have died, or live abroad). As there are no written archives, or even newspapers from this period in Cambodia, the dancers are the archive. The repository of knowledge. I always love Diana Taylor’s work on this. It was a real honour for me and I met some of Cambodia’s most elite and esteemed dance masters. I remain incredibly humbled by their knowledge and experiences, plus their tales of coming to the UK were really illuminating, and, at times, simply hilarious. I committed myself to learning Khmer when I was there and now I have the Fellowship, I have got to do this. I’ll just add that to my list!

So, I am still around. I got promoted too! But now, I have to get back to those article revisions……

Dillwyn Medal

I’ve had to sit on this news for over a month, which was really hard, but I can finally tell everyone that last night I was awarded the Dillwyn Medal by the Learned Society of Wales for Outstanding Early Career Research in the Creative Arts and Humanities. I am so thrilled and honoured to receive it, and I understand that the Society received a high number of amazing submissions from researchers across the UK who were eligible for the award. It is wonderful to have one’s research recognised in this way. Later in the year/early next year, I will be giving a public lecture on my research as part of this award, so there is more to follow.

I just want to say thanks to Prof. Siwan Davies and Prof. Dave Clarke for nominating me, as well as our head of college (yes, in science, for an arts and humanities medal), and to my two human geography referees who must have provided me with amazing references! Not sure if it is appropriate to name you, so won’t, but thanks. Also, I wouldn’t have received this without all the artists I’ve worked with over the years, so thanks to all of you too – wherever you are in the world.

My colleagues have commented on how massive and shiny the medal is! It is also really heavy. I can’t see a way of wearing it but have been told that I should wear it when lecturing, at meetings etc Ali G style.

Some photos below.

Amanda Rogers & EJP

Official photo of me and Sir Emyr Jones Parry.

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Me and my medal.

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Sir Emyr Jones Parry presented me with my award.

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The medal. See – shiny, heavy, massive. Not possible to wear.

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Siwan – who nominated me and is always pushing me to apply for things – came which was really nice.

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Dinner at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

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New Writing

In the space of a few weeks I’ve had a bit of writing success: I’ve had my Progress in Human Geography paper published on ‘Advancing the Geographies of the Performing Arts: Intercultural aesthetics, migratory mobility and geopolitics’; and I’ve had a paper accepted for Area which will be out soon on ‘Material Migrations of Performance.’ As always, if you don’t have access, but would like to read these, then email me and I’ll send you a copy.

I feel like the Progress paper is based on many years of thinking about different areas of research in theatre studies and geography that finally connected when I started getting to grips with my research from Cambodia. What I argue in the paper is that geographers have long engaged with performance as a concept, but what’s happened is that it’s become used in that performance studies sense where almost everything has become performance and we are performing all the time – i.e. we’ve moved from performance to performativity. This is a really fruitful way of thinking about lots of different geographies but what’s been lost in the process is that engagement with the creative skills of the performing arts. When you then look at what geographers have researched in relation to the performing arts specifically, it is much narrower, being based around particular theorists, types of performance, or geographical phenomena, in which, inevitably, landscape looms large. I’ve nothing against this, indeed, I’ve worked and published on these things, but equally it doesn’t completely capture my research or practice. Simultaneously, we are having this extremely influential creative re-turn in the discipline, the geohumanities is on the rise, and yet whilst this often focuses on ‘art’, the performing arts at times feel peripheral in these discussions.

So, in this paper I basically say geographers, let’s have a deeper engagement with the theories and practices of the performing arts, like we are doing with other arts and humanities disciplines. Let’s expand our conception of what ‘the geographies of the performing arts’ might be. I don’t want to be prescriptive in how this might proceed, but, for me, I’ve found work on interculturalism and creative migration really useful. Attending to cross-cultural encounters, particularly as they are created through the transnational migration of performers and their works, opens up the spatial intersections between culture, body, and the nation-state. Once you start exploring this, it becomes apparent that the performing arts are a highly political part of civil society, and in some parts of the world, this makes them a threat. These political dynamics mean we enter into the thorny terrain of geopolitics, and theatre studies has reached much further into this domain than geographers might expect. These spatialities all coalesced when I started thinking about dance in Cambodia because classical dance is so closely aligned with both the state and the legacies of genocide that attempts to experiment with bodies are attempts at experimenting in (trans) nationality.

The Area paper on ‘Material Migrations of Performance’ takes up the migration and mobility theme but thinks more broadly about the ‘stuff’ of performance. Geographers (me included) have this obsession with bodies when it comes to performance, and to a lesser extent, bodies in landscape or place (I’m guilty again) but when working in theatre you realise there’s a lot more to performance. There are scripts and sets and costumes and music and lights and and and…. they all have geographies too. I’ve written about scripts before, but not from a materialist perspective. It’s impossible to divorce these from bodies; bodies perform words, and they are dressed up and lit to perform in particular environments, but we can pause a bit and think about these other materialities of performance and how they have their own geographies. In the paper I write about costumes, scripts, and performance form (when you turn a live multi-media multi-sensory performance into a solely visual one) to start getting at some of these dynamics in relation to transnationalism. Shifting the focus onto materiality also opens up other areas of inquiry that geographers have been less attentive to in the rush towards creativity, such as the influence of capitalism on international arts festivals. What also happens is that our understanding of what the geographies of ‘a work of art’ might be also multiplies because it becomes apparent that any work is composed of all these different material entities, all these bits and pieces that each have their own spatial hi(stories). I think I may have just written that better here than in the paper! You can judge!

If you’re wondering what’s next, well, I’m working on a paper about race, racism and creative migration in theatre. If this gets published it will be a miracle because race makes everyone edgy in the establishment and, of course, it’s me, so it will be controversial. We will see……

 

Protest Front Page, Centre Stage

The protest I was involved in made the front page of The Stage this week. This is fantastic news and congratulations to everyone involved/everyone quoted here. If any theatre casts white people in East Asian roles again, they have to know that this will happen, that there are consequences. Some huge steps forward are being made, but what we really want now are not just East Asians in East Asian roles, but in ethnically non-specific ones… in real colourblind casting.

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Yellowface Protest at the Print Room

Last night in London, I protested at the Print Room with British East Asian theatre professionals, their friends, and their allies from the wider theatre industry. This is the first time that British East Asians have actually staged a physical protest against a theatre (unlike the US, there was no equivalent Miss Saigon protest back in the day) and it was the first in a long time by any form of group seeking equal representation. So it has been hailed as landmark event in wider British debates on diversity.

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The protest was organised by Andrew Keates (who is directing the UK premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish at the Park Theatre) in response to the casting announcement of Howard Barker’s latest play In the Depths of Dead Love. This revealed a solely white cast for a play set in ancient China, complete with Chinese character names, bowing actions, emperor/tea/silk references, but, of course, it was just an allegory, a fable, for universal human experience (sound familiar?) As Andrew said:

“I had just got through the second day of auditions for Chinglish and it was amazing, people who had me literally in stitches … so many talented actors came in for it and I came home and I saw the casting notice for this … and it didn’t compute. I was really concerned. I emailed Anda Winters [the Artistic Director of the Print Room] and didn’t get a reply … and I thought, a‘No, this isn’t going to be another … minority protest that will be ignored. I will be the white guy that stands up and says, ‘No this is wrong. … To see this theatre clawing back to the 1800s, I just found it deeply offensive and cruel to this community and I had to stand up because it was the right thing to do.”

I won’t go into the nuances of the debate here – you can see all our writings on this at the chronology being established by Anna Chen at her website, but suffice to say that the Print Room has been highly defensive, offensive, and unrepentant in its response. It has failed to engage, and Howard Barker’s interview with The Guardian today shows his level of disconnection from the debates at work.

 

The physicality and camaraderie of everyone turning up made the debate very hard to ignore. It was covered on BBC London, and has been referenced in every review so far (the reviews for the play are generally pretty bad, although the response to the protest’s concerns have been more mixed). An online Thunderclap organised by Amy Tasker also gathered 610 participants with a social media reach of over 870,000 people. It was a multicultural protest involving people who were united in their concern about racism and we even had random members of the public join us when they found out what it was about. There was a real sense that this was a protest that affected the wider theatre community, that the demand for equal opportunities in all senses is growing, and that we need to support one another so that eventually those in the ‘minority’ become the ‘majority.’ Indeed, the Print Room seems out of step with wider theatrical currents in the UK, something they can currently afford as a privately funded theatre, but as Kumiko Mendl (Artistic Director of Yellow Earth Theatre) said, “Not if they want to survive. Theatre in general isn’t going to survive if it doesn’t keep up, if it doesn’t speak to young people and reflect diversity.”

 

The majority of the protest was polite and peaceful. Papergang Theatre bought us sushi snacks (well it was an Asian protest)! Ashley Alymann united us with his home crafted yellow daisy badges, there was hot tea and coffee, everyone turned out in force, including British stars Gemma Chan and Katie Leung, and, as Daniel York put it, “It was one of the most meaningful and moving nights of my life. I mean I didn’t know Kublai Khan was going to turn up and lead the sing song.”

Indeed, Doctor Strange’s British star, Benedict Wong, created a fantastic Print Room protest Spotify play list. He led the singing of some witty riffs, such as Always Look on the White Side of Life, and the crowd favourite of ‘Give East A Chance’ which you can see below, along with our regular chant of ‘What do we want? East Asian parts. When do we want it? Now!’ You can watch them here and here (I don’t have the upgraded blog plan!)

Wong described how he had worked with three of the actors on stage before but “it was a real shame because there is such a wealth of talent here and what we lack is opportunity and to gain experience and for us to show our instincts. It’s erasure and just very short sighted from a very few individuals. … We are on the right side of artistic history.” So many of the actors there said the same thing, such as Joyce Veheary, “We’re not allowed to play ourselves, we’re not allowed to the table to be ourselves, let alone play Sandra Bloggs in any theatre production.”

As you’ll have seen there were some awesome and witty banners, including my personal favourite created by Tina Chiang in response to the existential crisis that she was now experiencing as a result of this play’s casting.

 

“It’s given me an identity crisis because according to Howard Barker China doesn’t exist and ancient China is a mythical place. So it’s just given me a bit of an identity crisis because I don’t know if I am real or not. So I am hoping by holding the sign some people will actually see it and explain to me whether I exist” (Tina Chiang).

I created a protest leaflet with my long-time friend and academic collaborator Ashley Thorpe, and with help we managed to distribute around a thousand of these to local residents, workers, anyone who was interested, the critics and most of the audience. We got shouted at for being silly, told we were pathetic, had them thrust back in our faces, and hastily shoved into pockets. But we did have some great conversations with a few audience members before they saw the play, turned a few critics around who initially thought we were stupid, and ultimately got it published as part of The Telegraph’s review.

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We weren’t allowed inside the building (they had heavies on, because of course there’s nothing worse than angry Asian people not behaving submissively) and we weren’t allowed to buy a programme, possibly, maybe, because it still has that ‘set in ancient China’ line in it and they’re waiting for the next print run where that gets removed?!

However, it all kicked off when the audience came out and responded to the protestors.

Daniel York has already written about how he was nearly spat on and abused as people left the theatre. Protestors were told they were wrong, stupid, childish, silly and ‘shouldn’t be offended’ because the play and the production ‘weren’t racist’ and it didn’t reference China (people we know who have seen it have said that the script has been edited). Although this largely came over as “white men of privilege telling minorities how they should feel” (Kevin Shen) some of these responses were shared by East Asian audience members. Go figure. Blanche Marvin came over in a fur coat (you couldn’t write this stuff, really) and told us we were all racists for not allowing white people to play these roles, that it was colour-blind casting, that we didn’t understand, and ended up in an angry exchange with Kevin Shen who told her “I am almost only cast in East Asian parts because the British theatre community rarely sees us as non-East Asians and colour-blind casting should work both ways.”

Ashley and I got harangued by a woman who told us it was just the playwright using his friends (because, you know, nepotism is totally ok in the professional theatre world). When we pointed out that this denied all these professional actors equal opportunities she told us that ‘not everything has to be equal’. Apparently. And because I am friends with the author of ‘that Chinglish play, that says it all’ about me. I think she was confusing David with Andrew, either that or that David has an international reputation for being a troublemaker. Interestingly though, even the hard line defenders couldn’t say that if this were set in Africa, with characters with African names and white actors playing those characters, that it would be ok. Which just goes to show how fair game East Asia is in the UK compared to Black British and South Asian communities.

On a more positive note though, friends of the actors came out to speak to the protestors, and although they started out by saying how wrong the protest was, they ended up having some good, if heated, conversations as they tried to understand the protestors’ perspectives. Some audience members also said it made no sense being set in China and that they felt we were right, ‘They should’ve just said it was set in Scotland or England or something.’ We also got some supportive responses from critics and audience members we had spoken to earlier.

So, all in all, a great night, a landmark event. I think, I hope, that this will be the end of yellowface in British theatre – although we thought that would be the end of it after The Orphan of Zhao controversy. I am hopeful that anyone mounting a theatre production using East Asian settings will think carefully about how they cast it. But what I really want is for us to make this so toxic that not only will the wider theatre profession wake up and be more critical about what they are doing (the critics are getting there on this), but that white actors start turning yellowface opportunities down.

— Marcus, sorry, Amanda.

Yellowface publications (open access)

Before Christmas, in response to the Print Room controversy over the casting of Howard Barker’s latest play, I mentioned that I would make my publications on yellowface (on the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao) open access. It took a bit longer than I expected but ta-da! These are the accepted versions (so they are PDFs, not journal final copies). Please remember that these are copyrighted publications and any quotations must be attributed to me/Ashley and me.

The Editorial I co-authored with Dr Ashley Thorpe can be downloaded here:

https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa18713

My piece ‘Asian Mutations’ on Yellowface in contemporary British theatre can be downloaded here:

https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa18712

Enjoy.