Author Archives: Amanda

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.

 

Yellowface alive and well at the Print Room

In a week where BAFTA announced that, from 2019, films that do not demonstrate diversity and inclusivity will no longer be considered for awards, in theatre land the antics at the Print Room, Notting Hill, show just how far we still have to go. Organisations such as Act for Change have initiated a wider cultural shift towards the promotion of equal opportunities and diversity. However, work by Dave O’Brien on the BBC  and Jami Rogers on the casting of Shakespeare, shows that there is still a white ceiling that needs to be broken in our theatre and entertainment industries. The casting of Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love highlights something that has occasionally crossed my mind as more and more high-profile names lend their voices to the diversity cause: to what degree is it all lip service? Now, I know I am relentlessly cynical, and indeed, there have been many many positive strides made in the last few years, but the casting of this production gives me pause.

Barker (one of our great living dramatists) has written a contemporary play, set in China, complete with characters with Chinese names (although those names are obscure at best). And how have these been cast? With entirely white actors. Now, I have nothing against these actors personally, but, I’m sorry, this is yellowface.

In 2012, a group of us stuck our necks out on the line to protest the casting of the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao, which also used yellowface. In the wake of the international furore that was created, I hoped that this archaic practice was dead and buried. Ashley Thorpe and I put together a special issue of Contemporary Theatre Review to document this moment because we felt it was a turning point. The moment where the entire East Asian community in Britain says NO MORE. Where the academics say NO MORE. Where the wider theatre profession says NO MORE. This has to stop, it is time for this to stop. And here we are again. I am repeating myself so let’s break this down – again. Others have beaten me to it, including the indomintable Erin Quill, a.k.a. The Fairy Princess, Lucy Sheen, Daniel YorkDavid Lee Jones and, today, Equity UK released a statement condemning the Print Room’s casting choices and explanations. There is also some great coverage in The Stage but I feel, as always, that the more voices there are, the more pressure there is, the more theatres have to account for their actions, and then it becomes easier to create a new norm.

Now yellowface is often associated with make-up and costume, with the performance of obscene stereotypes that are designed to denigrate and ridicule. But this is not all, because yellowface is a historic practice whereby those stereotypes were also explicitly designed by Hollywood to allow white actors to play any role, to explicitly exclude East Asian actors, to deny them opportunities. Over time, as the stereotypes and the dress-ups begin to diminish, that legacy of exclusion remains. So when anyone casts a white actor in an East Asian role, it denies East Asian actors a link to their culture and heritage, it erases their presence, it denies the demand for equal opportunities and diversity to be a live and vital force. I have an article that explains this – I am so angry to be writing this again that I am going to try and make it open access on this blog tomorrow (within the publisher guidelines) so that people can read it. What I find even more troubling is that there are so many fantastic East Asian actors out there now that the idea that there aren’t East Asians who can play these roles is a lazy and inaccurate assumption. Get a new casting director.

Not only did the Print Room take 4 days to respond, but when they did, it was like reading something from twenty years ago:

In the Depths of Dead Love is a very simple fable; it is not a play that tells a Chinese story, it is not about Chinese society, culture or perspectives. If it were, the casting would be very different, naturally.”

Here we have the classic trope of  ‘Oriental set dressing’ – China as a pretty backdrop, a foil for all our British anxieties and fears. Yet this is also Orientalist – it highlights our desire to control, to have imaginative and physical power over another place. Yet by being set in China it demands East Asian actors (more on that in a minute for those of you who don’t agree with me).

“Whilst the characters have been given Chinese names, that is to reference the abstract and the folkloric idea of the universal; we could just as easily be in the metaphorical area of Hans Christian Anderson, or, alternatively, the land of the Brothers Grimm.”

The last half century of critical thought has shown that what is ‘universal’ is actually white, male, and Eurocentric. Universalism is linked to the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution where it became easy to ‘abstract’ cultural specificity in the search for general principles or laws. Only a theatre in a position of power, that aims to reflect the dominant world view, could come out with that kind of statement.

“It is, in fact a very ‘English’ play and is derived from thoroughly English mores and simply references the mythic and the ancient. It has therefore been cast accordingly.”

Of course, East Asians aren’t part of contemporary Britain are they? And our British East Asian actors couldn’t possibly play these roles because they aren’t English are they? What an insult. I’ve been writing and campaigning for years, along with so many BEA theatre makers, to highlight the discrimination that exists for this group in theatre. But my bigger point here is that we are not yet in the situation where everyone has equal opportunities to every role. I want BEA actors to be employed in roles far beyond the confines of these racially and ethnically specific ones, but racial preferences are deeply ingrained in us all by society, and those in power like to promote in their own image: which, for now, is largely white and male. Things are shifting, but until we reach that point where anyone of any race can play any role – and equal opportunities, and the diversity that results from that, really exists on stage/screen – then it is not ok for white actors to play East Asian roles. It reinforces all those historic practices and exclusions.

“We acknowledge that some publicity materials seem to have permitted the possibility of a misapprehension arising. Print Room remains committed to diversity and inclusiveness in all we do, as our history shows.”

Diversity and inclusiveness – this is lip service. This statement is woefully inadequate. It fails utterly to engage with diversity, to grapple with the challenges it poses to the status quo, and to understand what it really means for all our theatres.

Andrew Keates (who is directing Chinglish at the Park Theatre) has called for a protest on January 19th outside the theatre. Get your placards ready.

 

 

Why it’s not been a bad few weeks

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I sometimes have this tendency to whinge about question my working practices/hours, my lack of research and writing time, and the increasing expectations placed on academics – largely the result of neoliberalism, government policy, yadeyadeyadah. The results of my statistically insignificant (not enough responses!) Twitter and Facebook poll show this is common among my peers across all institutions. However, in spite of this, the last few weeks have been pretty good. So, in order to counter my cynical perception of the state of higher education, I’m going to remind myself of some of the good things that have happened this term:

  1. I re-wrote my entire module.

‘Teaching?!’ I hear you cry. Well yes. Everyone in my peer group told me not to do this, told me I was mad, or insane, because I would lose research/writing time and it was probably ok anyway. But whilst the course worked well before I never really felt that students quite got it. My teaching reviewer told me that to re-write it by geographical phenomena would be harder for me but probably better for students. My PDR reviewer told me it was ‘a good thing’ that could be positive. And here is why it was: I am now really up-to-date with all the research in my field. I’ve literally read everything and re-read everything else. This will help with writing that EPA paper in January. I also think it works much better as a course although I’m yet to find out how the students responded as the teaching evaluation opens today. However, it feels more intuitive now, rather than ‘why do geographers study art and performance?’ It will need an edit next year though. It’s a work-in-progress.

  1. Swansea University got awarded a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence.

Well, I wrote the successful application with the theatre-maker Bridget Keehan for her to work in our Department starting next June. But when I wrote to accept the award (yes, I wrote an actual letter) you accept the Leverhulme terms and conditions that state that the AIR is awarded to the University. I am not 100% sure why, but I am abiding by the rules and regulations in phrasing it thus.

I am very excited about this. The residency is called Our Place…. as Bridget makes site-specific work with her company Papertrail, and has worked for lots of great places and people, including National Theatre Wales. So she will be learning about different geographical ideas, techniques and methods to think about how these might inform her practice. But she is also going to be creating a series of performances based upon more direct participation with staff and students about their memories and experiences of place. In the process, we hope to build new forms of connection and community. As I’ve not done any theatre work for about 5 years, I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it again and even though I am only managing the award, I can’t wait to participate and learn more about different ways of working. This is part of my new agenda whereby every grant application I write has some form of creative in/output attached to it.

  1. My post-maternity leave publication record has not died a death.

I got a Progress in Human Geography paper accepted on the Geographies of the Performing Arts. More on that in due course…. and minor revisions on another which is a small one but fun…. and my mate Ashley Thorpe got a contract with Palgrave on a collection about contemporary British Chinese cultures with Diana Yeh, in which I have a chapter…. The relief is palpable.

And on that happy note, I am going to attend to my enormous pile of marking. I’m telling you it’s enormous and I will be marking for days, and I am about to start whinging again…….