There is no doubt that the landscape of the arts industry has drastically altered itself in order to stay on the right side of political correctness – or should I say, ‘left’ side.
This has resulted in an interesting phenomenon where performers and creatives of diverse ethnic backgrounds have gone from largely ignored, to highly coveted assets amongst the film, television and theatre scene.
Perhaps 10 years ago, the majority of working creatives were of white/caucasian descent. So there’s no doubt we’ve come a long way. But is it enough?
Back in 2014, I began my BA in Performing Arts, majoring in Acting. My cohort was made up of a wide range of diverse backgrounds, and on many levels it felt like while we were training in the art of acting, and discovering our creative selves, we were also battling social expectations of ethnic performers. We believed because of our racial background, we had to fight for the chance to be cast in any complex roles.
In my final year of training, we had a workshop with a veteran casting director in New Zealand.
We were each assigned a script to prepare (based off our headshots) – the idea being that these were the types of characters that we would be auditioning for and playing in the future.
The script I was given made my stomach do a triple backflip. I was cast as a Thai prostitute whose main objective was to manipulate her male clients into getting money to send to her poor family back home. It was crudely written with a stereotypical Thai accent, which did not ring true and indicated that someone with little knowledge of the language or culture had written it.
Three years at a prestigious national drama school and this is how the industry sees me?
While yes, this was one experience, and one script, it is one of many examples where characters of various ethnic backgrounds have been written with a lack of cultural awareness, respect and insightfulness.
I was born and raised in this country thanks to the sacrifices my parents made as refugees, with the opportunity for a better life, for which I am eternally grateful.
But after this experience, it seems that ultimately, the industry of which I want to be apart of, sees my culture to be made up of unwanted migrants stealing their money and resources for their own selfish gain. Perhaps this isn’t true of all creatives, and perhaps the stereotypes written for my race are unintentional and don’t mean to cause any harm.
However, we fight to be represented on screen, but when we are, it’s a stereotype, a bit-player, a box-ticking character to satisfy industry best practice. While we may have won the initial battle of securing more opportunities for people of colour, there are still some deep-rooted issues when it comes to accurately and respectfully representing characters of different ethnic backgrounds on screen and stage.
It feels as though there is a rift between the perceived experience of ethnic people in the Australian landscape, (socially, politically and creatively) and the actual experience of these people. Hence leading to somewhat shallow, stereotypical archetypes that I frequently come across in audition briefs.
While I don’t think we should shy away from consciously casting people of colour in roles, I also don’t think we should cast actors just to appease an ethnic quota, especially if they aren’t truly the best person for the role. That is a handout, not a victory.
At the end of the day, the answer lies not in 300 word-long Facebook rants, with multiple emojis and not a single comma or full stop. The answer does not lie in coffee-shop bickering about “some white chick” who got the role instead.
And the answer certainly does not lie in handouts by casting directors, directors and producers who want to add a green tick to their perceived reputation.
I believe the answer lies in empathy.
Make more effort to understand cultures that are different from your own – and I am not exempt from this. Collectively we need to take a step toward each other, not away. The gap created between Left Wing and Right Wing, feminist and conservative, white and people of colour, only deepens the rift and disables us from communicating and understanding one another. And people of colour will continue to be represented as such – people of colour, and nothing more.
Replace “colourblind casting” with “conscious casting”. Please do not tell me that you do not see colour when you are casting. If you do not see my colour, you do not see who I really am: my history, my genealogy, my culture, my race. I came from somewhere, I have a background, and I’m not ashamed of that.
Industry best practice should be geared towards empowering creatives from ALL backgrounds: whether it be European, Indigenous, Asian, Middle-Eastern, African or English, trans, queer, or straight. And not picking and choosing the most disadvantaged group, and putting them on a pedestal for a few months so we can pat ourselves on the back.
The pool of skilled Asian female-identifying actors is much smaller than the white, female-identifying pool of actors in the industry. In these past few years, I personally have noticed a positive change in the political climate, and there are more pathways and opportunities available to me which weren’t available to my mother and father, and those that have come before.
I am not afraid to use my diversity card to get me where I want and need to be.
In the wise words of Jodie Landon from the 90s MTV show, Daria: “I used my resources at my disposal … maybe the first guy was racist, maybe he wasn’t. Don’t tell me what’s ethical and what’s not. I approached it like a smart business person and I got the loan.”
Michelle Ny co-stars in A Girl in School Uniform (Walks into a Bar), playing at Kings Cross Theatre, September 20-October 5