Access and Equal Opportunity

by Pun Bandhu

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

TCG Online Conference Salon
Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc
Asian American Theatre

JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

Pun Bandhu: I am an actor and a producer based in NYC. As an actor, I was trained at the Yale School of Drama and have worked on Broadway, Off Broadway, and in the regions. I have a passion for new work and have been fortunate enough to collaborate with some amazing theatre artists. More info on me here:

I am also a founding member of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), an advocacy group for Asian performers; we publish the only publicly available statistics on ethnic representation on NYC stages.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

PB: I am an American artist of Asian descent. My Asian-ness, more than any specific cultural or ethnic heritage, influences the work I do most. I have played Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodian, Thai, Indonesian, Filipino, etc.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?

PB: When a playwright writes an Asian character into their play, doors open for me –almost all of the roles I have secured in the theatre were for Asian-specific characters–and some have been great roles– but, given the paucity of Asian characters, it is exceedingly difficult for Asian actors to sustain any sort of long term career as a theatre artist (I feel like there is more openness in TV and Film).

This scarcity also means that certain companies can go 10 years or more before they suddenly have to scramble to fill an Asian role (and then they usually call in everybody, regardless of type. Again, we are defined solely by our race). We rarely get the opportunity to gain recognition within the mainstream. There are incredibly talented Asian actors–some who have given 20, 30 years to the Theatre (with a capital “T”) toiling on the margins–who have never auditioned at the institutions that could give them the visibility they need to change their career trajectory.

The statistics that AAPAC have researched back up my experience. Last year in NYC, Asian actors filled only 2% of all roles in not-for-profit theaters (among the largest 16 companies) and fared only slightly better on Broadway, representing at 3% (a high mark in the six years for which we have numbers, distinguished by rare productions like an all-Asian cast in David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish” and multi-cultural casting in productions like “Godspell.” The year before, we were at 1.5% on Broadway).

Some detractors may say, “well, there are more Caucasian actors than any other, that’s why they fill most of the roles.” They miss the point. This has always been a struggle for ACCESS and equal opportunity. There is an incredible wealth of talented Asian actors–now more than ever–but we rarely get the opportunity to even compete in the same race. Directors and Casting Directors rarely even think to bring us into the room.

According to our statistics, only 10% of all roles secured by actors of color were for non-racially specific roles. Within that, African-Americans were far more likely to be cast colorblind than their minority counterparts–Asians were among the least likely to be able to transcend their race.

There is no reason I shouldn’t be called in for the Southern doctor or the Midwestern neighbor or the best friend, or, (heaven forbid), the lead when race is not part of the story being told. Yet non-racially specific roles are consistently cast with Caucasian actors, seemingly by default. I believe Asian Americans are, in many ways, still considered foreigners, not yet part of the American landscape or consciousness. This exclusion, it seems, is completely unconscious. I think everyone would like to believe in the ideal that a role should go to the best actor regardless of race, but the statistics bear out that we are a far cry from being on any sort of level playing field.

JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?

PB: Sure we do. Asian American theatre companies are the first to take risks on and to nurture untested Asian talent. They are the closest on the ground to the communities they serve and are best able to respond to the direct needs of its members. They are also actively looking for Asian work year-round as opposed to most regional theaters that are only looking to fill that one “ethnic” slot in their season (usually the first slot cut during lean times), pitting all minority writers against each other. Most importantly, it gives Asian artists a voice in how we choose to represent ourselves, in all of our permutations.

JL: What is the current state of Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offenses and/or great accomplishments.)

PB: There is a new generation of Asian American artists who are demanding more visibility within the mainstream. We’ve always been disenfranchised–the lack of opportunities for us led to the creation of Asian American theatre companies–but now, as the fastest growing population in the country with considerable purchasing power, with more Asian American artists than ever, and with the rise of multi-cultural influences on American culture, this exclusion feels more inexcusable.

We can be proud that we now have the first ever Asian American Artistic Director of a major regional theatre, Chay Yew of Victory Gardens Theatre. His successes in transforming the programming, the staff, and the audience base in a predominantly white section of Chicago has been an inspiration.

I’m also bolstered by the rise of new, exciting Asian writers like Rajiv Joseph, Julia Cho, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Kenneth Lin, Susan Stanton, Lloyd Suh, Mia Chung, Qui Nguyen, Lauren Yee and many more than I can list here, all of whom are getting produced around the country this year.

This season in NYC alone has had quite a few predominantly or exclusively Asian casts such as the musical “Bunty Berman” at The New Group and the critically lauded production of “Here Lies Love” at the Public Theatre which are telling Asian stories and increasing visibility for the level of Asian American talent that is out there.

On the other hand, recent productions have also been marked by some egregious acts of exclusion. AAPAC’s campaign against La Jolla’s production of the “The Nightingale”, a musical adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s Chinese fable which cast only 2 Asian actors, received national attention. The same thing happened when The RSC in London produced the Chinese classic, “The Orphan of Zhao” with only 3 British East Asians in small roles. A reworking of Pippin as a Bollywood fantasia at Chicago’s Circle Theatre cast nary a South Asian actor, another example of an alarming rise in Asian impersonation. Over on Broadway, The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” had two white actors playing South Asian characters complete with brown grease paint, generic Indian accents and Bollywood-style gesticulations.

We get it. Asians are sexy, smart and hip. We can’t blame white people for wanting to “be” like us, but it’s a bit surreal, really, especially in light of the fact that the opposite, Asian actors’ ability to transcend our own race, is not happening in equal measure. It’s bad enough we are not considered for “American” roles, now, it seems, we are being denied the ability to play roles which we are uniquely suited for; to have a voice in how our people are being represented.

AAPAC has had many public and private conversations with creatives and theatre companies around these issues of exclusion. Here are some of the conclusions that I draw from these conversations: First of all, everyone is well intentioned, no one intends to be a racist. Secondly, artistic directors feel they cannot interfere with the visions of the directors and writers they hire. Thirdly, white creatives are scared to death when it comes to race. They feel a lot of pressure to get things “right,” particularly if they are considering casting an actor of color in a role that may not be seen in a positive light, such as the villain. (Another way of reading this is that there is risk attached to casting an actor of color).

In productions that may call for a level of cultural specificity that is different from their own, white creatives are much more comfortable repositioning the story through a lens that is more in line with their own experience. Therefore, we get the “British” version of a Chinese classic or a “universal” Nightingale that is cast multi-culturally with all races (because of course, British East Asian actors playing the roles could only be “Asian” and not “British” and a play cast fully with all Asian Americans cannot be “universal”, never mind that people of color grow up in this country relating to universal stories told by white protagonists all the time).

Another conclusion I’ve come to is that historical realism–or I should say, assumptions made in an adherence to strict realism– is the enemy of true parity in casting. Thus, in a meta-theatrical musical like “Drood,” where two members of a 19th Century British theatre troupe play the roles of two South Asian characters, the idea of casting actual South Asians for these roles (or more actors of color in any of the other roles) seemed incongruous with what the creative team thought people looked like in 19th century London, even though, clearly, there were people of color at the time if Charles Dickens was inspired enough to include them in the novel on which the musical is based. We would still have all-white productions of “Oklahoma” if Arena Stage hadn’t done more extensive dramaturgical research a few years ago and realized that there were plenty of people of color living in the Oklahoma territory at the time. The danger in making assumptions like these is that it reinforces the idea that the history of western civilization is the history of white people. (In fairness to the Roundabout, we spoke with the casting directors who said that they did call people of color in for these two roles. I’m not at liberty to go into the details, but suffice to say that only a couple of Asian actors secured auditions, which, for me, calls into question whether there was serious consideration in going this route). An adherence to “historical realism” seems silly when theatre makers ask audience members to suspend disbelief in other ways all the time. It’s not as if the lighting designer for “Drood” could only use lighting mechanisms that were available in 19th century London. Why is the color of an actor’s skin the only “real” thing that cannot be overlooked?

Asian Americans have largely been left out of the racial discourse in this country and because of that, there is a lack of awareness and consciousness around these issues. Many of these examples of exclusion and impersonation would have been unthinkable if Black characters were being played by white actors. This lack of consciousness is largely, I think, why we don’t yet have the level of visibility we so crave.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

PB: I don’t think the majority of theaters are fully aware of the business case for diversity. If they were, diversity would be more of a priority. Not just a moral or social good, but a bottom line imperative.

America has evolved socially and demographically yet I don’t see this reflected in the stories that are being produced. This means that the cultural legacy being left doesn’t express the full diversity of where we are as a nation at this particular moment in history. These decisions have larger ramifications that affect the type of work that is being created now and in the future and indeed, what future generations of artists will look like, who can have sustained careers in the theatre and who cannot.

Theaters should not assume that because the majority of their audiences are white that they do not crave stories that may be outside the world of their experience (isn’t that why we go to the theatre?). The more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes, isn’t that right?

As the number of subscribers continue to dwindle nationwide, doesn’t it make sense to expand one’s audience base by reaching out to as diverse an audience as possible? Asian Americans are the number one minority group to subscribe to theaters on the west coast. They are the second-largest minority group buying tickets to Broadway shows after Latinos, according to Broadway League statistics. Why wouldn’t a theatre want to try and create special programs targeted to them? (Hint: we like communal activities that usually revolve around food…and we like getting a good value). :-)

I would like to think that the more diverse the programming and the more diverse the actors on stage, then the more diverse one’s audience will be. Cultivating specific demographic groups involves much more work than just producing one show every few years that speaks to their experience. It may include a sustained commitment to diverse casting–so much so that it becomes fused with a theatre’s brand and identity– creating a level of good will that cannot be underestimated. It may involve a sustained effort of creating actual relationships, participating in the demographic group’s communities and creating real value.

In addition, there is a new generation of audiences that have grown up in a media-saturated and internet-driven world that is much more diverse and interconnected than the world that most adult theatre practitioners today grew up in. Theatre companies that do not reflect the actual world we live in seem out of touch, not relevant, stale and risk losing out on a younger audience base. Oh, shucks, why stop at reflecting the world we already live in? Why not go a step further and actually inspire people to imagine worlds that might be?

As opposed to trying to imitate the historical realism better served by TV and Film, wouldn’t it make more sense for theatre to focus on the things that no other medium can do as well? To my mind, that includes engaging the imagination, trading on the immediacy of the moment, creating a visceral relationship with an audience, building a feeling of community, sparking dialogue and creating value from social interactions in real time– an experience you can’t download. In order to be relevant, a theatre must innovate, challenge their own assumptions, increase brand sentiment, exhibit strong leadership, and excite their base while expanding markets. It’s been borne out time and time again by theatres from Victory Gardens to Baltimore Center Stage to Arena Stage–increasing diversity throughout the organization can play a surprisingly large role in achieving these goals.

Pun Bandhu: A graduate of the MFA acting program at the Yale School of Drama, Pun has a special affinity for new work and has originated many roles in world premieres around the country. He received the Henry Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in “The Catch” by Ken Weitzman at the Denver Theatre Center. He made his Broadway debut last year in “Wit”, starring Cynthia Nixon. In film, Pun can be seen in the Academy Award-nominated movies “Michael Clayton” and the Coen Brother’s “Burn After Reading.” Upcoming in 2014, Stephen King’s “A Good Marriage” with Joan Allen, “Late Phases” and “The Judge” starring Robert Downey Jr. Highlights on the small screen include co-star and guest star appearances on all of the “Law and Order” franchises as well as “Body of Proof,” “The Good Wife,” “Nurse Jackie”, and “Without a Trace” among others. He currently resides in New York City.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.