Lessons in leadership: Clarissa Widya


Leader of Tomorrow Clarissa Widya talks about the need for diverse leadership to challenge Yellowface casting in the UK.

Only a few months into the Leaders of Tomorrow Programme but without the first few sessions, I would not have been able to write this blog post. I trained as a performer and through writing I came to producing, where my natural organisational talents lie. However, despite producing projects for my company Papergang Theatre, I still secretly thought that a leader of company should be an experienced theatre director. Not I – who just happened to be able to create a budget on a spreadsheet.

The Leaders of Tomorrow course constantly makes me reflect on my own practice and on the 3 October I sent the following tweet:

‘This kind of casting’ referred to Music Theatre Wales’ all-white cast in their opera version of The Golden Dragon – mainly set in a pan Asian restaurant and dealing with human trafficking. It took MTW two statements and a cancellation of their show by the Hackney Empire to write a statement in which they finally acknowledged to have made mistakes.

Something similar happened at The Print Room in Notting Hill, where Howard Barker’s In The Depths of Dead Love, a play set in China, was cast with white actors only. This casting – and the tone deaf response to protests on social media, with multiple statements referring to China as a fictional place and the white actors being cast as per English mores of the play – actually led to a physical protest by East Asian artists outside of the theatre. Papergang Theatre is a company for British East Asian artists and so I found myself outside with a placard with actors’ headshots, supporting the community.

The “Yellowface” phenomenon and why it is harmful, is helpfully explained by actress and writer Lucy Sheen:

“To be clear Yellowface is not just about actors who decided to change their physical facial appearance to ‘look more East Asian’. Yellowface is about casting decisions, the propagation of racist East Asian stereotypes, caricatures and constant whitewashing of culture which leaves no place for East Asians to be involved with or participate in the telling or retelling of stories and history that directly relates to them.” – (We Are Resonate, 17 Dec 2016)

Yellowface is not ‘just a joke’: this casting erases an ethnic group from their own culture and excludes them from their own stories on stage and screen. How can someone of East Asian heritage keep their head high in society, if we are erased from history, described as fictional characters and our racial features are publicly made fun of?

Times seem to be a-changing: The Print Room protest was covered from BBC London to The Stage and led to a meeting at the Theatre Royal Stratford East to digest the event. I teamed up with three other British East Asian companies, Yellow Earth Theatre, Trikhon Theatre, Moongate Productions to discuss further steps. We subsequently set up a meeting at The Barbican with casting agents, theatre schools and theatre/film makers to start an open conversation on East Asian casting.

When discussing the lack of East Asian visibility, casting agents pointed at the lack of pipe line: the theatre schools. In response, one theatre school admitted they had five (FIVE!) East Asian actors ACROSS the three years of their acting course but blamed the lack of representation: if you cannot see yourself on screen or on the stage, you cannot imagine that acting is for you.

We spoke about unconscious bias – the judgements that we make based on our personal experiences and environments. If the gatekeepers only let the actors through who they subconsciously connect to, the racial ‘mix’ of the people with power in that casting workshop would suggest that actors of colour are royally fucked. In attendance was one casting agent assistant of colour: everyone from the casting side was white. Of course, the buck was neatly passed and the casting teams washed their hands of the final say.

It became clear that they saw ‘buy in at the top’ as essential to practice conscious casting. It is the people of power with the vision and money, who need to buy into the importance of inclusive casting. Otherwise, a casting assistant can shout until blue in the face – the role will still go to Tilda Swinton / Scarlett Johansson / Matt Damon.

So it was this ‘buy in at the top’, this leadership that I referred to in my October tweet: a commitment to inclusivity by the leaders of the industry. Since that tweet however, I have come to realise we need to aim even higher and train generous leaders, comfortable and confident in their values and practices so they can share the power; making everyone on the team responsible for checking that inclusivity is adhered to. From Casting Assistant to Artistic Director: no one should be allowed to point the finger at someone else.

The strength of the ADLP Leaders of Tomorrow programme lies in its constant awareness: we are not allowed ignorance, we live the experience every day. Leaders of colour are needed to call out casual racism and stereotypical depiction on stage and screen, and thus stopping it seeping into society as an accepted fact: perpetuating the power imbalance.

Papergang Theatre started as a collective of East Asian writers, who were part of the Unheard Voices writing course at the Royal Court Theatre. Simon Ly and I ran the company for a few years and now we’re entering a new phase: Papergang is applying for charitable status, Simon will join the Board of Trustees and I will officially become Artistic Director. A daunting task but I hope to empower East Asian artists to tell and create their own stories on stage and screen, while attracting a wide audience through the quality of the productions.

Thanks to the discussions with the gifted practitioners on this programme – all individually defining leadership and its responsibility – I can feel myself grow in confidence. Each ITC session coaxes me further out of my shell: encouraging me to think about different leadership styles and embracing my own core values as the foundation for Papergang Theatre. The course days make me realise that I can lead through producing and that organised spreadsheets can be useful! Like my peers, I already possess leadership skills: I just need to unlock them. [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif]

If 2017 seemed bleak, hang on in there: the ADLP Leaders of Tomorrow will apply the values they hold dear to their plays and projects, letting them trickle into British society. The new top won’t just ‘buy into’ inclusivity, they will embody it. It will be ace.

Clarissa Widya is a producer and works for Applecart Arts, a new venue in Upton Park. She also runs Papergang Theatre, a British East Asian arts company – they are currently in the process of becoming a charity.

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