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Yellowface and ‘In The Depths of Dead Love’. What Next? An Action Plan For Diverse Theatre Casting

depths of dead love Official artwork for 'In The Depths of Dead Love'. Photograph: Courtesy of the Print Room.

The Print Room’s casting for In the Depths of Dead Love is a disgrace, and we’re certainly angry. But how can we move towards genuine change?

My opinions on the yellowface furore surrounding the casting of In the Depths of Dead Love are quite clear. It’s not about actual make-up, but about the erasure of a minority community through casting. But for having said my piece, and battling the “white-splaining” of people who either just don’t get it or are trying to undermine the argument, what happens next? A very close friend of mine, who had given me a lot of time and advice on everything so far, asked me “what do you actually want to achieve?”

Andrew Keates has planned a protest on opening night of In the Depths of Dead Love. But what about bringing about long-term change? If we are unable to achieve something positive from this, we may end up simply being angry again and again. Therefore, I would like to muse about what can potentially happen from between this point and the opening of In The Depths of Dead Love, and beyond.

These are just ideas, and not a manifesto; it does not necessarily reflect the views of any other commentators on the issue, and are purely my own. Furthermore, although I am half-Chinese theatre lover and critic, there are other voices that should absolutely be heard, listened to, and placed ahead of mine – namely a host of East Asian actors who are directly affected by what’s going on. Please engage with them first and foremost.

Shut It Down

The Print Room has to be hit where it hurts: in the cash sacks.

Shutting down In the Depths of Dead Love is the most obvious possible outcome. The Print Room has made a terrible decision that’s being terribly (in both senses of the word) defended, so we shouldn’t let it go ahead. But how effective will protesting In the Depths of Dead Love be? Press, guests, and patron’s might be embarrassed to walk past the protest on opening night, so they might choose to book on a night when the protest isn’t happening. So, unless the plan is to protest the entire run, whilst it’s still important that it happens on opening night to show dissatisfaction, it’s not going to be something that is going to realistically stop In the Depths of Dead Love from happening or make any significant damage to its audience numbers.

If we’re to be serious about about really holding the Print Room to account over In The Depths of Dead Love, we’re going to have to be do more and be sure to shut it down by more effective means. We should write an official complaint to the charities commission and ask them to investigate the theatre’s practices, meaning The Print Room could potentially lose their charitable status and any benefits (such as tax) that goes with it. We should contact major donors and ask them to challenge the theatre’s decision and ask them to consider whether they want to continue funding their work and be associated with a theatre now infamous for widely considered “racist” casting. To stop In the Depths of Dead Love, this is most likely the amount of pressure and campaigning that needs to be done to achieve this. The Print Room has to be hit where it hurts: in the cash sacks.

However, I’d question whether if this is something we really want? I’m reminded of the hoo-ha over Exhibit B hosted by the Barbican several years ago. It caused a lot of outrage among London’s black community, although the arguments about why Exhibit B was unpalatable were complex and varied even among the dissent. Exhibit B eventually got shut down because of the threat of violence from protests, purportedly culminating with someone threatening to bomb the production, putting the safety of patrons, actors, and theatre staff in grave danger. I would NEVER suggest that level of action, and this was categorically the wrong thing to do and the wrong way to engage with the issues the production raised. But what did shutting down Exhibit B do? Has it actually changed people’s opinions and made any lasting conversations about how diversity and history is represented in the theatre? Or were these conversations bullied into scared silence? Did it actually change things or invite a wider conversation? Or has it now just been swept under the carpet of London theatre history as messy and dangerous event? Shutting down In The Depths of Dead Love would certainly be a show of the clout of diverse communities when it comes to theatre, but will its effects be effective?

I’d personally be against trying to stop the production of In the Depths of Dead Love. If we shut down the play we’ll have a theatre, company, and actors who will be out of pocket, and this is more likely to create a bitter resentment rather than a better awareness. So what else can be done?

An Apology and an Involvement

“What’s done, is done,” as a misquoted Lady Macbeth would say. So, if we can’t change or stop the upcoming production of ‘In The Depths of Dead Love’, why not then at least involve people in a discourse and set a path for improving things[?]

Here’s a radical idea: acknowledge that this hasn’t been the best casting in the world, and make a satisfactory apology acknowledging that this is a mistake and the hurt it’s caused. The biggest problem with the Print Room’s initial response was that it seemed like it was blithley ploughing ahead as if it isn’t a problem. Their updated statement on their website is a bit more contrite, but insults people by saying that they “didn’t mean to cause offence” so “none should be taken,”. Many of the East Asian community and their allies ARE offended: please don’t try to negate responsibility with “good intentions”.

Moving from this, a more sincere apology would be good, but an engagement with the people it affects would be better. Whilst it’s now probably too late to realistically demand a recasting (although I wouldn’t say that should be off the cards), why not try to engage actors from the East Asian community as well as Equity? Why not put on a discussion evening after a performance involving some of the voices we’ve heard so far on this issue alongside people like Artistic Direction of the Print Room Anda Winters, the Wrestling Company director Gerrard McArthur, and In the Depths of Dead Love playwright Howard Barker? Or maybe, even open rehearsals up to people to comment on whether they think the casting of a play set in China (but not actually set in China) with Chinese characters (who are not actually Chinese) is actually an appropriate having seen it in action, if the Print Room is so confident that it is?

“What’s done, is done,” as a misquoted Lady Macbeth would say. So, if we can’t change or stop the upcoming production of In The Depths of Dead Love, why not then at least involve people in a discourse and set a path for improving things, rather than allowing the Print Room to slink under a rock hoping the shouting will eventually stop?

Minority Reporting

…a diversity monitoring system in place at theatres can actually help defend casting decisions, as well as encouraging them to cast diversely.

For those of us who’ve applied for jobs over the past several decades will have certainly filled out a diversity questionnaire. So, why aren’t we doing this more in theatre?

The point of this monitoring will not be to try and restrict casting decisions. As I’m tired of mentioning to ignoramuses like Robert Peacock and West End Wilma, the issue is not about forcing literal casting, but opening up diverse casting where appropriate and possible. Therefore, having a diversity monitoring system in place at theatres can actually help defend casting decisions, as well as encouraging them to cast diversely. For example, a commentator on my news piece regarding the revival of Fucking Men at the King’s Head mentioned that, in a cast of 10, there wasn’t one Black and Minority Ethnicity (BAME) actor: a surprising and troubling observation. But how do we know whether any BAME actors put themselves forward for the role? How can we be sure that the King’s Head had or hadn’t made ample effort to cast BAME for the show?

A similar yellowface furore can potentially erupt at the King’s Head Theatre for their “Japanese schoolgirl” resetting of Madame ButterflyDo we have enough East Asian fringe opera singers that have auditioned for this show? Has there been a conscious effort made to try and cast an East Asian in what currently appears to be an East Asian resetting and roles? If the King’s Head has a monitoring form for auditions for shows held at its venue, then if challenged, like the East Asian community has challenged the Print Room, then there’s evidence to help defend themselves. This can then be used to help evidence and have more open conversations about the lack of and/or the difficulties of diverse casting.

This is something that realistically can and should be put in place as an independent practice by individual theatres, or as wider collaboration between theatres and bodies like Equity, helping to foster proper awareness and change. So isn’t this something we should be pushing for?

New Year’s Revolution

So, by all means protest: I will be there myself to join those who are very unhappy about what has happened at the Print Room and In the Depths of Dead Love. But as much as we should challenge and be angry about productions like In the Depths of Dead Love, we need to ensure that we do more than just raise our voices, and actually make an impact and a dent rather than just a din.

For more information about the protest movement against the casting of In The Depths of Dead Love, please visit their Facebook event.