David Henry Hwang's Broadway hit comes to The Park Theatre
Theatre director Andrew Keates discusses his latest play, Chinglish, the British East Asian community, discrimination and marginalisation.
Andrew Keates is an acclaimed theatre director who is best known for directing plays and musicals that give social and ethnic minority groups a voice – both characters and actors alike. His many successful productions include As Is by William M. Hoffman, Dessa Rose with Cynthia Erivo, Martin Sherman’s lost play, Passing By and a number of his other works.
Additionally, Keates is the Artistic Director for Arion Productions – a theatre company dedicated to giving the next generation of theatre-maker opportunities in highly artistic productions. His current production, produced by Tim Johanson, Julie Clare and his own theatre company is David Henry Hwang’s Broadway hit Chinglish, which receives its European premiere next week at The Park Theatre (200).
Within the British East Asian community, Keates’ name is one that heralds a great deal of respect. In the beginning of 2017, Keates organised a protest outside The Print Room theatre against its decision to run a play set in ancient China play with an entirely Caucasian cast.
Speaking about the event, Keates describes East Asians as a “kind, dynamic and vibrant community” with “extraordinary talent that is frequently invisible in the mainstream” and said he hoped that In The Depths Of Dead Love was “the last production where we see Caucasians playing roles that should be played by east Asians”.
The protest was attended by Katie Leung, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong and other reputable actors from the British East Asian acting community.
Speaking to Resonate, Keates discusses his inspiration for working with marginalised groups and why he chose to bring Chinglish to U.K. audiences.
Keates grew up on a Bournemouth council estate with a single mother, his younger sister and an absent father. He came out as gay at the age of 13, Keates says that he “felt very different growing up. I was hospitalised several times at school thanks to homophobic bullying and violence”. Consequently, Keates found solace in literature, music, dance and other art forms to understand himself and the world around him. He would later go on to co-run the Landor Theatre and over these past few years he has become a very prominent spokesperson for people living with HIV after being diagnosed himself and “coming out of the viral closet”, on the Dominion Theatre stage during West End Eurovision to help raise awareness of our current HIV epidemic on behalf of the Make a Difference Trust.
Both events led Keates to feel marginalised by society. “For so much of my life I have felt like a second class citizen, when you’re vulnerable a cheap joke made in ignorance can feel like an attack without someone realising it”, Keates explains. Drawing upon this experience, Keates found as a director, stories often come from “a part of us that stings and longs to love and be loved”.
“What I’ve found with all my work, whether it be exploring stories concerning East Asians, LGBT, black, mental health and other communities is about identifying something that is a struggle that perhaps the rest of the society at large have never considered because it hasn’t ever concerned them. We as artists are the ones who can gently ask a question using characters, text and empathy”
The director and spokesman says that it was exactly this kind of marginalisation that made him so “vehemently angry” at The Print Room. He considers theatre a “collaborative” art form, but frequently “sees productions where the only actors being given the chance to collaborate or perform on stage are white Caucasian men”. Keates as a Caucasian male himself is “aware that some would say that I’m enjoying ‘white, male privilege myself’, but because of this, he feels he “has a responsibility use my standing to do as much good as I can in this industry. I may not be of a different colour or indeed, a woman, but I emphasise due to my own minority groups that I sit in and we share a similar pain growing up feeling like we’re not normal – whatever that means”
Working with the British East Asian community on Chinglish has taught the humble theatre director a great deal. Although he regards many instances as happenings of ignorance rather than active discrimination, Keates has found himself bewildered by the questions he is asked with regards to his work with the community.
Keates recalls a number of instances where he was asked how he copes with the language barrier. The director tells me it often makes him laugh in disbelief because he has no language barrier as the entirety of his cast can speak English as well as Mandarin.
“The second question I get asked quite a lot, which really frustrates me is when people ask what it’s like working with an East Asian cast. It’s exactly like working with any other cast!’ “
Reflecting on the struggles of British East Asian actors, Keates says the most moving thing he has discovered when working with the community is how grateful the cast are. “There is an element of uncertainty of what they will do after this brilliant show. Are they then going to be up for the role of ‘another stereotypical Chinese takeaway part?”
A sympathetic and deeply concerned Keates tells me that he hopes to see things change within the next few years so that we can “start seeing the character first and actor second”.
“Who’s to say that an East Asian actor can’t play Queen Victoria?” Keates ponders.“I think what I’ve realised is it’s about the intention of finding great actors in auditions and being conscious of those who have historically been denied an opportunity to be on stage for centuries.”
Keates also doesn’t buy the argument that minorities are being denied a place on the British stage for the sake of upholding authenticity. “With Britain’s rather terrible xenophobic history, I think authenticity is something we can lose unless a piece is specifically about race. We must find a way to encourage the next generation of children to support and participate in the arts. That means finding the best artists for the job and not allowing ignorant whitewashing anymore.
However, the forward thinking director does suggest a solution to the problem, which he believes is caused by a theatre industry “still majorly run by white middle class men.” Keates suggest that there needs to be an intent to actually look at minorities when casting.
“My producer Tim Johanson has a really brilliant idea when we last chatted about this issue. Let’s say you make sure you see 50% of non-white actors – just audition them to then see who you give the job to. I think that would be a really clever productive step forward. You can cast anyone you like but you have to see 50% non-white actors for these roles. Any director that’s worth his salt will give the role to the best actor. It’s not always about the end production, it’s the desire to find talent, regardless of colour and sex”
As a long time admirer of David Henry Hwang’s work for many years, Keates regards Chinglish as a favourite. Keates explains that he had secured a spot at The Park Theatre with Tim Johanson for a different musical that ultimately fell through. Looking to still use the fantastic opportunity presented by the theatre, Keates and Johanson pulled out their favourite plays. Remembering that The Park had great success with Yellow Face, the pair figured that it could have similar success with Chinglish.
Describing the plot of the play, Keates says, “it’s about an American called Daniel who comes to China to do a deal. The problem is, he doesn’t speak the language and he falls in love with the wrong girl. The play develops and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.”
“Because of David’s extraordinary ability to write from the heart, there are moments that I find deeply moving where I’m laughing one moment but have tears rolling down in the next.”
Keates adds that the play has been updated since it first opened on Broadway in 2011 to match “the horrendous backdrop we’ve got at the moment with Donald Trump and the failing manufacturing generation in America and relations with China, indeed our on country’s lack of tolerance for foreigners after Brexit makes this play vital. Indeed, a comedy can sometimes explore these issues better than a hard-hitting drama.”
“There is a pertinence to this talking about the Great Wall of China when all we’re hearing about is Donald Trump and his wall and seeing the Trump supporters who are desperate for an extreme measure. This resonates in a way with Trump and American politics now in a way that it could not have done when it was on Broadway.”
The director hopes that people will come together to simply enjoy the production by celebrating our differences. “We are all different and that’s an important message to be shouting about during these horrific times of Brexit and these disgusting times of Donald Trump. I would ask the theatre community to come together and celebrate diversity together through laughter and tears.”
Finally, Keates encourages those who feel disenfranchised by discriminatory casting decisions to power through the hard times. “I believe as artists, the qualities we have to do the work we do don’t just switch off when we’ve not got a job,” Keates says. “To be an actor or director – to just work in our industry requires empathy and looking at the world and considering how we and others interpret it. They’re skills that perhaps open us up to life that don’t cease just because we’re not working.
“If an actor is considering giving up, that’s their call, but the best have tenacity. We go through more rejection in a year than many suffer a lifetime. Being an actor or director is about the long journey. It’s feast and famine. There are times when I look at my bank account and think why the hell do I do this. Then I see an actor realise something in a rehearsal room and those thoughts evaporate instantly”
However, Keates believes that times are changing and sees a positive future for the theatre industry and the East Asian community. “We’ve got Chinglish, Tamburlaine and Snow In Midsummer and television shows are slowly embracing East Asian actors. Times are changing and it’s up to us all to be as skilled as possible for these changing times. We must never stop learning and playing, either in classes, rehearsals or just picking up a good book. But the best artists are curious and never stop asking questions.”
“Don’t sit at home and beat yourself up – it only leads to nihilism. Seek out or even create your own opportunities and lastly we must all stand up, protest and discuss when we see productions and practitioners not actively seeking diversity. Theatre is about inclusion, not exclusion, telling great stories with great artists and that does not solely belong to Caucasian men like me”
Chinglish runs from 22 March 2017 to 22 April at The Park Theatre. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.