Musings from the 2019 Yellow Earth Academy, Birmingham
I’ve always wanted to be an actor.
Let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t? The fame, the recognition, the lifestyle. It’s all enviable.
I’m not sure why it’s enviable either, but let’s put the material desires to one side for now. Why did I want to be an actor growing up?
Personally, this quandary invokes the teachings of Francis Fukuyama, famed American Political Scientist who explains the concept of Thymos as the part of the human spirit that craves recognition of dignity. Now take note, within the prism of political science, this relates to personal identity and finding out where we fit in the world. Do we want to be seen as equal in society or superior? Isothymia or Megalothymia as Fukuyama puts it. I accept that it may be a stretch to apply such poignant, philosophical thinking to answering why I personally wanted to be an actor but hear me out.
From when we were young. From when we were looking up at the TV screen at these captivating and interesting characters, we were seeking out role models to which we hoped to see a bit of ourselves. And this was difficult when all you saw were faces that didn’t look like your own. Already cognizant of the fact that you were the only Chinese kid in the neighbourhood, you soon realise that as you scan for familiar role models on that TV screen, for every Jackie Chan you see, there were the Tom Cruises, Brad Pitts, George Clooneys who cast a larger shadow.
Not to say that these mainstream actors didn’t also captivate me, but there is a certain power in seeing a face that looks like yours at the front and centre, to contrast the typecast Asian characters abundant on screen. You know the types, the Asian nerds, social outcasts etc.
As a child, you’re not hugely cognizant of why you’re latching onto this one actor as a role model. It could be the simple case where Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Stephen Chow were just cool, ass-kicking hero archetypes that are designed to be revered. But looking back, maybe this reverie came from a sense of insecurity in feeling out of place and finding that cultural icon who had obtained the recognition that I felt I lacked. Maybe becoming an actor would absolve me of these insecurities. Maybe the desire to act was an indirect yearning not just to find my place in the world, but to have my place recognised.
To be seen as equal and have that recognition come from acting just as these East Asian icons did.
This is all deep, existential stuff but aside from a few school plays, I had never even considered pursuing acting professionally in my youth. This was all but a pipe dream, a personal metaphor for my own lack of confidence and as my life veered into the professional world, the dream to act would also soon fade.
But it is serendipitous how life seems to present echoes of past desires at the strangest times. Earlier this year I happened upon a flyer advertising the 2019 Yellow Earth Academy with the tagline “Aged 16+ and interested in acting?”. I admittedly would first misunderstand the name, but curiosity would lead me to at least googling it on my phone for more information.
Yellow Earth Theatre Company. A British theatre company that had been operating since 1995, and who made it their mission to identify and invest in British East Asian actors for over 20 years. A company that in recognising that fair representation has a kind of special, positive strength in the world, fought to counteract the chronic underrepresentation of British East Asians in the performing arts, were offering a week-long acting workshop for free? And in Birmingham?
Remember, 2018-2019 was a good year for East Asian representation. With “Fresh off the Boat” picking up mainstream success, with “Crazy, Rich Asians” becoming a global phenomenon and the UK release of “Warrior” around the corner. Conversations about yellowface, whitewashing and the place of East Asian leads were being re-introduced into the public sphere and people were now seriously talking about it. It felt like there was a reawakening of what East Asian identity meant, let alone what being a British East Asian meant.
But how did such a theatre company, which spoke to my desire to be recognised in British society, exist right under my nose. I came to know that they’ve been offering a free acting camp for British East Asians since 2010 and having 2019 be the first time it would take place in Birmingham; my home city, and I didn’t know. Maybe I wasn’t as in tune with British East Asian issues as I thought …but the circumstances of this was near-perfect so of course I signed up.
Now I wouldn’t know what to expect in an acting workshop. I understand that acting is an art form yet, like most, I am probably guilty of focusing more on the perceived results of acting, that is the fame, the glamour, the recognition and wilfully ignoring the graft.
And the graft is hard. Remember, I have no acting experience. Instead, I have years of cynicism built up as a working adult in the professional world. But it had become apparent that acting is both physically and spiritually taxing, with the week comprising of various acting, voice and movement classes; with stage combat and improvisation lessons thrown into the mix under the tutelage of incredibly patient and learned instructors. With games, choreography, dance and exercise topped off with a performance showcase on the last day in front of friends and family.
I am a natural introvert with a bad memory. Reciting monologues, moving my body in an abstract way, learning to strongly project my voice outward or even sustaining eye-contact for long periods are wholly foreign and new age concepts to me. Yet I was not alone in this journey. I had met other curious British East Asians who struggled with the same reservations at the start of the week, but as the week went on, would flourish finding the same fun, comity and camaraderie in learning “how to act”, in how to perform with a group to achieve a shared vision.
And then you begin to think. These acting exercises have an intentional design. Of course, they are designed to equip you with practical acting skills, but the result of learning these skills is to invigorate an inherent sense of agency and drive people to find comfort outside of their comfort zones.
To find their place and worth in the ensemble and exude a new sense of confidence.
There is a sensation of transformative encouragement in seeing others doing this with you. Learning how to act was not just fulfilling a childhood pipedream or raising the chances of me becoming the next East Asian star. It forced me to re-evaluate what representation even means. Why is fair and equal representation important? And what kind of people do we need to empower this representation?
We know that equal representation has the power to normalise and humanise. And this week-long acting bootcamp gave me the conviction to push for this.
My understanding of Yellow Earth’s mission is not just about getting more East Asians in theatre or on the big screen. That would just be the happy by-product and allow more young British East Asians to find themselves as they look up on screen. This week wasn’t just about learning acting skills. Or even, to me anyway, becoming an actor. But it was about imbuing the strength and confidence in our community and giving us the energy to project ourselves forward. To seek out the representation we want with poise and a self-affirmative sense of humour. To give us a sort of freeing confidence and appreciation for the grind.
Look. I may not be the next Simu Liu, Iko Uwais or Andrew Koji. I certainly will not be the next Bruce Lee. But Yellow Earth is a special entity. Working to empower our community through the medium of performance and I would encourage all, who struggled with the same manner of misplaced identity to keep an eye out for Yellow Earth Academy 2020.
Read more about Yellow Earth’s work here.