CASE STUDY
Music Theatre Wales / The Golden Dragon
15 May 2019
BY JULIA FARRINGTON

Name of Art Work: The Golden Dragon
Artist/s: Music Theatre Wales (MTW)
Date: September – October 2017
Brief description of the artwork/project: The Golden Dragon is a tragicomic opera, written by Peter Eötvös, set in a ‘pan-Asian restaurant.’ It tells the story of a Chinese immigrant working in the kitchen. MTW’s production directed by Michael McCarthy, Director, and includes characters listed as ‘Chinese mother’, ‘old Asian’ and ‘an Asian’.

Where it was exhibited/performed?

It toured various UK venues with a final performance scheduled at the Hackney Empire in London.

Why was it challenged?

Prior to their Autumn tour, although MTW’s production had received positive reviews in the press, some had expressed concerns that all five of the performers were white, despite the fact they were playing various Asian characters. Upon advertising their Autumn 2017 tour they was widely criticised on social media for ‘Yellow Face casting’.  

MTW initially appeared to dismiss these criticisms  on Facebook, commenting that ‘the singers play a variety of roles, genders and nationalities; two air hostesses are played by burly men; a cricket is played by a tenor, an ant by a mezzo and a small boy by a grown woman…. Quite deliberately, there is no realism.’

This brought further criticism across social media and the blogosphere, including an  open letter to theatre company & theatres from Asian American actress & singer, Paulina Brahm, and an article from Next Shark The Voice of Global Asians. Many referred to the Print Room controversy earlier that year, when Howard Barker’s play ‘In the Depth of Dead Love’, set in Ancient China, also featured an entirely white cast. According to the company, in private conversation with protesters, the latter had expressed their surprise that MTW had not consulted a Chinese designer, but had instead resorted to clichés. They also highlighted the lack of visibility of Asian performers in British performing arts in general and opera in particular.  

What action was taken?

Hackney Empire, who was to host the final performance of the tour cancelled the show. They issued  a statement citing “the debate around the casting of the play “compromises the Empire’s commitment and position as a champion of diversity and accessibility” as the reason for the cancellation. This was a disingenuous claim because, as was pointed out by MTW, the Chief Exec of Hackney Empire had seen the play in rehearsal before they booked the show. The Empire statement went on to say that it was “imperative” that discussion and debate on diversity is both supported and “listened to by the theatre industry”. This move was backed by Kumiko Mendl, artistic director of Yellow Earth Theatre, who felt that the all-Caucasian casting “doesn’t make sense particularly in a play about “nationalities, ethnicities and the immigrant experience. This play would have been a fantastic opportunity …[to] find diverse opera singers, especially east Asian opera singers.”

What happened next?

MTW released a public statement acknowledging their mistakes. In November, a month after the cancellation by Hackney Empire, they staged debate on diversity within opera at the V&A chaired by MTW director Michael McCarthy, with Chinese activist, Daniel York, which also featured a performance of ‘The Homecoming Aria’, from the Golden Dragon. In January 2018, MTW released another  statement, describing the incident as a ‘catalyst to open up discussions around the issue diversity.” The production had “sparked a vigorous debate about the representation of Asian characters and themes in opera” issues that opera, as an art form, had perhaps been “slow to address”. They stressed the importance of building on this “emerging understanding” to make changes across the organisation informed by consultation with, amongst others, the British East Asian Artists Group. With the help of an external Diversity advisor they undertook “to explore ways to integrate thinking about diversity in everything we do and across all areas of the company.”

Reflections

Carole Strachan and Michael McCarthy, Music Theatre Wales

Having the show cancelled or censored did reinforce the seriousness of the situation. It made us reflect on the assumptions that we didn’t realise we were making – conscious vs unconscious bias; and provoked us to try to stand in someone else shoes to get a different perspective on the work that we make. For example, the protesters were surprised that we hadn’t consulted a Chinese designer. Michael was ready to admit that though he and the designer did a lot of research they hadn’t consulted a Chinese designer.

It has been incredibly important and helpful to us in thinking about the nature of the work we make, so we now have a stronger focus on content as opposed to form. As a contemporary opera company we were very concerned about art form, about the musical and dramatic language, the technique, the structure, the process of making a piece of work function on stage. And because that becomes such an obsession in what we do, the content sometimes comes a little further down the list [of priorities]. That’s a very important lesson for us as a performing arts company. The irony being that with the Golden Dragon, we were so thrilled to be doing it because it was a piece that addressed a very powerful contemporary issue, that was about the invisible, there was huge irony involved in that.

We’re creating a new work development scheme to search for and invite artists from outside the usual circles to come and create work for us and with us. We are providing support for early stage development of proposals, before they are are put forward for consideration for commission or production. And as part of the process we have set up a panel which appropriately reflects the kinds of people we want to bring in. Currently, MTW’s creative team (artistic director and the director of our partner London Sinfonietta) are both white, middle-aged and middle class men. So we will bring in three women to the panel, one of whom is a young black theatre director. We’re looking specifically at how we make this work, how we speak to the artists we want to bring in, artists who are either intimidated or feel completely rejected by who we are at the moment.

We are deeply conscious of the fact that society is way, way, way different to the bunker in which we existed a few months back. We need to find and talk to that audience, because there’s precious little point in ignoring the fact that the audience is changing. And if our audience doesn’t change, it will just simply disappear. So that’s the impact, which is a very positive impact. There are many challenges to be able to make the change, including funding, and it’s not going to happen over night. But what we are doing is engaging across our sector in the conversation about this, in terms of schooling, training and conservatoires. We can’t make a change to that except by making a demand that there is change.

Daniel York – actor, campaigner

The campaign was successful – it made the press, it got a lot of publicity. I heard that it had a seismic impact on the opera world which had never stopped to think about the fact that there are no East Asians in opera. As an actor I was more aware of the impact surrounding the RSC performance of the Orphan of Zhao (the so-called Chinese Hamlet, written in 13th-century) which had three East Asian actors in a cast of 17. I am much more in that world and since [that protest] there absolutely has been change.

I have done a lot of activism and campaigning and I don’t go in there with end games or goals beyond raising awareness… I want people to talk about it. I’ll call out the casting and say it’s wrong, that I think it’s really poor but I won’t call for work to be cancelled. Some people might have demanded to remove [The Golden Dragon] it’s not something that I engage in.  Hackney Empire took that decision. I think censorship only happens from above. We have all been accused of censorship but I don’t have the power to censor anything.

But there have been things that haven’t been cancelled, but [where protest] had a big effect. The Orphan of Zhao played its run out in Stratford. The Print Room – there was a huge protest outside the theatre in 2017 on press night Howard Baker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love in a mythical Chinese setting with an all-white cast – It played it’s run out, but the protest made its mark. With Golden Dragon, if it was put on 15 years ago, no one would have noticed that the little yellow people weren’t there, no one would have thought about, they just work in take-aways.

I saw an extract, the finale of Golden Dragon at a seminar I was invited to at the V&A [run by MTW after the cancellation].  The music was quite interesting, but the script! Souped-up version of a white middle-class male, trying to imagine himself inside the body of a person of colour, who has migrated from a land a long, long way away and works in a kitchen for terrible money.  I don’t see the point. I think we have done them a massive favour – they can do it more imaginatively next time. People say that PC restricts creativity – the fact that we now have a voice to test these kind of things means you have to think more creatively and more outside the box, work harder, be more inclusive, more empathetic rather than why can’t we do it the way we have always done it? – I don’t see the problem really.

Kumiko Mendl – Artist Director – Yellow Earth Theatre

This production can be seen as a case of erasure, it negates our existence – when East Asians are not represented on stage when, in effect, it is their story that is being told. Music Theatre Wales’ (MTW) marketing clearly stated in their publicity for their production ‘Part-comedy, part-tragedy, The Golden Dragon is set in a pan-Asian restaurant and follows the story of a Chinese immigrant working illegally in the kitchen….’ and then presenting it with an all white cast. It’s interesting to view Erasure vs Censorship. Censorship is a deliberate act, but erasure is not necessarily deliberate, it can be inadvertent but the effect is the same as censorship.

I was contacted by the stage to make a statement about Golden Dragon. To find out more not having ever worked in the Opera world, I got in contact with an opera singer of East Asian descent who said that it was a situation they had been up against for a long time, that they had not been called up for audition even for this particular piece, even though they had written directly to the company and had been approached by one of the performers cast to help with the pronunciation of certain words. I wrote an email to MTW I wasn’t happy with what had happened. Michael was open but he was standing by it.  In the casting a man could play a women a woman could play an ant and could be playing a different ethnicity. There was no mixed race casting let alone east Asian background, they hadn’t thought about it, which was shocking to us.

We were going to meet. I wanted to see the show in Hackney and then talk, but it was cancelled by Hackney Empire. I was amazed. But then I thought ‘good for them’, knowing what they stand for, it was the right thing for them to do. But Hackney hadn’t thought about it either – they had seen the show [before they booked it]. Just imagine if that [story] had been set in an African restaurant, if this was about ‘black face’.–  we don’t seem to exist or matter. We have to make a lot of noise and we do mind. There has been a lot of racism – the Chinese in Britain were reporting the highest level of racism of anyone in the country.

I do hope that it will lead to something positive – censorship is a big, big issue and I understand that it would be shocking for [MTW] and a line was drawn.  As long as that results in a positive outcome, the Opera world not just MTW, making conscious informed decisions as to what they are programming and how they cast. Making time to get to know and reach out to POC singers and artists who are out there and have long been sidelined to the Chorus roles. That’s really important and sometimes it has to take a shocking incident to make a positive change – just a flutter in the newspaper might have been passed over.

The Space, a digital development agency supporting the arts and cultural sector.

The Space runs a commissioning strand for arts organisations including online audience development. MTW applied for support around their approach to social content production and strategy, focused on marketing the then upcoming show ‘The Golden Dragon’. The Space provided associate resource to advise MTW on the development of social marketing plans then also provided advice to the organisation when asked following the online criticism of The Golden Dragon.  Here are their reflections.

Online platforms can liberate productions from physical constraints and engage audiences in large numbers.  But with that visibility comes much greater scrutiny and the challenge that our work is not always experienced in the context it is intended e.g. on stage. Understanding the power and importance of audiences on social platforms is key.  Careful consideration needs to be given to how work is presented, with no assumptions made about people’s existing understanding of the intention or the work itself. We always advise organisations to see online content as part of the overall audience experience, and to use social media platforms to understand the concerns and sensitivities of the people and cultures touched on by a work of art.

In the case of The Golden Dragon, this was clearly a serious issue. When MTW asked The Space for advice we suggested a direct conversation with the main critics online to really understand the issues and encourage a two-way conversation. We also recommended publishing a statement which clearly recognised the issues and what the organisation intended to do as a result. MTW did eventually put out such a statement and also directly messaged those people and offered to meet them and it really helped that people felt heard. All this did happen, but it took a bit of time.

Social media storms are a strong reminder both of the reach of these platforms and how quickly issues can escalate. We are all learning how to navigate feedback and online conversations, but getting to the root of any negative feedback quickly and addressing it is really important. We need to learn from experiences and adapt, to be open to those who want to engage with our work and take the appropriate action quickly. It does take time and effort, and we don’t have to keep responding to people who clearly just want to attack without any meaningful two-way conversation. But, as MTW have shown, some honest conversations can be really useful for future work.

Timeline

19 July 2016
Guardian: The Golden Dragon review – taut, twisted tale of troubled lives (before controversy)

10 March 2017
Yellow face in Golden Dragon (Site down)

25 September 2017
The Stage: The Golden Dragon review at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff – ‘thought-provoking’

3 October 2017
Critical comments on tweets about show

Incuding:

Swansea academic Dr. Amanda Rogers – Lecturer in Human Geography, Swansea University. Criticized not enough Asian actors in The Orphan of Zhao 2012

MTW initial statement on criticism and consequent comments on Facebook.

4 October 2017
The Stage: Welsh opera under fire

Resonate: Theatre company ‘slammed’

Date unknown
NextShark: Theater Says ‘Yellowface’ Casting is Totally Not Racist Because It’s Not a Real Story

6 October 2017
Arts Professional: Opera company vilified over ‘yellowface’ production

8 October 2017
Guardian: The Golden Dragon; Opera: Passion, Power and Politics – review (after controversy)

12 October 2017
Open letter to theatre company and theatres from Asian American actress & singer

Guardian: Kumiko Mendl statement, Hackney Empire Cancels

12 October 2017
MTW acknowledgement of mistakes post-cancellation

13 October 2017
BBC: Play cancelled at Hackney Empire

Hackney Empire: “The debate aroused by the non-Asian casting in The Golden Dragon compromises the Empire’s commitment and position as a champion of diversity and accessibility across the theatre industry.

“It is imperative that discussion and debate on diversity in the arts is encouraged and supported by the theatre industry if it is to positively reflect the population of the UK; and it is equally imperative that the outcomes of that debate are listened to by the theatre industry.”

The Stage: The Hackney Empire cancels

Independent: London theatre pulls The Golden Dragon opera due to non-Asian singers

Evening Standard: London premiere of Chinese takeaway opera The Golden Dragon cancelled after angry backlash over all-white cast

14 October 2017
The Bangor Aye: Pontio has no plans to cancel a controversial opera

15 October 2017
The Guardian view on cancellation: Casting is not colour-blind if only white people get the parts.

13 November 2017
MTW: Used to create debate at V&A

(undated)
MTW acknowledge concerns: “We are aware of the debate regarding the Wales Theatre Awards nominations for our production of The Golden Dragon. Having discussed the situation at length, we felt that were we to have renounced the nominations, or stayed away from the ceremony, we would have been shirking our responsibility to maintain the open discussion and debate the protests initiated in October. There is no simple or immediate way to respond, other than to continue with renewed energy the work we have been doing since the Autumn. We have held extended and open discussions, in a friendly and constructive way, with our colleagues from across the theatre community, colleagues in the opera world, Equity representatives, and academics working in this area….”

22 January 2018
MTW: BBC radio airing and statement on how they are reassessing themselves

References to Print Room:
The Stage: London’s Print Room criticised for ‘racist’ casting of Chinese roles

Evening Standard: Gemma Chan joins ‘yellowface’ protest over play with white actors cast as Chinese

Julia Farrington

Julia Farrington is an associate arts producer at Index on Censorship
Julia Farrington

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