American actors call for action over RSC in New York

Statement released by AAPAC today on Facebook. Wonderful solidarity from our American bredren. This is so fantastically moving. I feel I am learning so much about these issues — a very fruitful time for all of us.


AAPAC (Asian American Performers Action Coalition) stands in support of our British East Asian colleagues in their outrage over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of James Fenton’s adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao. Originally written by 13th century Chinese dramatist Ji Junxiang, this production, directed by RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran, has followed in the footsteps of La Jolla Playhouse’s recent production of Sater and Sheik’s The Nightingale, in that out of 17 actors in the cast, only 3 are of East Asian descent.

The cast of Orphan will also perform plays by Pushkin and Brecht in repertory as part of a season. Doran has publicly stated prior to today that though “the RSC has led the way in non-culturally specific casting,” there was “no way I was going to do this with an exclusively Chinese cast that would then go through to those other plays.” He has publicly justified this by saying that Orphan isn’t a “specific Chinese play,” its characters are not “race-specific,” nor does it have a “Chinese context.” However, their press materials use an East Asian child’s face as the visual centerpiece, with this wording: “Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Hamlet […], The Orphan of Zhao was the first Chinese play to be translated in the West.” Doran not only traveled to China to research it, he hired Dr. Li Ruru, a Chinese expert on Shakespeare, to teach Chinese concepts and movement to the cast, and James Fenton studied Chinese poetry and theatrical traditions when adapting the original piece.

Doran is also quoted as saying they auditioned “lots and lots” of East Asian Actors, that in some cases offers were made to EA actors but were turned down, and that ultimately he had to “choose not based on ethnicity but on the best actor for the role.”

Yesterday, October 22, the RSC issued a public apology in which they state, “We commissioned our World Elsewhere season in order to explore great plays from world culture […] recognising that much of this rich seam of drama has been largely ignored in the West, and certainly by British theatre.” They also state that they “intend to present The Orphan of Zhao in our own way, just as a theatre company in China might explore Shakespeare […] we want to approach the play with a diverse cast and develop our own ways of telling this ancient story and thus explore its universality.”

The contradictory and fallacious nature of Doran’s various remarks points to their disingenuousness. Playwright David Henry Hwang says: “The Orphan of Zhao casting controversy says less about Britain’s Asian acting community, than it does about the RSC’s laziness and lack of artistic integrity […] By producing The Orphan of Zhao, the RSC seeks to exploit the public’s growing interest in China; through its casting choices, the company reveals that its commitment to Asia is self-serving, and only skin-deep. During the Miss Saigon casting controversy in 1991, producer Cameron Mackintosh claimed that he had conducted a ‘world wide talent search’ to cast the role of the Eurasian Engineer, before selecting Jonathan Pryce. Several years later, the musical’s director, Nick Hytner, revealed to me that there had never been any such search at all, that Mackintosh’s public assertion had been a complete fabrication. In light of this history, when self-righteous theatres defensively claim to have conducted thorough auditions before denying acting opportunities to minority actors, I believe the burden of proof, at the very least, falls on those producers.”

Veteran British East Asian actress Tsai Chin states, “It was such good news when I heard the RSC was putting on a Chinese play, a great classic written a few centuries before Shakespeare. It is deeply disappointing to learn that only a few East Asians have been cast in the production […] My British training gave me a solid foundation to pursue a successful career in the UK for a few decades, for which I am extremely thankful. However, it was when I went to America that I could extend my potential further by being given chances to play great roles in western classics, which empowered me to expand my acting career to more than half a century. It is therefore heartbreaking to discover that nothing seems to have changed back home, and that the younger generations at the helm of British theatre in the 21st century are still lagging behind the times by hanging on to old-fashioned ways of treating East Asian actors […] As the head of the British Theatre, meaning the crown of world theatre, surely it is [the RSC’s] responsibility to be the example for our profession and beyond.”

Doran seeks to claim multi-racial casting as shorthand for universality without realizing that for decades, casts consisting of one race – white Caucasian – have been regarded as universal simply because it reflects the majority. And he hopes an apology will excuse actions that both exploit China’s cultural legacy and yet deny the heirs to that legacy the opportunity to represent their culture onstage. We at AAPAC submit that the universality of a piece will be tested by the strength of its writing and performances regardless of actors’ ethnicities. In the words of Dr. Broderick Chow, a performer and Lecturer of Theatre Studies at London’s Brunel University, his “failure to consider the visibility of Asian performers in this production is a failure to understand the very nature of theatre, and the real effects beyond representation that theatre’s choices in terms of what is seen and what can be seen can have.”

We believe New York artists should be concerned because The RSC is coming to New York City in two different ways:

·The RSC is producing Matilda the Musical this season on Broadway and casting is happening now.
·The RSC’s Young People’s Shakespeare production of King Lear in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education is playing now to more than 1,000 New York City public school students.

Will they bring their practice of exclusion with them?

Here’s what you can do:

1) Post a comment on the RSC Facebook Page ( or tweet them at @thersc.

2) Write Dennis Walcott, Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education to say you do not support the RSC’s casting decisions of The Orphan of Zhao and will not tolerate predominantly white casts for NYC school productions. Write to him at:


The article that kicked it all off: RSC casts Asians as dog and maid in Chinese classic.

Read academic Amanda Rogers who asks who owns culture, and questions if this is “a simple exoticism via an engagement with a culturally different form”?

Madam Miaow says … visit Anna Chen’s website here:


Anna’s food blog here:

1 thought on “American actors call for action over RSC in New York”

  1. I tried to follow this but ended up very confused, sorry. Now my head hurts (probably my fault – first visit to your blog. Nice roses on way, virtually 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top