The first time I ever auditioned for anything in America, I was so nervous that I couldn’t even talk to the other kids in the waiting room. All I knew about America then was what they’d told me back home. And in Singapore, the Americans were legendary for their degree of artistic talent and expressiveness. I was convinced that I didn’t stand a chance.
I read the monologue anyway, because once you’re there, you might as well see the whole thing through.
The professor finally looked up at me. “Your English is very good,” he said. He sounded pleasantly surprised.
Apparently the most memorable aspect of my audition was how, despite my appearance and nationality, I was fluent in English.
Like I said, I never stood a chance.
Fast forward three years, to a campus I had just transferred to, where I would be presented with the chance to write and direct a Singapore culture show. If I was indecisive, it was largely thanks to opportunity cost. I had a passing involvement acting with the main theatre group on campus—an involvement I’d have to forgo if I directed a show. Worse still, basically everyone I knew assured me that it wasn’t worth the effort that you’d have to put in. As popular sentiment went, “it’s just a culture show.”
Ultimately, that was the line that really got to me.
“Yeah, but it’s not just my culture,” I finally retorted. And I think that’s when I knew I had to do it.
Thing is, there is a monopoly of sorts on these campuses, on what constitutes good theatre. The main theatrical groups tend to be rather insular. Events like culture shows consequently become synonymous with talent shows and skits. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of the things we perceive as real becoming real in their consequences. One of my friends eventually exclaimed of my decision, “she’s doing a culture show, but she’s trying to do a real play.” Her awed shock is hardly surprising, in this context.
Still, what troubles me about this dichotomy is the implication that some exclusive standard for real art exists. Moreover, it suggests that this standard has already been predefined—based only on which organization has produced a given show. And culture groups don’t produce real plays.
Then again, I could see why this dichotomy even existed at all. Culture shows were usually large events, primarily designed to showcase a particular group’s talent pool. A friend who’d read over an initial draft of my script warned me that the audience would come in expecting the usual songs and dances. Fair enough.
But even then, there was arguably a good deal of unwarranted negativity surrounding the entire concept.
I had a dispute with someone I was originally supposed to work with. The problem was that I was demanding a huge time commitment, and he wasn’t ready for that, given his extensive commitments to other projects (presumably with more artistic merit). It’s probably worth noting too that I was very clear about my demands from the beginning, and that he took up some of these projects only after agreeing to commit to mine.
But, in his words, “When I signed up for this, I thought I was signing up for just another culture show.”
I’ve been offended by plenty of things since I got to America, but that line pretty much takes the cake. Its combination of ignorance and condescension neatly sums up why this problem is even worth addressing at all.
Some part of me wants to argue that art exists independent of organizations—really, that art always deserves to be recognized as such, so long as it is fundamentally an expression of love and labor. Stories filtered through a foreign cultural lens should remain equally valid. And I needed to prove, even if only to myself, that my accent does not make my words less worth hearing.
I didn’t actually know, though, that I could do half of my ambitious ideas justice. But the Singaporeans from my high school were inexplicably convinced that I knew what I was doing. Basically, I was really only invited to do the show based on some mythical conception of my past, constructed from things I’d never actually done.
For example, someone had once confidently declared, “She’s a really good director.”
The hell? I’d directed a show exactly once before, in high school. It was, obviously, a very complex undertaking, given its incredibly long run time of 20 minutes. Incidentally, I’d also written the script. Something about being straight in a world where everyone was gay. I thought I was being subversive and clever, what with the whole writer-director image. For weeks afterwards, my schoolmates couldn’t decide if the show had been banned after its first performance because it was controversial, or because it was bad.
“Yeah, she has a lot of theatre experience!”
Totally. I’d only shot to infamy in high school following my show’s non-performance. In college, I hit bigger roadblocks still. My grand idea to overcome my casting problems as an international student of Asian descent was to get in to higher-level acting classes. I reasoned that if students and faculty alike were forced to work closely with me, they would come to see that I deserved some kind of chance at least.
However, some problems simply can’t be solved so easily.
“That’s not how the word is pronounced. Look, I know that English isn’t your first language, but…”
As it were, I speak just one other language—Mandarin Chinese—for which I’d scored a whopping D7 in the national exam back home. By Singaporean standards, I barely passed as bilingual. All the same, I quickly learned that spending too much time establishing your linguistic history is not particularly interesting to or productive for your classmates.
The teacher ended up advising me that if I really wanted to act in America, I would need to learn the American accent.
“That’s oppressive,” exclaimed many people later, at the institution I transferred to. “Don’t do it. We like your accent. It’s cute.”
But in a performative world where superficial appearance is king, cute is just not what everyone else wants to see or hear.
The degree of homogeneity found in American media attests to this. In NYC theatres, 80% of the actors in major shows are white; just 3% are Asian-American. There isn’t an overt statistic for Speaks English With Weird Accent, but I imagine it qualifies as a subset of Other, which equates to less than 1%. And I do not have official numbers for college productions, but my eyeballed estimates tell me that the numbers are not so dissimilar.
The homogeneity of both the kinds of stories most frequently told on the American stage, as well as that of the people chosen to represent society in these stories, suggests that there is something socially unrepresentative about the way stories become perceived as valid. In short, a structural imbalance exists.
Or does it?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m only making excuses. Maybe I am uncastable, not because of my apparent differences, but because I’m simply not cut out to be an actor. Maybe my inability to accept certain truths is keeping me from moving on to more productive paths. Maybe I am deluded.
And maybe this is true in the case of my individual self, but can it really hold true when applied to a collective? Is it statistically probable that white actors are simply disproportionately so much more talented than everyone else? Having sat behind the casting table before, I know the extent to which perception and stereotype influence casting decisions. Is there simply a tendency to see whiteness as a default?
Or, you know, I could really just be whining. What’s the use of complaining about theoretical, overarching social structures? Even if they exist, they aren’t going to change overnight. Why not just let my work speak for itself? In fact, I should be thankful that I’m not always typecast into some racially degrading role.
But it is impossible, at present, to live in a society free of racial implications. The interpretation of art hinges upon the assumptions of a historical moment. My silence implies a complicity in and tolerance of being conceded to. And I am no longer willing to engage in either.
Once, I got to be onstage for nearly the entirety of a particular American production. “You have no idea what I’d give to play a role like yours,” the director had even announced—in front of the rest of the cast, no less. In other words, I should be delighted, grateful, for this rare opportunity to surpass both my type and my abilities. That’s how my work was supposed to speak for itself.
Well, I guess it truly was a challenge for the actor. I mean, how would you have played a deliberately wordless role in a Shakespearean play?
The role didn’t even exist in the original script, which resulted in my being very confused by the initial casting notice. I took my concerns to the decidedly less intimidating assistant director.
“Oh, no, we really liked your audition and we really wanted to work with you,” he said. “But you know, we just had to see how people fit together, how the cast dynamics worked…”
So, literally and metaphorically, I got to play the outsider amongst the Americans. I never dared give voice to how that made me feel for the longest time. I thought I was supposed to be thankful, to feel lucky.
Casting: you’re doing it right.
Because of its superficial immediacy, race in visual media often brings with it controversy and debate. Because of its lived implications for many, racial representation demands the exploration of its potential for intersectionality. Because we do not actually live in a post-racial society, the inclusion of race in our stories necessitates the introduction of political and social interpretations.
As an actor, I have no say in how my appearance will be exploited to serve a narrative end. After all, my appearance in media cannot exist independent of racialized readings by audiences. Then, as a writer and director, I have a responsibility to produce work that will do justice to my personal understanding of identity’s consequences, because I now have a greater degree of agency in controlling how stereotype is depicted.
Acting will always remain my first love, but I am beginning to wonder if my battles are better staged through a different role. If an opportunity doesn’t exist, it has to be created. Going forward, my choice can no longer be as straightforward as simply trying to do what I like. It’s always going to be complicated by what I also have to do.
For a long time, it bothered me that the general student populace would never see Domestic Departure beyond the limitations of the culture show label. If the term comes with its associations, it becomes an uphill battle to so much as convince people that the show would be even worth seeing. I was told, afterwards, about someone who hadn’t liked a show by the main theatre community on campus. He was understandably hesitant to see my show, which also had a higher ticket price. What he really wanted to know was, “Are you sure it’ll be worth it?”
(He ended up thinking that it was.)
I’d like to think that, even if it often felt like the better part of this campus didn’t care, at least some of the people who did turn up, did end up caring. It’s a start, I guess.
Still, regardless of what you thought of Domestic Departure, it is first and foremost a deeply cultural show. Its script and direction are inextricably rooted in my uncertain self-understanding of what it means to be a Singaporean living abroad. It is the product of my heartsickness: a vitrolic reaction against the impossibility of pursuing the career I love the most, an ambiguous tribute to the places I have come to regard as home, and a love letter to the family I miss all the more.
The theatre is a cruel and unforgiving place, even for those it statistically favors. In another life, with greater rationality, I would have chosen a different path. I would much prefer to stick with the people I call my friends—the people who will comfort me that my accent is cute, who know me as I really am. It is tiring, painful, and frustrating to constantly fight against a greater structural imbalance that exists independent of the goodwill of your friends, or the intentions of your colleagues.
But as hard as I have tried, I cannot drag myself away from the theatre. Yes, I have considered and reconsidered joining one of the innumerable fields that I am probably better suited for. And yet, there is only one that I’ll keep coming back to. I knew this for a fact, even before I’d been gifted with the unprecedented love and dedication poured in by my production team for what was supposedly just a culture show; even before I’d witnessed the unexpectedly beautiful reactions from the audience.
To paraphrase a better writer than myself—I may hate it more, but I’ll never love it less. And that will be my pride, my delight, and my eventual ruin.
Domestic Departure will be restaged at the Den Theater (1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.) from October 28th to November 9th as part of the Director’s Haven 2016. For more info and tickets, please click here.