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The importance of BME theatre productions on campus

By Vidya Ramesh

Tuesday 13 December 2016 Culture

Back at school I auditioned for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The prospectus claimed to bring together children “from many different social, cultural and religious backgrounds, creating a diversity in which the School rejoices.”

On the night of each show, each of the main characters’ faces would be plastered with brown foundation. Out of all the twelve pupils cast as Joseph’s brothers, not to mention Joseph himself, only one was an ethnic minority.

Coming to university last year, I held a similar sense of estrangement from the theatre scene. Faced with panel after panel of pan-Caucasian casting directors, I felt particularly ill-equipped to tackle the upper-class English accents of PG Wodehouse’s The Play’s The Thing.

I anxiously brooded over the casting form for Twelfth Night, on which I wrote down that I would like to audition for the character of Viola; would my chances by hindered by the need to cast an actor of the same ethnicity as her twin brother Cesario?

Second-year student of Sociology, Siyang Wei, similarly never got involved in drama from a young age, despite a deep desire to do so: “I was not encouraged by my parents to participate in it, I never saw other Chinese people doing it, and I was (rightly or wrongly) not confident in my own abilities or potential.”

Having undertaken roles in set design and sound operation last academic year, Siyang now fills the theatre scene in her contributions as lead actor and producer. I have more generally observed the rise of some incredible and previously undiscovered thespians and theatricals on campus, thanks to the surge of Black* student productions this academic year.

This has not been without its challenges. Teahouse, a script on the turbulence of Revolutionary China, published in 1957 by Lao She and eventually a target of the Cultural Revolution, received its first performance by a cast of East Asian actors this October.

Chief Producer, Andrew Tan, admitted: “The main challenges were finding enough Asian actors around Cambridge, adapting the existing translations for a British audience and initially publicising it to the general audience”.

Further obstacles to BME student productions might include charges of ethnocentrism: are we not just playing the game of mainstream theatre in instituting our own ethnic specification for casting? Siyang is inclined to disagree: “I was so glad to see Chinese narratives platformed in a space such as Cambridge’s ADC theatre, by and for the people like us in Cambridge and the UK in general who are hardly ever able to see such representations. It is a validation that we rarely receive.”

What about BME casting in plays from the Western cannon? Nandini Mitra, organiser of a panel on BME theatre creatives on campus this term, was cast to recite ‘HAIR’ in the Vagina Monologues this November. Nandini’s first show at Cambridge, she lauds the efforts of Director, Saskia Ross: “[She] was so determined that the play reflect all types of women and throughout rehearsals – she really fostered the sense that the purpose of the play: to empower all those involved, and the audience – was greater than whether or not we were already ‘established’ in the Cambridge theatre scene”.

We need more individual figures like this on campus: actors, producers, directors, writers, set designers and more. The presence of BME students in a university where the culture of performative drama was carved out by the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Tom Hollander and Emma Thompson, promotes an incredibly powerful and uplifting spirit of access and vitality.

As Nandini reflects on her run in the Monologues, “I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to work with this group of incredible women and to have found a support system in them.” The opportunity of coming together, laughing, crying and calling out to the world together is what the theatre is for. The more diverse our conception of what it means ‘to be together’ in student theatre is, the better.

Saskia Ross is now working on the casting for a BME production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, due to be performed in February 2017.

Hi there, my name is Vidya and I’m an undergraduate student reading History at the University of Cambridge. I grew up in Manchester, the birthplace of the Guardian and Suffragette movement; it was impossible not be continually aware of the power of activism, solidarity, and liberal politics. On campus I try to channel these incredibly charged ideas into practical action, particularly in regards to the welfare of students who identify as women. As a director for a student-run think-tank, The Wilberforce Society, I have overseen events on raising the participation of women in public policy, while also co-authoring a policy paper on sexual assault policies within higher education institutions. As a campaign manager for my University’s Women’s Campaign I am also organising a programme of activities to help female students tackle anxiety. In my spare time I enjoy powerlifting (still at a novice level, sadly), as well as living ethically to the best of my ability, such as by following a vegan lifestyle (#vegangainz). As an NUS Journalist I hope to raise awareness of the events taking place on campus that centre around the three concepts I mentioned before: activism, solidarity, and liberal politics. Whether in the form of an intersectional feminist reading group, to a disabilities rally outside the students’ union, you will be sure to hear it hot-off-the-press from me!