It has taken me a long time to be able to state that with conviction.
Growing up Asian in Perth, in all-girls school, the Dramatic Arts never seemed relevant to me. It was always white girls being cast in the lead roles, and if any of my Asian friends were cast it was always in the role of maids, or some chorus role that didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in shining in the role of a ‘chorus member’ or ‘the maid’, but to my 16-year-old eyes, there wasn’t much visibility of Asian actors on my high school stage, let alone on the television programs I watched after school (yes, I do confess to the occasional Neighbours episode and a short stint at watching Passions) and definitely not much visibility at all in the advertisement industry that was so rife in our young girls’ consciousness.
And so, why would it be relevant to me?
In Year 10, I took the one and only drama class that I would ever take in high school. I performed a monologue as a man dying from cancer, which was described in the text as a manifestation of his pent-up rage. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Inspiring the language into me and imagining this dark force turned flesh, consuming my body.
But that was a brief moment of connection with the performing arts, which I quickly relinquished for the more ‘serious’ studies of Physics, Maths and Chemistry.
Do I think that more Asian Australian actors on stage and screen would have made a difference to my commitment to this art form? Absolutely.
A friend of mine, Hoi-Fei Mok, introduced me to the Miss Representation project; which began in the USA as a documentary critique of the limiting and often disrespectful portrayal of women in the media. I remember one quote from it that struck a chord: ‘You cannot be, what you cannot see.’
And so, it was only 9 years later, at the age of 24, that I finally committed myself to training full-time as an actor at the Victorian College of the Arts. However, the battle for more Asian Australian representation did not stop there, in fact, it had only just begun.
During my training at the VCA, I was bewildered by the invisibility of cannons and training methods that did not originate in Europe. The texts we studied were: Classical Greek (Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides), Anton Chekhov, American authors such as John Patrick Shanley, contemporary British writers such as Martin Crimp and Sarah Kane.
These were works of stupendous quality and which gave me immense opportunity to grow as an actor, but my cultural heritage does not come from Greece, nor from the UK, nor from the United States.
I felt a consistent gaping hole: a missed opportunity to explore my cultural heritage as a Chinese-Indonesian woman, through my performing arts practice. And when I turned to my white-Australian lecturers about this need for more cultural connection, I was told to ‘look for it somewhere else’, which left me puzzled as to why my white peers were able to explore their Anglo-Saxon-Celtic heritage at the VCA, whereas I couldn’t do the same with my Chinese-Indonesian heritage.
This unspoken invisibility, the white norm, extended beyond the classroom and into the group dynamics that I experienced as the token Asian of my year.
At the VCA, there were often monthly and bi-monthly talks with visiting theatre companies. I used each panel discussion as an opportunity to raise the question of the (lack of) cross-racial casting practices in Australia. It got to the point where my white peers would joke, ‘When is Rani going to raise ‘the race’ question?’
What angered me about comments like this was the assumption that the question of race, of diversity within casting choices in Australia, was made to be an issue for non-whites, rather than an issue that also involved the white actors, the white directors, the white playwrights and the white casting agents.
There was no understanding that depriving Australian stages and screens of People of Colour would inevitably narrow the scope, nature and complexity of points of views and experiences being represented. And that this in turn, narrowed the imagination and scope of work being made and supported by the white actors, white directors, white playwrights and white casting agents.
The invisibility of People of Colour isn’t just a missed opportunity for People of Colour, it’s a missed opportunity for white people, as well.
Since graduating from the VCA I have produced and starred in Laughing Wild by Christopher Durang at the Mechanics Institute in Brunswick. I cast myself as the hard-core New Yorker, mentally unstable, talking at a million miles per hour in a Bronx accent. Along the way, a white actor said to me, ‘That accent might be a bit much, the audience already need to adjust to the fact that you’re Asian’.
My response to him and to people who might think that way? DEAL WITH IT.