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How colour-blind is B.C.’s film and theatre landscape when it comes to ethnic talent?

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On left - Madhu Ramaraju as Fräulein Grossebustenhalter and William Ford Hopkins as Georg in the Studio 58 play Spring Awakening. Photo by David Cooper.
On left – Madhu Ramaraju as Fräulein Grossebustenhalter and William Ford Hopkins as Georg in the Studio 58 play Spring Awakening. Photo: David Cooper.

When Madhu Ramaraju took on the role of 19th-century German Fräulein Grossebustenhalter in Studio 58’s musical Spring Awakening, she didn’t waste a second thinking about her ethnicity. But when the Sri Lankan-born actress graduates from Langara this winter, colour will play a part in the casting process for film and theatre in B.C.

A recent article in Jezebel, an American online magazine, raised the question if there is such a thing as colour-blind casting in North America’s multi-ethnic society. Writer Laura Beck concluded that there isn’t. Even more, she said that theatre producers, directors and casting agents have disproportionately white Rolodexes. But what does that mean for actors in B.C.?

Ethnic actors fringe players to Caucasian leading roles?

“You’re Asian, you’re supposed to be asexual and humourless. Well, I am neither of those things,” said Henry Mah, a Vancouver-based actor who had supporting roles in The X-Files, Scary Movie 4 and Aliens in America.

Actor Henry Mah starred in The X-Files and Scary Movie 4. Photo: Steven Chua
Actor Henry Mah starred in The X-Files and Scary Movie 4. Photo: Steven Chua

While Mah never experienced racism on set, he said the attitude towards stereotypical casting is slowly changing. Mah would like to see more Asian-Canadian actors become proactive.

“Taking ownership of our place within the melting pot demographic as opposed to being a fringe player in a Caucasian person’s life,” is what he wished to see.

The best way for ethnic actors and filmmakers to go there is to pick up a camera and start filming their own stories. “It may never get seen or you may change the whole landscape of the industry,” said Mah, who admires directors like Quentin Tarantino.

Making most out of your stereotype

Alvin Sanders, B.C. actor and Union president. Photo: Katja De Bock
Alvin Sanders, B.C. actor and Union president. Photo: Katja De Bock

Alvin Sanders, an African-American actor who has lived in B.C. for 30 years, has a more positive take on ethnic actors’ opportunities. “I have advantages by being a minority, because in the film industry, they need roles that are visible in society,” Sanders said.

Sanders, who is the president of the Union of B.C. Performers, has noticed a big demand for ethnic actors in supporting roles, which comprise 80 per cent of all roles filled in productions.

“The limitations we minority people have are more about the acting ability and the creativeness in the director’s mind,” Sanders said.

His main advice to theatre grads is to get rid of any sort of speech limitations. “If you have some kind of ethnic sound, find a way to get rid of that as best you can, because that will limit the possibilities.”

Besides theatre, film and TV gigs, Sanders is increasingly working as a voice talent for documentaries and commercials. He has also launched a successful career path as a performance capture actor for the gaming industry.

Does Studio 58 lead the way in cross-ethnic casting?

“Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s tough,” said Studio 58 artistic director Kathryn Shaw. “In Vancouver, you’d certainly do not see the ethnic mix of the city on the stage. And not in films, either.“

At Langara College, people from all ethnic backgrounds are encouraged to audition and study at Studio 58. Shaw said Studio 58 had a good record of cross-cultural casting. Students are not restricted in their repertoire.

Studio 58 actor Madhu Ramaraju. Photo: Katja De Bock
Studio 58 actor Madhu Ramaraju. Photo: Katja De Bock

Do it yourself the best way to go 

Madhu Ramaraju has found a creative way to integrate her ethnic background into Studio 58’s next play, Balm in Gilead. She adapted her role of a Spanish-speaking male character to a Sinhalese-speaking woman from Sri Lanka.

Writing yourself what you want to see on stage is the most promising route, said Ramaraju. “I think it’s important to create work and create that change, as opposed to siting back and constantly complaining,” she said.

Ramaraju is already preparing her final production, a solo show, which will be on stage in the fall.

Reported by Katja De Bock

In this video, Langara Voice reporters Steven Chua and Katja De Bock speak with Vancouver talent and instructors about cross-ethnic casting.

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  1. […] happy my article about ethnic actors in Vancouver was well received by The Voice Online,  the website of Langara College’s journalism department, where I am currently enrolled in […]

  2. David C. Jones says

    Good article. I see movement – but most Vancouver Theatre stays exclusively Caucasian and most that have non-Caucasian actors feature them in supporting roles. Not all but most. There has been a shift though. I have been keeping track with my reviews this year.

    Total Number of Plays I have seen since January 1st – 27
    Total Number of Actors – 159
    Total number of Non-Caucasian Actors – 31
    Total Number of Plays with Diverse casting – 11

    Of course another concern is the amount of plays I attend.

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