Diversity has been a major buzzword over the last few years.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and Stop Asian Hate campaigns, people have never been so conscious of silencing the voices of minorities. While the injustices behind these social movements must not be forgotten, they have also brought with them stories of empowerment and a sense of community like never before.
These efforts have undoubtedly snowballed in recent times, but advocating for the recognition of minorities is not a new concept; whether it be in the workplace, media, or on stage.
Take, for example, New Earth Theatre.
Established in London in 1995, the New Earth Theatre company was formed by five performers of British East and South East Asian (BESEA) backgrounds aiming to give a voice to BESEA performers who were unsatisfied with the roles on offer. By blending aspects of both Eastern and Western art forms, the company today intends to establish the voices of BESEA creatives firmly within the UK’s theatre landscape, on and off stage.
Kumiko Mendl, the company’s Artistic Director and one of the original founder-members, tells me more about the company’s vision, challenges that have plagued the theatre landscape for BESEA performers, the change that has come over the years, and advice for young thespians breaking into the theatre world.
“At the time there was this frustration around the sort of work we were being offered and the lack of opportunities there were for us in theatre,” Kumiko explains, sharing that BESEA actors were often shoehorned into a limited number of stereotypical roles, like that of a martial artist, or a clerk in a Chinese takeaway shop.
“So we thought, let’s create roles that we’re actually interested in. Let’s do it for ourselves and others like ourselves. That’s how it began and it just grew from there.”
On top of staging and producing productions that explore BESEA culture and heritage, the company soon began investing in educating those keen to learn more about Eastern art forms through avenues like school and museum workshops, as well as providing training to aspiring creatives.
These training programs, under the name New Earth Academy, provide free classes to BESEA individuals over 18 in various areas of theatre; including producing, writing, performing, and technical theatre. This endeavour has expanded beyond London in recent times to include cities like Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds.
“The Academy is very much at the heart of the company. It’s about giving people the opportunities that we didn’t have to develop our skills and interests beyond just performing.
“We try to get BESEA tutors to come in and teach the classes so people are feeding back into the community and also developing their teaching and leadership skills,” she shares.
This idea of community is central to New Earth’s ethos. Kumiko identifies the Academy, which began in 2010, as playing a huge role in establishing this sense of togetherness; particularly through projects such as their mentorship scheme.
Outside of the company, Kumiko is happy to note that things have advanced significantly since the company was founded in terms of BESEA representation.
“There’s a lot more work available now for performers. As a community, we’ve grown and become more confident, confident enough to take charge of the kinds of stories we’re telling. The UK is a multicultural country and we need to reflect that on our theatre stages, too.”
“There are so many more BESEA creatives today, particularly performers. It’s great! We’re seeing less of the stigma in Asian cultures that careers in the arts are a dead end. People are much more free to do what they actually want. ”
She adds that diversity of leadership within theatre has also drastically improved over the past few years, highlighting the leaps and bounds diversity has made within the performing arts scene in the past decade.
Despite this, Kumiko maintains that there is still much to do to increase BESEA visibility and opportunities; in particular, the lack of established and recognised writers of East and South East Asian descent.
New Earth intends to remedy this through their Professional Writer’s Program, an intensive two-year course supporting BESEA writers in their early careers through workshops and masterclasses. Four writers from the group are then selected to bring their plays to life, receiving a seed commission and 1-to-1 dramaturgical support.
“There’s still a small community there in the writing sense. We need more writers to tell stories of our heritage and culture in the way that we want them told,” she says.
It is clear that pursuing a career in theatre is not always smooth sailing, let alone as a minority performer.
“You have to be really committed to be onstage in theatre. Committed, tenacious, and passionate. Obviously, it’s hard, and there’s a bit of luck involved, but you’ll find your way if you have those qualities.
“You also have to be thick-skinned. Rejection is really difficult. That’s why it’s so important to have a community like we do at New Earth Theatre to support you when it’s tough.”
As hard as it is, Kumiko maintains that the future of BESEA creatives in theatre is bright.
“For years we were knocking on closed doors. Today so many of them are open. Not only are they open, but things are on our terms now. We have a voice and it’s being heard.”
Catch New Earth’s latest production, WORTH by Joanne Lau, at the London Arcola Theatre from 6-29 April 2023 and at the Chester Storyhouse from 8-20 May 2023.