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Christopher Ashley discusses Asian American backlash at La Jolla

TheaterMusical TheaterMusicEntertainmentBusinessBroadway TheaterHans Christian Andersen

Christopher Ashley, the artistic director the La Jolla Playhouse, said Wednesday that he had not anticipated the level of negative feedback the company has received from members of the Asian American community regarding its multicultural casting of "The Nightingale," a new musical set in ancient China.

Ashley said in an interview that he is sympathetic with the need for more Asian Americans in theater. But he also defended the La Jolla Playhouse, saying that Asian Americans have benefited from the company's use of color-blind casting in the past.

"The Nightingale" is a new musical from the "Spring Awakening" team of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. The show, adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen story, is set in ancient China but features a multi-ethnic cast of mostly non-Asians. The lead role of a Chinese ruler is played by a white actor. 

The musical is being presented as part of La Jolla's Page to Stage program, a developmental series in which new works are tested in front of paying audiences. 

Since "The Nightingale" began performances earlier this month, the company has received a string of negative comments from Asian Americans on its Facebook page as well as on various blogs. Commenters have criticized the company for not casting a significant number of Asians or Asian Americans in prominent roles in the musical.

Ashley said Wednesday that "it was a stronger response than I expected. There are real issues -- Asian Americans are shockingly underrepresented on stages." He said there had been various readings of "The Nightingale" prior to La Jolla, some with all-Asian actors and others with all-Caucasian actors.

He said the La Jolla production is deliberately meant to be multicultural, combining elements of Eastern and Western cultures. However, "I would not particularly say that this balance of cast is final," he said, referring to possible future productions of the musical.

Ashley said that the playhouse has used color-blind casting in the past. In 2010, the company presented the play "Surf Report" by Annie Weisman. He said the play's central family was written as Caucasian, but the role of the daughter was later reconceived following a strong audition by an Asian American actress. 

"The Nightingale" will hold a panel discussion on Sunday afternoon to address the backlash from the Asian American community. Ashley said he will be present at the discussion, as will the show's casting director.

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