When a New York casting agent told Viveca Chow that she’d never be successful, the young actress cried tears of disappointment. That searing knock-back was her first taste of how cutthroat the theatre industry can be, and came as a crushing blow for the 22-year-old Hong Kong performer, who was in the final stages of her theatre course at Point Park University, in the US.
Little did she know that greater opportunities were just around the corner. Not long after that rejection, she signed with another agent, who secured her an audition for a new production of Miss Saigon on Broadway, in New York City. The famed musical, which is set in the ‘70s during the Vietnam war, tells the tragic tale of a romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American soldier lover.
After two auditions, Chow was summoned for a final callback. She performed songs from the musical, but thought she was out of luck when she got released midway through.
“Usually when they let people go, it means they’re out of the process,” she explains. Then, a few days later, her agent told her they wanted her to swing the female ensemble – a role similar to being an understudy, but she had to learn all nine female roles. Chow was overjoyed. Not only had she accomplished the rare feat of booking a Broadway show straight out of university, but she had also become the first actress born in Hong Kong to star in a musical on the prestigious New York theatre circuit.
Young Post first noticed Chow in 2010, when she was starring as Ariel in Footloose with the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA), aged 15. The Island Schooler had been training with the Academy from age nine, and performed in seven consecutive summer musicals. In the fifth summer, she secured her first lead role as Sharpay in High School Musical, a role she believes would have never been afforded to her had she grown up in the US.
“In America, I would never be Ariel. I don’t think anyone would ever cast an Asian as Sharpay Evans – they’d probably be cast as Kelsie the pianist because it fits more with the Asian stereotype. It has a lot to do with typecasting,” she says. The underrepresentation of non-white actors is a persistent issue in the industry. In the musical Wicked, which recently came to Hong Kong, the main character Elphaba has always been played by Caucasian actresses. It’s laughable, says Chow, when Elphaba is painted green in the play.
The recent success of the historical musical Hamilton has brought colour-blind casting – allocating roles without considering someone’s ethnicity – into the spotlight, and Chow is glad to see that the industry is becoming more diverse. “Not as fast as we want it to but at least it’s changing,” she says, adding that she hopes casting non-white actors in traditionally white roles isn’t just a temporary thing. “A lot of theatres are starting to realise it doesn’t matter what we look like – as long as the actors have the skill-set to tell the story.”
Miss Saigon will be on Broadway for a year, then it might be toured throughout the US for a few years after that. But the life of an actor is full of uncertainty, and it can be hard to plan for the future and move on from rejection. “Some days, I’ll wake up and wonder whether this was for me. But no actor has a map of what will happen in the next 10 years; we have to take everything as it comes,” she says. “It’s so competitive. There are always so many ‘yous’ in the room – people who look like you and have the same skills, and you never find out why you didn’t get the part.”
Luckily, Chow has the enduring support of her parents to help her through the days she feels like giving up. But for aspiring young performers, particularly in Hong Kong, whose parents might not agree with their chosen career path, Chow says that communication is essential. “Help them understand why performing means so much to you. They need to see how happy it makes you. Because you never want to end up doing something you hate and living with the regret that you didn’t do enough to fight for your dream.”
“My goal is to always keep working,” she continues. “I’m grateful to be doing what I love every day. To be able to tell a story is one of the biggest joys of being an actor, and so many stories are important to tell – especially now in the US. People go to theatre, almost in search of hope, to just escape reality for a few hours. It’s amazing to be part of that.”