(PUNKS cast: Cast after a reading of PUNKS CARNIVAL by Meng Jinghui at Signature Theatre, part of the Contemporary Chinese Playwriting Series. Photo by Erik Carter.)
To give context to the difficulty of translating Punks’ Carnival, we need to look at its germination. Originally, Punks’ Carnival started with Meng Jinghui, the final author and original director, and his company of actors. Social criticism was integral to the creation of Punks’ Carnival. Each actor had something they wanted to do or say in the performance. At the start of the process, one of the actors had about 50 songs that he had written, which they whittled down to about 20 songs. Another actor wanted to play women in all his scenes. Then Meng created different scenarios that the actors improvised around. Through improvisation and rehearsal, the scenarios were interspersed with the songs to create a mash-up of theatre that resembled a rock concert and an old vaudeville routine by Abbott and Costello. Who’s on first? What’s on second.
The play is still adapting and changing while being performed throughout China. The original Chinese production has a full rock band with drums and other instruments. For the performance in New York, we had a few acoustic guitars and a small djembe drum and about three rehearsals. Victor Maog, the director, had the task of translating this frenetic blend of music and social critique into a theatrical event that American audiences could engage with.
In watching the original film of one of the Chinese performances of Punks’ Carnival, the Western influence was apparent on their performance style, but the cultural gap was distinctly apparent in the characters’ attitudes toward certain situations. The events themselves were for the most part clear, but the characters’ attitudes to those events were what needed to be decoded. All around the world, we understand aging, we understand the difficulties of love, but what is the Chinese attitude towards these things?
From the word go, Victor pushed to keep the play experiential. Just as punk music needs to be felt in the bones, Victor wanted the actors and audience to feel the heartbeat of the play. Victor described the experience as being in the ocean and being sucked into the undertow, where you have to struggle and fight to get to the surface, but when you do break the surface of the water your perception of the world is altered. You see colors more vividly and make contact with the world differently. Victor eschewed intellectual conversations about the play and encouraged bold choices and play through his energy and his attention to detail. Meng’s play was a giant cliff that Victor encouraged the actors to sprint towards, close their eyes, and jump off.
Music leaped out of the actors. Through Victor’s questions and suggestions, the songs took shape in just a few short rehearsals. When songs were having a hard time coming to life, we would use the video of the Chinese production as inspiration for getting to the essence of each song. The actors created music that mostly fit with the words that had been written by Lloyd Suh, the adaptor of Meng’s play. Lloyd would then adjust the lyrics of the songs to better fit the musical rhythm being created by the actors while continually stalking the essence of the original. Lloyd’s nimble use of language was amazing to watch. He very quickly adapted the songs to fit the music being created by Moses and Robbie, two of the actors/musicians in the play.
We would talk to Meng and Nick Frisch, the literal translator, about cultural references for each scene and what was being subverted to help translate the experience for an American audience. The most pronounced example of this was for the scene Self-Evaluations. Starting with Chairman Mao’s reign in China, self-evaluations have become deeply ingrained in the culture. There is no direct American equivalent. They are similar to a confession to a priest, only it would be a confession to an entire organization such as a school, village, or government agency. Now imagine kids being forced to confess – some will drag their feet, others will relish in it.
For the performance at Signature Theatre, Victor opened up all the curtains and masking in the performance space. Through the windows we could see snowy mid-town Manhattan. We could see the bare walls of the theatre, the bare bones of the production. The audience was left in light. We were all sharing the space together, creating this evening of theatre much like an audience energizes a band in a rock concert. As in China, the American audience was integral to the performance.
Watching the process of adaptation was transformative. We translated the Chinese production for American audiences, but in reality we deepened our understanding of Chinese culture and faced our own cultural assumptions. We started the process with shots of a Chinese liquor and we ended with some Kentucky bourbon. Along the way, we smoked Chinese cigarettes that smelled like Lucky Strikes and found long-lost brothers in another country. This process brought two seemingly disparate countries closer together and helped us celebrate our commonalities.
Jacob Titus’s work has been seen in New York at the Public in the 365 Plays/365 Days, HERE Arts Center, Ontological-Hysterics, among other theatres off-off Broadway, Brooklyn, as well as LA and San Francisco. In 2010, he directed Promise Tomorrow Today which won Best Play in the Downtown Urban Theater Festival at Theater for the New City. Recently Jacob directed FALLING by Amy E. Witting at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival for which he was awarded an Overall Excellence in Directing Award. Jacob is currently working on his Masters in Directing at Boston University and is the Literary Intern at Signature Theatre.
The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.