A Subtle Equation

by Megan Campisi

in Global Connections

Post image for A Subtle Equation

My project is a new collaboration between Brooklyn-based Gold No Trade theater company and Shanghai-based Grass Stage (Caotaiban) theater company on a play I wrote about literal and figurative interpretations of the human heart entitled, The Subtle Body. The play follows an 18th-century British doctor and his wife, galvanized by a revolutionary new concept called the “scientific method,” and their encounter with a very different approach to science and medicine in China.  It’s a play about the process of experimentation–and a project that’s an experiment in process.

The director of the play, Michael Leibenluft, and I had an initial meeting with Zhao Chuan, artistic director of Grass Stage, at a cafe in the French Concession of Shanghai. This was Zhao and my first meeting and gave us an opportunity to share our visions of our companies and the work ahead.

Grass Stage is not a government-sponsored theater company (it doesn’t receive state support, but also doesn’t receive as much state monitoring). It is committed to inclusion: anyone who wants to be a member can join. That said, prospective members are asked to participate in several half-day workshops in which they experience the company’s process of generating new work. The majority of members are not professional performers, but are, rather, diverse members of Shanghai society. Because of this, introductory workshop sessions are essential to communicate to new members what will be expected of them in performance.

Zhao believes that his performers do not need performance training. In fact, his aesthetic is decidedly non-theatrical. He describes his work as non-narrative collage. The work originates, he explains with the utmost transparency, from a simple equation: Performer + Zhao Chuan = Performance.

In this equation, the “+” begins with Zhao and the members getting to know one another both in and out of the workshop sessions. As Zhao learns more about each individual, he is able to use their experiences as prompts for performance sequences. For example, after discussing a certain member’s history as an officer in the Chinese army, Zhao had the man integrate elements from military drill into a movement sequence. Another member mentioned one day at lunch how he’s grown fat from eating his wife’s failed cooking experiments. This became the seed idea for a scene in which the man’s actual wife offers him cakes onstage during performance. Zhao Chuan’s description of his role reminded me of certain European contemporary directors and choreographers, like Alain Platel or Philippe Genty, who work, to some extent, as curators of their ensembles’ devised work.

On the surface, Gold No Trade would seem an incongruous match. We devise narrative-based work that is unquestionably theatrical. Our performers trained at theater conservatories. We receive government approval (tacit) and even funding through the Brooklyn Arts Council’s regrant program.

But despite these differences, we do have elements in common: both companies have a generative process based on what our ensemble brings into the rehearsal room. While Gold No Trade shows are guided by a narrative structure-and in this project, even a script-our plays are flexible pieces that shift and grow through development. In the case of The Subtle Body, the play has already evolved considerably through our collaboration with Shanghai-based translator and dramaturge, Grant Zhong, through developmental rehearsals with conservatory students at the Shanghai Theatre Academy (a performing arts university) and in-progress productions at Dixon Place and the North American Cultural Laboratory in New York. In our work with members of Grass Stage, the project will evolve even further.  And like a chemical equation, working together will be a process of discovering our similar and disparate elements and how they interact. Every equation is in its essence a balancing act in which any shift to an element necessarily changes the others.

Stayed tuned for more postings about our first workshop together, rehearsals of the play, and more!


0Megan Campisi is a New York-based performer, playwright and teacher. Her original plays include: Brementown (2005 —Winner of the French Alfa and ADAMI prizes); Nutmeat (2006); Floating Brothel (2008); The Pinks (2012); and The Subtle Body (2013). Megan develops new work with her company, Gold No Trade. In 2014 Megan will join Yale University’s undergraduate theater department as a Lecturer. She taught this fall at the Shanghai Theatre Academy (a performing arts university in China.) Megan received her B.A. from Yale University in theater and graduate training from L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq in France.


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