(Pictured: Megan Hill, Liu Zixiao, and William Wu. Read Megan’s first post here.)
One of the exciting challenges with producing a historical play in China is that there is an extensive body of widely-viewed teleplays and films set in the past that have generated certain expectations among Chinese audiences. Unsurprisingly—given that our production is an international collaboration penned by an American (me)—our play, The Subtle Body, departs from these expectations in several ways. One of these is characterization.
When Zhao Chuan, our collaborator at Grass Stage, and Grant Zhong, our Shanghai-based translator and dramaturge, read the script, they both flagged Dr. Zhang’s characterization as potentially problematic. Dr. Zhang is a central character, though not a protagonist. He’s an older doctor trained in traditional Chinese medicine who has enjoyed a long and successful career. He’s also a good-natured man who enjoys cracking jokes—some slightly lewd. He’s intellectually curious and has read extensively about science. Dr. Zhang is also a man who knows his worth and expects to be paid for his time, skill, and knowledge.
Grant’s initial worry was that audiences in China might be put off by this characterization. He felt the role would be better received if it were to match the archetypal portrayal of such characters in Chinese historical dramas: a venerable doctor who is a fount of wisdom and paragon of graceful composure who is not motivated by base, material things like money. Zhao Chuan agreed that Dr. Zhang departs from expectations Chinese audiences have of such characters. He suggested, however, that instead of changing Dr. Zhang, we could develop a “non realistic” production design that would signal to audiences that our play is not intended to be a traditional Chinese period piece. Thus prepared, perhaps our audiences would be open to a new kind of historical play.
Zhao Chuan’s idea aligned beautifully with director Michael Leibenluft and designer Danica Pantic’s plans for the production. We’re using stylized costumes and a unified color palette (suggesting that all the characters, despite cultural differences, are “cut from the same cloth”) instead of full period costumes. We’re also employing spare, transformative set elements like screens rather than realistic set pieces. And, finally, we’ve decided to double-cast one actress in the roles of Dr. Zhang (the older, male doctor mentioned above) and Wang Fu Ren (a young wife). This last choice will unquestionably announce our production’s departure from traditional Chinese historical performances and, hopefully, free the audience to view it as a different sort of play. Zhao Chuan and other members of the Grass Stage company will join us later this week in rehearsals and we look forward to their feedback on how our choices are playing. I mentioned in my first blog post that this production is an experiment, and we’re eager to see the results from this particular test.
One last note: our decision to double-cast an actress proved more of a challenge than we anticipated. Many actresses we saw for the role assumed there had been an error: either Dr. Zhang was really a woman or they were just auditioning for Wang Fu Ren. When we clarified the cross-gender double casting, some women were taken aback: how would a woman play a man? Happily, several embraced the challenge, including Liu Zixiao, whom we invited to join the cast. Liu Zixiao is a wonderful actress who deftly plays both roles. She has also fearlessly jumped into our dual-language rehearsals, collaborating gamely with bilingual and English-only cast members alike.
In the next post, I recount a fortuitous meeting in a Shanghai park that led to a collaboration between two retired calligraphers and our set designer, Danica Pantic.
Megan 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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