For my third blog post about Gold No Trade’s collaborative production of The Subtle Body in China, I recount a fortuitous meeting in a Shanghai park . . .
It’s midafternoon and director Michael Leibenluft, designer Danica Pantic, several cast members and I are walking through Xiangyang Park in Shanghai. We stop to watch two older gentlemen practicing calligraphy on the concrete using large brushes dipped in water. Danica, a talented visual artist herself, is struck by the sad beauty of an art that vanishes as soon as it dries. For me, it recalls theater’s ephemerality. As we watch the calligraphers’ progress, Michael recognizes a few of the disappearing characters as part of a poem and asks the artists about it . . . forty minutes later we are deep in discussion with both calligraphers about art, poetry, and theater.
Mr. Wang is a robust man with a deep, resonant voice hatched by years of smoking unfiltered cigarettes. Mr. Xie is slight and spritely in comparison and almost never without his sunglasses and cap. Both are retirees who start their days around 7am in Xiangyang Park. They practice calligraphy—often Tang-dynasty poetry—in water on the concrete until around 1pm, when Mr. Xie goes home to cook lunch for his family. They return in the afternoon and stay until sunset.
Mr. Wang confides that Mr. Xie, his teacher, is the true master. To our uninformed eyes, both are exceptional. At one point Mr. Wang indulges us by painting an orchid on the ground next to his poem. That’s when Danica has an inspired idea.
Danica’s set design for our production of The Subtle Body incorporates four standing screens each with a scroll of paper that rolls top to bottom. For each scene of the play, the scroll image changes by turning a hand crank. We ask Mr. Wang and Mr. Xie if they would be willing to paint some of the images for the scrolls. They are happy to help.
A few days later, Mr. Wang and Mr. Xie meet us at our rehearsal studio. They bring their brushes rolled up in squares of cloth for transport. We bring ink, ink stones, and paper. Danica and the gentlemen discuss her design ideas. William Wu, one of our bilingual actors, translates. Then, they paint.
Mr. Wang mostly prefers to stand while he works, bending to reach the paper on the floor. He stops periodically to smoke. Mr. Xie also stands to paint images, but gets down on his hands and knees when doing detailed calligraphy. Both men use more than just their hands in their work; their whole bodies reflect the movement of their brushstrokes. A friend of Mr. Wang’s and Mr. Xie’s, who has come along to watch, stands by and offers comments. Danica also works on a scroll using her medium of choice: marker pens. Mr. Wang and Mr. Xie compliment her drawing.
When everyone is done, we hang the paintings to dry and take pictures together. I hope both Mr. Wang and Mr. Xie will come to the show to see their work onstage. In any case, it’s been a very successful collaboration that ends with hearty handshakes, offers of unfiltered cigarettes and much mutual admiration.
(Photo: Mr. Wang and Gold No Trade set designer Danica Pantic working together.)
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.
The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.