Tony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is currently in previews for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24 and has been extended to March 30. This is his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU. Read previous entries here.
Apologies for this tardy post, but as I noted in my previous entry, previews are the most intense part of the production process. With new pages flying, dances being reworked, and technical elements redesigned, the premiere of a new show requires a company and creative team to be flexible and talented, with a Protean work ethic. Leigh, our director, is a stunning leader, cramming into one four-hour rehearsal schedule changes that would require a week to incorporate during your average Broadway preview process. Which is a good thing, too. This show resembles a Broadway musical in its number of moving parts. And the big Broadway musicals I’ve written have gotten up to six weeks of previews (another show, SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK famously previewed for almost six months). We, however, have about two and a half weeks to get our work done.
As the writer, what always strikes me at this point is how much of my play I discover in previews. Something about the unique alchemy of theatre – live performers onstage interacting with a live audience – requires that I sit in the audience and feel that interaction to dig deeper into my characters and story.
There’s usually one aspect of the script which I rework until they make me stop, until we “freeze” the show because the actors need a few “clean” runs before the critics start arriving. During rehearsals for my 2007 play YELLOW FACE (which the YOMYOMF Network did a fantastic job adapting into a YouTube movie), it was the final scene: I probably rewrote that three dozen times.
KUNG FU’s emotional spine is the difficult relationship Bruce had with his Father, Lee Hoi-Chuen, an actor in the Cantonese Opera who specialized in clown roles. Their tensions culminate in an Opera-style stick battle between Father and son, which I have continued to rework, trying to get closer to the heart of their conflict. A brief chat I had this week with Francis Jue, the actor playing Hoi-Chuen, was a huge help to me. He said that he saw his “son” as someone who wanted to change the world, whereas his character simply tried to do his best with the world into which he was born. Francis’ insight really resonated with me, and gave me the final piece I needed to unlock this scene. This exemplifies how important an original cast is to a show; it really means something for an actor to say that he “originated” a part. So thank you, Francis! But our conversation is only one example of the fluid collaboration that goes on every day, in countless ways, between all the artists working on this show.
We’re so lucky to have a cast and crew that are not only blazingly talented and hard-working, but also good-hearted. During one of our previews, for instance, dancer Reed Luplau accidentally collided with Cole, who plays Bruce, during the finale. Reed’s first words when he walked off the stage were, “Make sure Cole’s ok.” Similarly, Cole’s first words were, “Make sure Reed’s ok.” This is really a fantastic company. They exemplify the spirit and work ethic necessary to make our show the best it can be.