Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for his latest play CHINGLISH in Chicago where it will have its world premiere at the historic Goodman Theater from June 18-July 24. DHH has graciously agreed to blog regularly (tentatively every Monday) throughout the rehearsal process to give our readers a glimpse into how a major theatrical production comes to life.
I like to think of the audience as the final collaborators in the creation of a show. Plays aren’t really written to be read (though it’s a nice bonus when they get published). They’re meant to be performed in front of live people. I believe there’re two points in the process when you learn the truth about your play: the first time you hear it read out loud, and the first time it’s performed in front of an audience.
The audience is rarely wrong. I don’t mean that suggestions from individual patrons are necessarily right (though occasionally, they can be). I’m talking about the audience as a whole, as an organism. If I think I’ve written something funny, and no one’s laughing, it’s not funny. Period. The end. If I think a moment is deeply moving, but audience members are shifting in their seats or looking at their watches … you get the idea. If they’re not reacting the way we hoped, it’s not their fault, it’s ours – either the script’s or the production’s.
So previews are intense. Leigh, other members of the creative team, and I sit in the audience. We’re watching the play, looking for improvements. But we’re also watching the audience.
Based on what we’ve learned from our first three previews, it’s safe to say that our show is funny. To be honest, it seems even funnier than I thought it was going to be. I mean, there’re situations I expected were going to be amusing. But we are getting some major yuks from out there. During all three performances, at the same point during one of the scenes, the audience broke into applause. That moment “stopped the show.” The first time this happened, Leigh squeezed my hand. It was quite satisfying.
We’re also encouraged about the plotting of our show. You can tell whether or not an audience is following the twists and turns of a story. If they’re shifting in their chairs, or laughing at inappropriate moments, it may mean they’re confused. The plot of CHINGLISH unfolds with several twists and turns, and the audience seemed to be neither ahead of the action nor behind. During a big revelation towards the end, I could literally hear some audience members gasp. This was also satisfying.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still things for us to fix. Frankly, there are always things to fix. One of the reasons I’m not crazy about watching my old plays is that I can’t help but notice the moments that could still be better. For instance, we haven’t got the ending of our play quite right yet. It currently feels more vague, less smart, than the rest of the show.
So this morning, I wrote a new ending. And Leigh has some new staging ideas. This is a day off for the actors. Tuesday, we’ll go back into rehearsal, and incorporate these and other changes into the show for our next preview, on Wednesday night. Maybe our new ideas will work, maybe they won’t and we’ll have to go back to the drawing board. In any case, I’m sure we’ll make more changes for Thursday. And so on. Big Broadway musicals can preview for three weeks or more. You’ve probably read about the SPIDER-MAN musical, which finally opened this month after a record-shattering 181 preview performances.
We have one week of previews – 9 performances — before our opening night on June 27. We’ll use every minute we can to try and make our show the best it can be.