Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) has just started 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 throughout the rehearsal process to give our readers a glimpse into how a major theatrical production comes to life. And so it begins…
It’s what we playwrights work and live for. It can lead to great success, or humiliating failure. And the twists and turns it will take, not to mention its final outcome, are completely unpredictable.
I’m talking about the world premiere of a new show. This week, my latest play, CHINGLISH, began rehearsals for its opening on June 27 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. I’ll try to give YOMYOMF readers a glimpse into this process, by posting regular updates through opening night. I’m shooting for one blog a week (on Mondays), but we’ll see. Like I said, it’s all impossible to predict.
A little background on the play itself. CHINGLISH is set in the present, and concerns a non-Chinese American businessman who travels to the Chinese provincial capital of Guiyang, to try and make a deal. I started thinking about business in contemporary China because I’ve been traveling there fairly regularly lately – about once or twice a year over the past five or six years. Broadway-style theatre has become quite popular in China, particularly in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese government has made it something of a national priority to create a homegrown musical which will end up on Broadway. Which is both bizarre and sort of cool. I happen to be the only even nominally-Chinese person who’s ever written a Broadway show, so I started getting a lot of invitations to go over and talk about potential projects. Unsurprisingly, none of the big schemes proposed has ever materialized. But it’s been a great opportunity for me to learn about China today, arguably the most exciting place in the world. (And I would argue that Shanghai today is the world’s best party city.)
The more I thought about exploring the U.S.-China relationship, the more I started focusing on language. Because, really, what’s the thing that’s most in your face when you go to a country where you can’t speak the native tongue? Yet, films and plays I’ve seen always sidestep that issue. They establish some lame convention, like the non-American guy speaking English with a foreign accent. I wanted to give the Chinese in this play the dignity of their own language. So I decided to write a bilingual play, where the characters who would be speaking Mandarin, do. Having worked in opera, I’ve gotten used to seeing my words projected in surtitles. I figured we could project the English translations so non-Chinese speakers can understand what’s going on.
There was only one problem with me writing a bilingual play. I’m not, er, actually bilingual. I mean, I took two years of Mandarin in college, and hired tutors and stuff, but my Chinese totally sucks. Still, I’ve also gotten used to having my plays and musicals translated into foreign languages. So I asked a great Hong Kong-based playwright, Candace Mui Ngam Chong, if she would partner with me to provide the Mandarin translations. Happily, she agreed, and the first draft of CHINGLISH was completed in January 2010.
Sixteen months later, we started rehearsals in Chicago. The first day is always filled with excitement and promise. Which sometimes degenerates with alarming speed into bickering, disappointment, and chaos. Hopefully, that won’t happen this time.
We began with the “Meet and Greet:” our cast and creative team meeting the staff at the Goodman Theatre. Everyone stood in a big circle introducing themselves, including Artistic Director Bob Falls, (second from right) with whom I’d previously collaborated on Disney’s musical AIDA. To his right is Oskar Eustis, my friend and collaborator of almost twenty years, and currently Artistic Director of New York’s Public Theatre, which is coproducing CHINGLISH.
From left to right, here’s actress Angela Lin, me, director Leigh Silverman (who also helmed my last play, YELLOW FACE), and Logan Vaughn & Adam Belcuore, the Goodman’s casting directors. After initial introductions, everyone sat down around a big table, and the cast began to read the script.
At the end of week one, I’m relieved to report that spirits are still high. Leigh is keeping rehearsals productive yet fun. I feel we’ve done a great job casting the show; all the actors are fantastic, and there doesn’t seem to be a weak link among them. As for the script, going into rehearsal inevitably reveals problems you didn’t know were there, but so far, these have been relatively easy to fix.
We’ve made one structural change: flipping the order of the first two scenes in Act Two. This was an idea floated a few weeks ago by one of our producers, Jerry Frankel. At the time, I dismissed his suggestion, but after we heard the play read, Leigh and I started to think it might not be such a bad idea. We tried it as an experiment, and liked the results.
Jerry Frankel, by the way, also races horses. Which is not uncommon among theatre producers, and says a lot about the nature of success or failure on Broadway. Jerry recently purchased a racehorse which he named “Chinglish.” This week, Chinglish (the horse, not the play) won the $100,000 James Murphy Stakes at Pimlico, paying $19.60. It was Chinglish’s second win in his last three starts.
TO BE CONTINUED…