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DHH

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 throughout the rehearsal process to give our readers a glimpse into how a major theatrical production comes to life.

We’ve completed our second week of rehearsals, and things still seem to be going remarkably well. Leigh (the show’s director) keeps the rehearsal room humming with her energy, insights, and sense of humor. Our actors are digging into the script, making discoveries, and deepening their characterizations. Surprisingly, they’re all easy to work with – not a prima donna in the bunch.

As the playwright, my job in rehearsals is to provide insight into the play when appropriate, but, most importantly, to continue rewriting and fine-tuning the script. Unlike some writers, I don’t like to follow along in the text as the actors run scenes. I believe playwriting is sort of like writing music, where the notes on the staff are less important than how they sound in the air. Therefore, a part of me couldn’t care less about the words on the page. Because we’re not publishing a book, here, we’re putting on a show, and the audience isn’t going to be looking at my script, they’re going to be watching and listening to what’s happening onstage.

So I do the same: watch the actors, and listen to the scenes. I’m constantly on the lookout for stuff that feels false, forced, overwritten, cheesy – moments which neither illuminate character nor move the plot forward. When that happens, I get a bad feeling — I grow bored, or slightly nauseous.

For instance, I had written a moment towards the end of the show when the two lovers are breaking up, and the guy says to the girl, “But why? We can still love each other, can’t we?” Hearing that line, my stomach was, like, yuck, gag, I am going to throw up, what is this, Austin Powers?! So I changed it to, “But why? We can still …?” The guy doesn’t finish his sentence, because he’s not quite sure himself what wants or can expect from her.

When long sections of a play I’ve written go off the tracks, I get a chill up my spine or break out in a cold sweat – literally. Fortunately, I haven’t felt anything like that so far in these rehearsals. The most major change I made this week was to cut a monologue (which may find its way back in, I’m still not sure). Otherwise, I’ve just been tweaking individual moments, in hopes of making them play better and feel more truthful.

Leigh got the play “up on its feet” this week. We moved from sitting around the table to running the scenes on a rough approximation of the set. The actors started getting their characters into their bodies and finding their “blocking,” how and why they move around the stage.

From left to right, here are actors Stephen Pucci, James Waterson, Angela Lin, Larry Zhang, and Jennifer Lim. Stephen is playing a character named Peter Timms, a white Australian who’s been living in China almost twenty years and speaks excellent Mandarin. Maybe a third of his lines are in Chinese, so in case you were wondering, trying to find a white actor who can pass for 40-something and speaks good Mandarin is really hard! We auditioned maybe 75 actors on four continents before finding Stephen, who is based in London. When he got the part, he said he was less worried about learning the Chinese lines than working up his Australian accent (we have a dialect coach helping him with that, and he’s coming along just fine).

And here’s my side of the room, from left to right: Leigh, her assistant Johnson, me, my assistant Tony, literary intern Liz, and my translation partner, Candace.

By the end of this second week, Leigh had staged all of Act One — worked through the scenes with the actors on their feet, helping them understand action and character, and completing the blocking. She staggered rehearsals for the actors: if you weren’t in a particular scene, you didn’t have to be in the room while we were working on it. So, when we got to the end of the week and she began running the entire act in order, all the actors got to see each other’s work for the first time, which was fun and exciting. The staging will no doubt change, just as the script does, but it’s a great first draft. Our show is beginning to take shape.

Afterwards, a bunch of us went to see Offender Justin’s FAST FIVE, and all had a fantastic time! The perfect way to top off a week of hard work and satisfying discoveries. Now, on to Act Two!

The world premiere of CHINGLISH, by the way, is one of three productions of my plays this summer at three different Chicago theatres. YELLOW FACE, at Silk Road Theatre Project, originally opened in 2007 at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum & New York’s Public Theater (also directed by Leigh). FAMILY DEVOTIONS, at Halcyon Theatre, was first seen at the Public Theater in 1981, when I was 24 years old, and to my knowledge hasn’t been produced anywhere since 1991!

Read DDH’s Week 1 blog here.

7 Comments

  1. I have a feeling it’s only going to get easier to find white actors who can speak Mandarin. I work next to the East Asian Languages Department at USC, and I always catch white people having conversations in Mandarin with their TAs. Puts me to shame a little…