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.
This is a really Big Room. I don’t mean the literal size of the room (though, actually, it does happen to be one of the larger rehearsal halls I’ve worked in). I’m talking about the number of people it takes to make this show happen. On Broadway musicals, you expect a large room. The principal creative team on a musical, besides the playwright (which musicals call the “bookwriter”), includes the director, composer, lyricist, choreographer, musical director, etc. – all of whom generally come with their own assistants and staff. That’s a lot of people.
On a play, by contrast, there are usually only two principal creatives: the playwright and director. The storytelling of CHINGLISH, however, requires a larger cast of backstage characters. Let’s say I want to rewrite a line of dialogue. I do it in English (cuz that’s all I know). If that line needs to be spoken in Chinese, it goes to Candace for translation (which sometimes involves input from Joanna, one of our two Cultural Advisors). Candace then uses an online program to convert the characters into pinyin, a Chinese system of transliterating Mandarin into the Western alphabet, which some of our actors read more easily than ideographs. The English, Chinese, and pinyin all go to Tony, my assistant, for formatting, then finally to Lou, our new literary intern, to print out pages for distribution. Also, Shawn, our projections operator, needs to redo the English supertitles.
So it takes a lot of people to make a change. I’m really enjoying discussions among the actors, Candace, and Joanna, about how to make Chinese dialogue reflect the spirit of the English original. For instance, I wrote a line: “It’s a load of crap!” Translated literally into Chinese, that expression is nonsensical. Turns out, the equivalent Mandarin phrase is, “It’s a dog fart!” Not only do these debates help me improve my own pathetic Chinese, it’s fun that they play out one of the play’s themes: how different cultures misunderstand each other.
Here’s some video from our Big Room:
Leigh finished staging Act Two this week. I spent a few days back home in Brooklyn for my daughter’s elementary school graduation and other personal business. The way I see it, that’s one of the advantages of being the writer instead of the director: you don’t always have to be at rehearsals. (Even when you are, you don’t have to be totally focused on the work at all times, so you can go on Facebook and stuff.) I actually think it’s helpful to spend some time away from the production, so I can come back to it with fresh eyes.
By Saturday, I had returned to Chicago for our first run-through of the entire play. This is, of course, an exciting moment. We’re finally seeing a draft of how the show is going to look on its feet, and getting a sense of its flow, how the story moves. Does it unfold smoothly and feel satisfying, or does it stop, drag, and get muddled? We had a few extra people in the room, including Bob Falls, the Artistic Director of the Goodman Theatre.
Afterwards, Leigh and I went to Bob’s office with Tanya, the production’s dramaturg, or script advisor. Bob is incredibly helpful at this point, since he has the freshest eyes of all. Before this run-through, he hadn’t seen any rehearsals. We all agreed that the show played remarkably well for its first run. The story seemed clear in most places. The actors were confident, their characterizations detailed and nuanced. The staging felt crisp and flowed beautifully. This meant we could zero in on particular moments that could be better, instead of trying to brainstorm major changes to the shape of the whole.
For instance, there’s a moment at the top of Act Two when Daniel and Xu, who are carrying on an extramarital affair, have their secret discovered by Peter, the Australian. As originally written, Peter corners Daniel in the lobby of Daniel’s hotel to talk business with him, then Xu emerges from the elevator, and Peter realizes they’re having an affair. Bob asked, “Why does Peter think they’re having an affair just ‘cuz she came out of an elevator?” Hmmm. Good question. We discussed this and other problems.
Sunday morning, I got up early and took a stab at some rewrites. I redid the elevator scene: it now starts with Peter alone in the hotel lobby on his cellphone. Daniel hasn’t been taking his calls, so he’s trying to leave a message, when Daniel and Xu step out of the elevator together, and Peter concludes they’re having an affair. This seemed like clearer storytelling. Added bonus: it cut maybe two minutes out of the show (when it comes to plays, shorter is almost always better).
I finished my rewrites by 8:30 am, and emailed them to the team. Leigh approved the changes, the various Big Room participants got to work, and rehearsal started at 10:00 am. The actors got new pages, and Leigh staged all the changes. The elevator moment, I’m happy to report, felt way more awkward in this new version, and the other rewrites also seemed to solve problems we’d identified from the run-through. We are inevitably going to find new problems, but this was a good day’s work.
Chicago’s weather is beautiful at last — clear and spring-like — so a bunch of us gathered outdoors (captured courtesy of Larry) to celebrate a very productive week. We have one more week to go in the rehearsal hall. Our Big Room has taken another Big Step forward.