By Tanya Palmer, Director of New Play Development
The plays that I respond to the most are plays that ask a lot of us. They challenge designers and directors by creating complex, imaginative worlds that demand brilliant creative solutions to realize them onstage. They demand a lot of actors because the characters who inhabit them are never simple or predictable in their behavior or their psychology. And they demand a lot of audiences because they ask them to listen closely with their heads and hearts.
Chinglish—David Henry Hwang’s latest work, which will make its debut at the Goodman this June—is definitely a demanding play, not just on all those folks I mentioned, but on its producers too. But boy does it give a lot back. Set in a smallish city in contemporary western China, the play tells the story of an American businessman who travels there in hopes of taking advantage of China’s “economic miracle,” but soon discovers that he truly doesn’t understand what’s happening around him. Written in both English and Mandarin, the play addresses the issue of translation and how difficult it is for people from two different cultures to communicate. Chinglish is a demanding play to work on because it asks a bunch of people from different cultural backgrounds to get together in a room. It asks Americans who generally, as the play tells us “don’t speak a single f***ing foreign language,” to wrap their head around Mandarin, and it takes us into a country and a culture that many of us think we know something about, but most of us really don’t. But it does it with such incredible humor, skill, and intelligence that it feels almost effortless.
A few weeks ago, a group of the collaborators working on the play—who ranged from the usual collection of actors, directors, and designers, to a Hong Kong-based playwright and translator who is working closely with David Henry Hwang on the Mandarin translations in the play, to a cultural ambassador who had guided Hwang and a group of New York producers through the ins and outs of Chinese bureaucracies—gathered to workshop the play at the Lark Play Development Center in New York City.
Workshopping a play is something we do all the time. It usually involves casting a group of actors—some of whom may go on to perform in the final production, some of whom may not—gathering them around a table, and reading the play. Then we discuss the script as a group. Perhaps the writer will go away and make some changes—and then ultimately a small audience of interested parties is invited to come and hear the play read out loud. This was what happened this time around as well, but with a lot of added hurdles in the way.
First off, the casting. David has written a play that is essentially half in Mandarin (though don’t worry—there are subtitles, so all of us non-Mandarin speakers can follow along). It can be tricky enough to find Asian actors who speak Mandarin, but one of the characters is an Australian-born English teacher named Peter who speaks fluent Mandarin. Certainly there are westerners out there who can speak fluent Mandarin – maybe even a few Australians. But can they act? Miraculously, the crack casting teams from the Goodman and The Public Theater in New York tracked down a wonderful young actor named Benjamin Thys. Originally from Belgium, Benjamin had worked and studied in China, and happened to be in New York pursuing an MFA in acting at New York’s New School. He was offered an opportunity to take part in the workshop, and the play was cast.
Then, the subtitles. Sean, a videographer and fluent Mandarin speaker, has been part of the creative team from early on, and has been invaluable in putting together the subtitles that serve not only a useful function (we get to understand what the actors are saying when they speak Mandarin) but also a critical thematic and comic function—this is, after all. a play about translation, and how slippery language can be. There’s what people mean to say—and then there’s what the translators translate. Rarely are they the same.
And then, there’s coming up with the best way of translating David’s language from English to Mandarin—that’s where translator Candace Chong and China consultants Joanna and Ken Lee came into the mix. They have helped not only in shaping the language of the piece, but also in bringing an authenticity to the world of the play. Joanna and Ken arranged a trip for the playwright, director and producers to western China, where the play is set, and there they met Chinese bureaucrats and were guided through the world that the play conjures. Because the play is all about miscommunication—cultural, linguistic, and everything in between—a thorough understanding of what we’re misunderstanding about the Chinese language and culture is critical for David to craft his play. Candace, Joanna and Ken’s knowledge and understanding have been an integral part of this play coming to life.
They say it takes a village to raise a child—this is no less true of a play, particularly a play as ambitious as Chinglish. After this, rehearsing and staging the play should seem like a piece of cake.