Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Build a New Route to Broadway if They'll Have You

Last night Chinglish opened, finally and officially, with much fanfare and even a few covert celebrity sightings at the theater. Before the show, the cast and crew feasted on a 35-pound roasted pig, and over the weekend, participated in a ritualistic parade for good luck around the theater and backstage. You can read all about it in playwright David Henry Hwang’s blogs at You Offend Me You Offend My Family and Broadway’s Best Shows.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t yet, buy tickets to this show. Seriously. It’s amazing. Also, get this: Chinglish is now officially Broadway-bound! Recognize.

Photo: Johnny Wu, Angela Lin, Christine Lin, James Waterston, and Jennifer Lim in Chinglish. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Look Inside the Minister’s Cabinet

By Joanna C. Lee, Chinglish Cultural Advisor

Chinglish officially opens tonight in the Albert. If you haven’t secured your tickets yet, buy them soon! This is not a show to be missed. Meanwhile, today’s post, from Chinglish Cultural Advisor Joanna C. Lee, concludes our series on the extensive research that went into the development of this new play with a look at the extraordinary attention to detail displayed on stage.

The wealth of Chinese visual details piled on the set of Chinglish did not go unnoticed at last week’s post-show talk back discussions. Several audience members—including one woman from Guiyang, the town where the play is set—have commented on everything from the accuracy of the restaurant settings to the quality of the hotel and apartment furnishings.

Shopping for Chinglish props has logged hundreds of thousands of air miles, from Guizhou Province to Chicago’s Chinatown, with many auspicious detours along the way. Every corner of every setting is based on recreating the extensive location photography taken by director Leigh Silverman during our trip to China last year.

Rather than trying to give a wide-ranging overview, let’s just look at one typical corner: the living room cabinet of Cai Guoliang, Minister of Culture for Guiyang City, an old-school Communist Party official who happens to be well-versed in the Chinese traditional arts. Here’s a brief look inside the Minister’s cabinet (a piece of lacquered bamboo purchased from a Chicago importer, shown below) with a brief note about the source of the contents.

1. Black lacquer mini-screen featuring photographs of four contemporary Chinese opera stars (a gift item from the Beijing-based China Northern Kunqu Opera Theater).

2. Collectable Yixing teapots, made from red clay (purchased in Chicago’s Chinatown).

3. Chinese dolls representing the traditional attire of ethnic minorities in Guizhou Province (sourced and flown into Chicago from Guiyang by the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop; shown above).

4. Books worthy of a cultured official (above). The shelves now contain complete volumes of Confucius’s Analects, Laozi’s Book of Tao, works by Mencius and Mozi, a Song Dynasty treatise entitled On Being an Official, literary studies of Tang- and Song-Dynasty poetry, illustrated books on traditional porcelains and ancient coins and urns, and the two-volume Seventy-Year History of the Chinese Communist Revolution (all purchased at a bookstore in Chicago’s Chinatown).

5. Behind the doors is a selection of Chinese and Western liquor, including (empty) bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label, lychee liqueur and Shaoxing wine, a traditional beverage fermented from rice.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Scene and Heard

Our favorite bilingual comedy, Chinglish, is playing NOW in the Albert Theatre. If you haven't snagged tickets yet (and you should—they're going fast) you can purchase them here. Meanwhile, here are this week's arts links for your web-browsing enjoyment:

Ballet and beer, together at last. (The New York Times)

A Renaissance gem uncovered in Britain. (The Guardian)

Speaking of Britain, their largest theater has a plan to reduce fidgeting during performances. (The Stage)

And Her Majesty's composer wants to drop an f-bomb on ill-mannered concert goers. (The Telegraph)

In DC, Trey McIntyre is bringing sexy back to ballet. (The Washington Post)

Sky divers + an indoor wind tunnel = indoor skydiving ballet in Prague. (The Telegraph)

Is your facebook update or tweet a form of art? (ARTnews)

Old potter, new potter, famous potter, be-speckled potter, Pottermore. (The Washington Post)

Photo of Jennifer Lim and James Waterston by Eric Y. Exit.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cultural Minister Boone

By Nazihah Adil, Development Intern

Today we’re shifting our focus from the intricacies of Chinese business and political customs to local administrative news—specifically, Mayor Emanuel’s appointment of Michelle T. Boone to an exciting new position in the arts. Meanwhile, for your daily fix of all things Chinglish, check out our video library for rehearsal and production videos; explore Chinglish Cultural Advisor Ken Smith’s series on the extensive research process that went into the development of this extraordinary new work; and read playwright David Henry Hwang’s journals at You Offend Me You Offend My Family and Broadway’s Best Shows. Chinglish is showing now through July 24 in the Albert; go here for tickets.

The Chicago arts and culture scene has witnessed dramatic changes in the past year, from a push to privatize the city’s largest free music festivals to the merger of the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. In his last months in office, Mayor Richard M. Daley led a major restructuring of the city’s cultural initiatives in an attempt to close a $655 million budget gap. Successor Rahm Emanuel has made his opinion on the importance of the arts and culture to the city’s economic climate clear with his recent appointment of arts crusader Michelle T. Boone to the position of commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).

Above: Goodman Resident Director Chuck Smith, Michelle T. Boone, and Goodman Resident Artistic Associate Henry Godinez. Photo by Abby McKenna.

The appointment hints at the beginnings of a new plan to assess the city’s cultural resources and collaborate with artists and neighborhood groups to determine its collective needs and priorities. This information will be used to create new strategies for artistic and cultural growth in the city and foster economic growth. So who is this new civic leader? Boone began her career in the arts as director of Gallery 37, a community job training program for artistically inclined city youth. She went on to serve as senior program officer for culture at The Joyce Foundation, overseeing the distribution of nearly $2 million in grants to community arts organizations across the Midwest. Boone also serves on the boards of Arts Alliance Illinois, Grantmakers in the Arts, and other local arts organizations.

While working at The Joyce Foundation and Gallery 37, Boone developed “a strong sense of how the Department of Cultural Affairs could be a conduit between community arts organizations and the city’s neighborhoods.” In a recent address before the City Council Committee on Cultural Affairs, Special Events, and Recreation, Boone emphasized the importance of the department “as a resource to elevate community-based, neighborhood arts organizations,” and as a link between artists and neighborhood groups and resources beyond just the DCASE.

Business Cards: A Question of Character(s)

By Ken Smith, Chinglish Cultural Advisor

Today Chinglish Cultural Advisor Ken Smith continues his series on the extensive research process that went into the development of this awesome new play. You can read about his role in this process here, and get a recap of one of his research trips to Guiyang here. Meanwhile, for a preview of this fascinating new play in action, check out our video library for production and rehearsal films. Or, better yet, come see the show in all its glory! It is showing now through July 24.

How authentic is Chinglish? We’re under threat of death not to spoil any surprises. Also, in the interest of a leaner, tighter script, much of the play’s cultural “authenticity”—like having a clueless American businessman not knowing that he should fight over the check—has wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor. But we can say that by the time previews started last weekend, each of the cast members were carrying actual business cards with their character names in Chinese (below).

This may be just a small example, but it shows the level of detail the Goodman’s props department has put into recreating a little slice of China. It’s also a touch that should resonate for anyone who’s ever done business across the Pacific, where status-conscious Asians always need a name card to figure out exactly who they’re dealing with.

The prop cards were modeled on actual name cards from government officials and western businessmen we met in Guizhou, and most of the Chinese cast members had some input in making their own cards. Some actors playing multiple characters in Chinglish also carry multiple cards. (One cast member even wondered half-seriously if his card would impress women.) We didn’t expect, though, that such a tiny production detail would illustrate the complexities of translation in the play. Or that it would end up modifying the script itself.

Having written Chinglish in, well, English, David Henry Hwang used Romanized names for his characters. Only when we began designing the business cards did we realize that Vice Minister Xu Yan’s given name could mean either “dazzlingly beautiful” (艳) or “swallow” (燕), as in the bird, depending on the Chinese character and tonal pronunciation of “Yan.” But combined with the family name Xu, it could mean “fulfill a verbal promise” (许言). Prosecutor Li had the opposite problem, since she had only a family name—and a business card with only a single character (李).

For the record—at least for now—actress Jennifer Lim now plays “Fulfill a Verbal Promise,” Prosecutor Li’s given name is now “Danfei” (丹扉), the actual Chinese name of actress Angela Lin, and Larry Zhang—in a walk-on role as a driver—has no lines but still carries a business card (above) with his real Chinese name, “Zhang Lei” (张磊).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chinglish: A Journey to its Guizhou Roots

By Ken Smith, Chinglish Cultural Advisor

On Saturday night Chinglish had the first of its nine previews that precede the official opening next Monday night. You can read all about the preview process from playwright David Henry Hwang himself in his Chinglish journals at You Offend Me You Offend My Family, and Broadway’s Best Shows. For now, Chinglish Cultural Advisor Ken Smith is back with part two in his series on the extensive research that went into the development of this play.

Chinglish had already gone through a couple of drafts when my wife Joanna and I started getting the emails. Playwright David Henry Hwang initially told us that, in order to feel the frustrations of the play’s central character, director Leigh Silverman actually wanted to land in provincial China after a 20-hour flight, and sit in business meetings without being able to understand a single word. David, for his part, wanted to see if his recollections of our trip in 2005 that initially inspired the play were still relevant in 2010, since five years in China is like two decades in the rest of the world.

Once the play’s producers decided to join us, the journey took on much greater focus—as well as a bigger hotel bill. We started in Shanghai in July 2010, coinciding with the World Expo—a glimpse of China at its most developed—before traveling across the country to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, China’s poorest province and a latecomer to its booming economy.

[Above: Guiyang, the setting of Chinglish, is an economically poor city of about four million people now in the midst of an aggressive construction boom, with all the urban disruption that goes with it. Here's Guiyang on a good day, surrounded by the mountains in the background. Photo by John A. Wells.]

[Above: And this is Guiyang on a bad day, with the air quality of a construction zone.]

[Left: The Guiyang Grand Theatre, the center of conflict in Chinglish, is a mark of the city's newfound prosperity.]

Why Guiyang? It’s a long story, but for now let’s say that the ambitions of Guizhou (a province rather comparable to West Virginia) far outstrip its local talent. Back in 2002, Joanna and I found ourselves—without formal anthropological training or record company experience—co-music directors of a series of recordings devoted to Chinese minority music. Lee Wai Kit, the Hong Kong publisher and businessman who brought us into the project—without any real museum experience—soon found himself running an eco-museum that has since won international awards for cultural preservation. Our Guizhou guanxi was good.

Following the theme of the play, our Chinglish tour had two objectives: meet with American businessmen in China, and interact with local officials. The first was easy; Guiyang may be a city of four million people but socially it’s still a small town, especially where the American expat network is concerned. Just head to the local coffee shop, where businessman Chris DeLong (from Indiana) found opportunities in a land where even Starbucks hasn’t ventured.

Meeting officials was a bit more strategic. Unlike Shanghai or Beijing, where locals are rather jaded by westerners, Guiyang still takes an innocent delight in getting noticed by people from abroad. They’ve heard much about Shanghai’s recent love affair with Broadway, but have little experience with it themselves.

[Right: Officials, media and cultural workers in Guiyang come out to hear playwright David Henry Hwang compare Broadway to non-profit theater in his talk, "The Artist in the Age of Commerce."]

Being affiliated with prominent cultural organizations, we were able through Wai Kit to set up a public talk with “distinguished Broadway playwright David Henry Hwang”—who, not incidentally, had put Guizhou on the theatrical map in his previous play Yellow Face. Because of good relations with the media, we traveled around town with an “embedded press corps” of 20 writers and photographers shadowing our every move. Soon the officials came out to meet us.

After our trip, the rewrites were fast and furious. Not that
Chinglish changed so much in it storyline or its dramatic sweep, but subsequent drafts were filled with finely etched details. David’s characters seemed more firmly rooted in the Guizhou soil, and if Leigh didn’t know before what it was like to sit in chaotic business meetings in China, she certainly does now.

[Left: The Chinglish team meets for lunch with local artists, shadowed by the local press corps (standing). ]

[Top photo of Guiyang by John A. Wells. All other photos courtesy of the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop.]

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Seeds of the Wee-Pie

By Lisa Dillman

Playwright Lisa Dillman is a member of the Goodman’s Playwrights Unit—a group of four local writers who have met monthly for the last year to workshop their new plays in progress. As the culmination of that program, her play American Wee-Pie will be featured in a staged reading this Monday, June 20 at 7pm in the Owen Theatre. Tickets are FREE, but rumor is that the reading is filling up fast, so reserve your seats here, or call the box office at 312.443.3800.

Playwrights are often asked to describe where a new work came from, its so-called seed idea. I’ve been asked this recently with regard to American Wee-Pie, the piece I am developing this season as part of the Goodman’s inaugural Playwrights Unit.

The answer is complicated. For me, there is almost never a single seed idea. Instead, a play begins to grow when several disparate ideas bump into each other and begin a conversation inside my head. Eventually, out of that linkage, a narrative starts to take shape.

With American Wee-Pie the bumping seed ideas went something like this:

Idea #1: In late 2009, as the economy was flailing, two of my friends were downsized out of their longtime careers. In telling me their stories, they both used the same expression; they said they needed to figure out their “second act.” It occurred to me that in this era of whole career categories disappearing never to return, a person’s “second act” might be almost anything. Poised in a kind of career intermission, one could view the second act as either terrifying or freeing. Or both.

Idea #2: Around that same time, I noticed that, despite the struggling economy, the number of high-end cupcake shops in Chicago seemed to be on the rise. The cupcake was thriving in hard times. I began to “research” this informally, sampling cupcakes all over the city. Though they varied a bit in style and presentation from place to place, all were pricey. In an online conversation with a friend, I mentioned my new interest in unaffordable small cakes, and she responded with some heated anti-cupcake rhetoric, assuring me that the cupcake bubble was unsustainable and about to burst.

Idea #3: The third part of the Wee-Pie seed equation was a moment that has actually been living in me for many years. Just before I left home to go away to college, I took an Amtrak trip from Chicago to Los Angeles to visit friends and relatives. I’d had some problematic teenage years leading up to this departure, and I was desperate to put the uglier bits of my past behind me and find out who I might yet become in the world up ahead. I got to Chicago very late and had to race to Union Station to make my train. I arrived with only minutes to spare; a loudspeaker was blaring that my train was in final boarding. I sprinted through the station and onto the platform. I noticed a balding middle-aged man in a rumpled gray suit running up ahead of me, head down, puffing. When he had nearly reached the boarding car he suddenly staggered to a stop and spun around toward me. His eyes brushed over mine as he went down to his knees and then fell straight over onto the concrete. A conductor rushed over and shooed people back. Paramedics came within minutes. The conductor shoved me onto my train, and I watched out the window as the EMTs tried—and failed—to revive the man in the gray suit. And then my train pulled out.

That man’s face—his eyes passing over mine for just an instant—has stayed with me. Bearing accidental witness to such an intimate part of a stranger’s life story—its end—seemed to carry with it a sort of cosmic responsibility. I have thought of that moment repeatedly, always at those times when something important in my life is either beginning or ending. Or both.

So. These three seeds converged in my mind and began a conversation that eventually evolved into American Wee-Pie—a comedy about a career second act, set in a cupcake bakery, and focused on a character who, haunted by two recent deaths, challenges himself to turn an ending into a beginning.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chinglish Offstage: The Role of a Cultural Advisor

By Ken Smith, Chinglish Cultural Advisor

My wife Joanna Lee and I used to be China consultants, but after the thrashing the consultants receive in Chinglish we’ve now changed our title to “advisors.” The job description, though, is pretty much the same: resident authenticity police for a bilingual, cross-cultural play about an American businessman in China. How does one become a China “advisor”? As David Henry Hwang’s businessman says early in the play, every story is different, each deal giving birth to its own unique journey. From there (he soon finds out), those journeys are generally steered by guanxi, the distinctly Chinese spin on the idea of connections and relationships.

Joanna’s and my journey started nearly 10 years ago, when we began meeting Western artists who wanted to come to China and Chinese artists wanting to come to the West. Thanks to our own guanxi—I was a journalist with some diversions in book publishing and public relations; Joanna was an academic with a broad range of arts administrative experience—we could always find someone to help those artists with whatever they happened to need.

David Henry Hwang’s “Guizhou period,” as he sometimes calls it, began when he heard some village music that Joanna and I had recorded from that province back in 2003. The Dong people, one of the minority populations in that corner of the country, became a dramatic coda in his play Yellow Face (currently running at Chicago’s Silk Road Theatre Project directed by the Goodman’s Associate Producer Steve Scott). Soon we were traveling to China together, introducing David to people from different fields, from expatriate businessmen to the head of the Shanghai Opera House, who engaged in a friendly debate about Puccini. (Zhang Guoyong, for the record, thinks Madama Butterfly is an astute portrayal of Asian values; David, as we learned from M. Butterfly, feels rather differently. The two agreed to disagree, and a few choice lines eventually worked their way into Yellow Face.)

The Shanghai parties were indistinguishable from a night out in London or Berlin, with David and Joanna being practically the only Chinese people. Roomfuls of colorful characters were on the make, hustling to close a deal and get back home. “You know,” David said at the time, “there’s a David Mamet play here about American businessmen in China.”

As we all know by now, there was actually a David Henry Hwang play waiting to be written. Last summer, in-between Chinglish workshops in New York, David traveled again to China, this time with director Leigh Silverman and the play’s producers, who were astonished to find that much of the play’s exaggerated humor turned out to be based in vérité.

Coming soon: traveling with the Chinglish team in China.

Chinglish Roundup

Today is the first of five days of tech rehearsal for the cast and crew of Chinglish. The set has gone up in the Albert, the costumes are getting their last few stitches, and the script has been put on a strict “diet,” in the words of playwright David Henry Hwang. If you haven’t been following his weekly web log at You Offend Me You Offend My Family, or his daily journal at Broadway's Best Shows, we highly recommend giving them a read (as well as checking out our Chinglish video library) for a fascinating look into the making-of this new play.

Performances of Chinglish begin this Saturday! Go here for tickets.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Scene and Heard

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that we’ve still got one long week ahead of us before David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish premieres in the Albert. (June 18. Be there.) Luckily, this Monday at the Goodman we’re planning a staged reading in the Owen of another new work to hold you over—Rohina Malik’s The Mecca Tales, which was developed as part of our Playwrights Unit program.

The Playwrights Unit is the Goodman’s group of four local playwrights who have been meeting monthly over the course of a year to workshop their new plays in progress. Monday’s reading represents the culmination of Ms. Malik’s work on her play The Mecca Tales over the past year. The following Monday, June 20, we’ll stage a reading of another Playwrights Unit writer’s work, when Lisa Dillman’s American Wee-Pie takes to the Owen stage. Tickets to both events are FREE, but reservations are required (and the buzz is they're filling up fast), so if you’re hoping to snag a seat give the box office a call at 312.443.3800, or visit this page.

In the meantime, check out this week’s links, harvested fresh for your reading enjoyment:

While we continue to explore the culture and customs of contemporary China, The New York Times takes in the classical culture of China's neighbors to the North. (We’re keeping our fingers crossed for a US tour of Chinggis Khaan.)

What light is that through yonder multiplex breaks? The Los Angeles Times finds out.

And back on the East Coast, a critic takes note of one fleeting night when old-school underground theater came to life in Brooklyn. (The New York Times)

Speaking of coming to life, The Atlantic declares Google’s Les Paul-inspired doodle the search engine’s coolest doodle to date. (We’re still partial to the Martha Graham tidbit from this past April.)

And Denver’s National Theatre Conservatory meets a sad and untimely end. (The Denver Post)

The Los Angeles Times examines the dark marketing arts behind luring in an audience, one Tony performance at a time.

And in the UK, a theater (theatre?) manifesto hoping to ensure the young squirts have access to live-action culture. (The Stage)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Notes from the Big Room

The cast and creative team of Chinglish are in their final week in the Healy, the Goodman’s expansive rehearsal space recently dubbed the “Big Room” by playwright David Henry Hwang. This week in his journal at You Offend Me You Offend My Family, he talks Chinglish rewrites, the team of people it takes to translate a single word, and steps forward. (Warning: spoiler alert!)Also, for a sample of those Chinese feasts Johnny Wu spoke so highly of, check out his daily blog at Broadway's Best Shows.

Photo of Jennifer Lim and James Waterston in rehearsal for Chinglish by Eric Y. Exit.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Rediscovery Through Language

By Johnny Wu, Bing and Judge Xu Geming in Chinglish.

During a viewing of an Olympics in my youth, my mother offered up to her guests a thought that lived somewhere between levity and heartbreak. "This little one will only root for America," she said in Mandarin. The guests shared a knowing laugh.

Now that I’m fully immersed in Tony Award-winning David Henry Hwang's latest play, Chinglish, here at the Goodman, I'm enjoying the feeling that I might finally be pleasing my mother. Outside of our lead and anchor, James Waterston, everyone else in the cast speaks Mandarin including UK native Stephen Pucci, whose command over the world's toughest language remains charmingly impressive in the rehearsal room. The cast spends ample time together; saying that we all get along would be an understatement. We frequent Chicago's Chinatown, lug home tons of groceries, gather in an apartment and cook up feasts to satiate emperors. I employ cooking skills that were (at the time) unwillingly learned from my mother. We laugh, we joke, we drink, we eat, we get lost in impassioned discourse, we watch ball games, we go out, we stay in—and through it all, we speak Mandarin.

Sure, I spent my first eight years in Shanghai, but I grew up in the urban paradise of Queens, NYC. My mom grew up in the rural oppression of Cultural Revolution China. When I arrived in this country, I immediately discarded my Chinese identity—I mean, who doesn't enjoy hot showers, and freedom of speech? And over the years, I've been thoroughly convinced that the American way of life is indeed my way, but I've always struggled to connect with my mother.

Well, a few days ago, I called my mom to tell her the French Open women's championship match was on NBC. She's not a tennis fan. But she is a China fan. And when Li Na became the sport's first-ever Chinese winner of a Grand Slam title, I knew that my mom was enjoying her nation's triumph. And I, too, felt a sense of overwhelming pride. As China continues to fortify its identity as a global leader, joining the ranks of countries like the US, I'm finding more comfort and more urgency alike in representing, as fully as I can, all that it is to be Chinese American.

For me, Chinglish has been a portal through which I'm afforded a better knowledge of myself. But beyond that, it has offered me a group of people that I can easily love. And it is with this love that this exquisite story is told. David's writing is poignant, hilarious, and stunningly truthful. The cast performs with veracity, with mastery and with regards to Leigh Silverman, our director, my only fear in using the word “virtuosic” to describe her abilities would be that the English language might run out of better adjectives to suit her future endeavors.

Chinglish begins performances at the Goodman on June 18th, closing on July 24th. Join us for a story that's set halfway around the world and yet lives so close to us—a story about our endless need to communicate beyond all else.

Top (left to right):
Chinglish cast members Brian Nishii, James Waterston, Johnny Wu, Angela Lin, Stephen Pucci, and Jennifer Lim. Middle: Johnny Wu, Jennifer Lim, Chinglish translator Candace Chong, and Stephen Pucci. Bottom: Chinglish translator Candace Chong and cast member Larry Zhang.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Glimpse of Chinglish

Rehearsals for Chinglish—David Henry Hwang’s funny, sexy, clever, timely, bilingual new play—are in full swing in the Healy Rehearsal Room. Only two and a half more weeks until it takes to the Albert stage! To document the process of developing this extraordinary work, the Tony-winning playwright has been prolifically blogging about the rehearsal process. Read his daily updates at Broadway’s Best Shows, or get an in-depth look into his process as a playwright in his weekly posts at You Offend Me You Offend My Family.

Chinglish begins previews on Saturday, June 18. Check out our behind-the-scenes rehearsal and meet and greet videos to hold you over until then.

Above: Chinglish Director Leigh Silverman and Playwright David Henry Hwang in rehearsal. Photo by Eric Y. Exit.