Jim's Richard III Blog

What had started as a blog of Richard III rehearsal process at Cal Shakes has now evolved or devolved into a small novella. The author is petrified to change the name for fear it'll disappear, and wouldn't know what to call it anyway. Many stories are included and questions are even answered sometimes!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Peking Opera, part I

There's been a request from curious Hilda (aka Jacqueline) to tell my Chinese Opera tales which rank among my favorite memories; and let me apologize to the Asian community at large right now should anything I relate push any "cultural buttons" -- nothing in these tales is an attempt to mock, they are told with love; this was a time in which I worked with some phenomenal performers, fine, generous people, and became just the tinniest bit more knowledgeable about a country and it's Cultural and Theatrical traditions than before.

Now, most of my acquaintances have heard all my stories by now and their eyes roll Heavenward when I begin a sentence with "Once I was doing a show........" Age and numerous repetitions contribute to my forgetting just to whom I've told them. Now I've new victims. Heh, heh.

So. Once I was doing a show.......

It was for the then Ashland in Portland program that Oregon Shakes had developed in the early '90s and was performed at the beautiful Portland Center Stage Theater. I'd been hired to play a role in M. Butterfly, a play which paralleled the Opera Madam Butterfly, but based on the true story of a French diplomat who went to China and fell in love with a beautiful Chinese woman, whom he later found was a beautiful Chinese man.

They'd hired some very fine performers, among them four performers from mainland China; Louyong Wang, played the Chinese woman, had been in country for awhile, taught at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee and spoke English fluently. A handsome guy you'd never think could look like a woman. You'd be wrong--he was dead sexy.

The others (and I've been pawing through my old programs to make sure I got their names spelled correctly, but I can't find the damn thing. I'm Googling madly away as I write this) spoke English in varying degrees: Man Wong, an irrepressible, elfin-like young man spoke it well enough to be understood but would get lost at times, and Mei Kwei Ding, a taciturn older man not at all; we used eyes and gestures to communicate, or had one of the others interpret. All three had background in Chinese Opera, and Ding's wife I was later to learn, was a Superstar in China.

The first week of rehearsal with an unknown cast is always a bit tentative; you check out just what kind of people you're working with -- their skill levels, their temperaments etc. but you launch into the show itself wholeheartedly; first there's the reading at the table--asking questions, getting background material from the dramaturge, the history of the play, authors thoughts etc. , and then get up and start blocking out the movement patterns.

This is the formative week when we sketch in the play -- it's moments, dynamics, and arcs, both thematic and character--the skeleton of the production, if you will.

And here I lay the bare bones of my story.