DIRECTING O'NEILL IN CHINA
[O'Neill once visited China, and there is a substantial record of productions of his plays on Chinese stages, as Haiping Liu documented in his paper at the March 1984 O'Neill conference in Boston. So a new Chinese production of an O'Neill work would not ordinarily be headline news. But the October 1984 production of Anna Christie (retitled An Di), directed by George C. White, President of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, is an exception to the rule--partly because of its success as an experiment in international cooperation, and also because of its transplantation of characters and locales from the United States to China. The Newsletter's Winter 1984 issue included a picture of two of the principals (on its cover), a review of the production by Professor Liu (pp. 29-31), and an abstract of Mr. White's report of his adventure in the New York Times (pp. 45-46). Since the Times report was an abridgement and O'Neillians may wish a more detailed account of the venture, the editor is pleased to present below a fuller version. He thanks Mr. White for permitting its printing, and hopes it will inspire other theatre practitioners to comparable initiatives in the future.]
It is impossible to adequately express my feelings toward the experience I had directing Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie in Beijing. Aside from the exotic aspect of the venture itself, the excitement of accepting and meeting a challenge of formidable proportions, it was the window through which I was permitted to view a theatrical world strangely similar yet totally different from our own, a world burgeoning with rejuvenated enthusiasm following the fallow years of the so called "Cultural Revolution." It is a world interested, to be sure, in retaining much of its ancient past, yet anxious to push on into the era of modern drama.
The Beijing production of An Di had its genesis in a visit to China by theater consult-ant Robert Brannigan, my wife Betsy and myself in May of 1980. We had been invited by the Chinese Theater Association to become acquainted with the contemporary Chinese theater scene with the long view of fostering theatrical exchange. I remember being struck by the thematic emphasis of such works as The Rickshaw Boy, which depicted pre-liberation social conditions with the obvious unspoken comparison to those of the period since 1949.
In succeeding summers, with the exception of 1982, the O'Neill Center hosted Chinese delegations, all of which were led by noted playwright and film writer Huang Zongjiang. Huang, as a student in Beijing and later an actor in pre-war Shanghai, had always admired Eugene O'Neill's works, and his war duties as a sailor further strengthened his artistic and spiritual bonds with O'Neill. (This is not as remarkable as it might first appear, as O'Neill's work was well known in China in the 1930s and 40s and had influenced such young Chinese dramatists of that era as Hou Sheu and Ca Yu. O'Neill himself had visited China in 1929, a fact often pointed out to me by the Chinese with much pride.)
In the fall of 1983 I was officially invited by the Chinese Theater Association to direct an O'Neill play of my choice in Beijing the following October.
Based on my experience in 1980 and discussions with Mr. Huang, Anna Christie seemed the logical choice. I felt that the story of an old sailor forced to send his only daughter away, unable to care for her after her mother's death, and her subsequent decline into prostitution would strike a responsive and sympathetic chord in audiences only a generation away from the feudal era in China when daughters were sold to landlords or houses of prostitution as preferable alternatives to starvation.
Further, it occurred to me that were Anna Christie to be done, I would wish to change the venue from New York, Provincetown, and Boston, to Shanghai in the late 1920s or early 1930s. I believed that by setting it thus and making the characters Chinese I would remove any barrier between audiences who might otherwise view this story of Swedish Americans and an Irishman as some sort of exotic depiction of an alien life-style. O'Neill's eloquent ability to portray the relationship of father and child and its accompanying love and guilt, as well as that of a man and a woman, has no national boundaries, and his talent is as universal as the emotions he portrays. In essence, I wanted the drama to do what theater can do best--i.e., show ourselves to ourselves--and I did not feel it served O'Neill's genius to allow Chinese audiences to view Anna Christie as a sociological document of America in the 1920s.
In the fall of 1983 I received the official invitation from Mr. Liu Housheng, director of the Chinese Theater Association, asking me to direct Anna Christie and offering to support an entire American team in Beijing for the production period. The Theater Association would sponsor the production, which would be produced by the Central Academy of Drama at its new theater, the newest in China.
The selection of the American group was an easy one, availabilities permitting. First and foremost was the scenic designer, Ming Cho Lee, born in Shanghai and one of our fore-most scenic artists as well as a master teacher. I felt he was an exciting choice to adapt the setting and add the dimension of instruction to the exchange, an element strongly desired by the Theater Association. Costumes became the next consideration. Patricia Zipprodt's sensitive work over the years, culminating in Sunday in the Park with George, made her the obvious selection. She understood the concept of adapting the play to China, could create a truly realistic "O'Neill look," and illustrate the concept that clothing evolves from and accentuates character. Finally, for lighting designer, I chose Ian Calderone, long a colleague at the O'Neill Center, a Hunter College professor, and a Broadway lighting designer since his teens. All three were able to free their schedules, but I was unable to secure a production stage manager, a loss I was to particularly regret later on. In the spring, to my delight and immense relief, I received assurance of funding from the Asian Cultural Council for this group's transportation and honoraria.
In late May I was able to journey to China via Russia with my son Caleb in order to cast the play and have preliminary talks with the production staff at the Central Academy of Drama. At these meetings I told of my plan for an adaptation of the play to China and mentioned that Huang Zongjiang had agreed to do it. Madam Teng Yan, a noted Chinese director and teacher at the Academy, had arranged the auditions for me in advance. (She had been part of the previous year's delegation to the O'Neill Center and we had discussed the production at that time.)
After the two days of auditions, I decided on Ma Shu Yun for Anna. She had worked in a company in Yonjie County and had appeared in films and on television. She had obviously studied the role and brought to the audition a marvelous sensitivity and grasp of the character.
Old Chris was Bao Guo An, a mature actor who had achieved renown in an acclaimed 1981 performance as Macbeth in Beijing. Younger actors were selected for the other two major roles. Xue Shan, a recent Academy graduate, seemed the best choice for Mat; and a young character actress from the Kantong Province Dance Company, Lou Nai Ming, brought startling insights to the character of Chris's barge companion Marthy. Her abilities were particularly impressive as she movingly portrayed someone far older than herself. I returned home elated by the prospect of working with such a fine group of professionals.
Ming Cho Lee and Pat Zipprodt went to China in early July to meet with the theatrical staff. Upon their return I learned that they had met with much negative reaction to the plan of setting the play in China. The producers and actors, it seems, had their hearts set on presenting an American classic portraying American characters, and on presenting it in the American way. This was corroborated by Huang Zongjiang, who once again led the Chinese delegation to the summer's Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Center. Helpful in stiffening my resolve was another visitor to the Center, Ying Rousheng, who had played Willy Loman for Arthur Miller in Beijing. He said that, though the adaptation of classics was rare in China, there was a precedent: both Gorky's Lower Depths and Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan had been successfully adapted to Chinese settings.
Ultimately, though not without trepidation, we resolved to pursue the adaptation course and scheduled the first rehearsal in Beijing for the first Monday in September.
The first day's work consisted of a general meeting with Theater Association and Academy officials, the chief technical personnel and the cast. I had brought with me a model of the sets and the costume renderings and was able to unveil them before a pleasantly surprised audience. Indeed, the designs received applause. The President of the Academy, Mr Xu Xiaozhong, made a brief speech pledging the full support and cooperation of all. Clearly included was a veiled but timely edict to cease further arguing about the Chinese adaptation and an exhortation to unite behind the effort to bring off a successful production. Huang Zongjiang now explained his adaptation. Virtually the entire play was translated word for word; only names, places, and Chris's song had been changed to fit a Chinese setting. Anna Christie now became An Di, a common south China girl's name. She had been sent to Harbin, rather than St. Paul, Minnesota, when her mother died. Her father was now a Fujian sailor and her Irish suitor a Catholic convert from Canton. The first act was moved from a "saloon near South Street, New York City" to a wine shop on the Shanghai waterfront, and the subsequent three acts took place on and in the cabin of a Huangpu River barge. Huang also explained that, although some of the ways of expressing emotions were distinctly unchinese, the goal would be to engage the audience so completely, to so "trick" them into accepting the situation as it unfolds, that "suspension of disbelief" would carry us through the evening.
We next read through the play while I changed the set model to conform to each act and displayed the costumes for each actor. Each line of the English and Chinese text was numbered so that at any given moment we could find exactly where we were in the script.
The large auditorium space on the fourth floor of the Academy building adjacent to the theater was our rehearsal hall. On the stage of this space sat a large group of observers to whom I was introduced. I was informed that they had come from various parts of China and had paid to watch me work. I did not at all mind having them sit in on rehearsals; but, finding that they had paid money for the experience, I felt an instinctive obligation to give them some extra value beyond simply viewing the often boring rehearsal process. So I asked them to submit a series of questions on O'Neill and American theater, or any craft questions they might wish to have discussed, and I would try to answer them at the breaks.
The rehearsal day began at 8:30 and lasted until 11:30 and resumed again at 2:30 and ended at 5:30. The Theater Association provided a car and driver that shuttled me between the rehearsal room and my room at the venerable and comfortable Beijing Hotel.
The rest of the first week was spent on the tedious but necessary business of blocking each act. I could sense the apprehension of actors accustomed to three months of rehearsal who normally spend the first two or three weeks sitting around a table discussing the meaning and interpretation of each line. The experience of being on their feet with script in hand the second rehearsal day, plus the prospect of an opening night a mere six weeks away, clearly had them worried. I did my best to reassure them but knew that real confidence would only be gained by experience.
I was startled by the absences of the man previously introduced to me as the stage manager. I was informed that, unlike the American system, a stage manager never comes to rehearsals; his job would begin when we got on the stage. (I also sensed that this position on the production staff was much too grand for involvement in the day-to-day preparation of the play.) Additionally, conditioned as I was to the U.S. way of theater and Actor's Equity rules, I was shocked to see the cast join the staff in changing the rehearsal sets and furniture between acts.
The work became very time consuming, since every direction had to be translated by my interpreter, Mr. Sun Zhongshu. But I found that by learning certain phrases in Chinese such as "hold it" and "once again from the top," and utilizing body language and some charade techniques, I was able to bridge many simple communication gaps.
The day-to-day work with the actors was stimulating. Since their training and mine was rooted in the same Stanislavsky tradition, even though they may have different names, the same avenues of approach to performance could be taken. The only time this mutual heritage did not serve came in the second week. Midway in Act Three, Anna, in an impulsive moment of passion toward Matt Burke, takes his head in both her hands and holds his face close to hers, staring into his eyes. Then she kisses him full on the lips. I had long been aware that this moment would be a problem, as kissing is never done on a Chinese stage; but I was not prepared for the amount of embarrassed giggles that greeted my attempts to stage it. Suddenly I felt as if I were directing a 6th grade play instead of mature professionals. The solution to the problem finally lay in the fact that we were doing a Chinese adaptation. Not only is kissing never done on stage; it would never be done to a lover by a daughter in front of her father, no matter what her history might be. To have staged the kiss, even if I had been able to triumph over the awkwardness and achieve a modicum of realism, would so have shocked and embarrassed the audience as to distort the rest of the act. In consultation with Huang and with Madam Teng Yan, who was now my associate director, I concluded that a passionate embrace would serve the same dramatic function and achieve O'Neill's aim without creating a Chinese theatrical cause célèbre and losing the focus on the play itself. (I should add that throughout the entire rehearsal period I never felt censored in any way and was always given a free hand. But in this case I felt that insisting on a kiss would have been a hollow victory at the expense of the scene, the act and possibly the play.)
During the second week I began to feel pressure from some of the production staff to replace Xue Shan, the young actor playing the Cantonese sailor. They felt he was too stiff and melodramatic, an opinion I tended to share, but I had cast him over others because of a quality of raw power he brought to the role which I felt could be molded to serve the play. Like producers everywhere, my sponsors were beginning to worry about the venture's success, and I began to feel a bit as though I were in an out-of-town try-out prior to Broadway. This situation was exacerbated by some of the paying observers who, I learned, had said that "George White obviously isn't a good director because he can't make a bad actor better." Rather than prematurely admit defeat, cause the actor a tremendous loss of face, and under-mine the morale of the ensemble, I decided to wait two more days, spend separate time coaching him after hours, and only then, if necessary, fire him if he did not improve. His basic problem was inexperience and nervousness, and after a day's special work and attention we began to notice a marked improvement. By the second Saturday morning when we held a first run-through for invited guests, he had progressed sufficiently to convince us all that there would probably be no need to make a change.
During the third week, the actors became much more confident about working in our limited time frame and seemed daily to be more flexible, relaxed and willing to experiment. One vestige of their tradition which would occasionally creep in was the tendency toward large-scale melodramatic acting. (In all fairness, one must also acknowledge that O'Neill himself grew up in this tradition. Though his talent transcended it, the element which saves a great deal of O'Neill's early works is their overwhelming emotional power, and it takes constant vigilance not to spill over into melodrama at certain moments.)
Throughout the rehearsals we kept trying to enhance the Chinese quality of the adaptation by adding bits of business. One came in the first act. When Anna sees her father for the first time in 15 years, she takes off a bracelet which her mother had given her for identification. This old custom helped to enhance the Chinese aura. The third Saturday morning run-through moved the invited visitors to tears. My worry now was how to sustain the momentum and maintain freshness with three more weeks to go.
At the beginning of the fourth week I was told after a rehearsal that the actors wanted a special meeting with me. Such an unusual request made me nervous, so I pressed for an explanation of the problem, if any, and was told that they felt that they were having scene problems they did not know how to solve and that they couldn't understand the schedule of run-throughs set for the rest of the week. It distressed and annoyed me that these concerns had not been expressed to me during rehearsal and that I was getting the information third-hand. I therefore determined to have it out with the principals the next morning at the beginning of rehearsal.
We met in the director's sitting room. When I asked the four, as calmly as I could, what they wanted to meet about, I was greeted by perplexed faces and confusion. It turned out that they had not requested a meeting at all; it had been an idea of one of the producers, based on the fact that one of the observers had told my Chris that he was very moved by the Saturday run-through but thought that one place in the first act could be a bit better. This had become a "whisper-down-the-line" situation and had been blown out of all proportion.
Only then did I learn that traditionally, immediately after run-throughs at which there are observers, the director asks for their critical comments. As I had not done so, one of them gave his comment directly to the actor. The prospect of a group of observers all adding their comments en masse in the mid-rehearsal weeks was so appalling that I did not know whether to laugh or cry. I did, however, give the cast a lecture about the dangers of listening to any critical observations which had not been filtered through the director. Though the meeting lasted nearly two hours, it gave us all the opportunity to discuss O'Neill's dramaturgy as well. In essence, what had begun as a confrontation on my part became a valuable event that welded us much closer together and removed any remaining barriers between the "American director" and a "Chinese cast."
The remainder of the week was spent running through the entire play in the mornings and working on specific scenes in the afternoon. By the fourth week's final run-through I was satisfied that the cast had a sense of the play's entirety and had begun to set their performances.
I had always been extremely pleased with Ma Shu Yun's grasp of the title role, but was delighted with the way Bao Guo An, as her father, grew in the last ten days. He had been the most intimidated by the speed of working and seemed stiff and unbending at first; but he finally got his professional footing, and it became a delight to watch him discover with me the various levels of character in the old sailor. Xue Shan, the young Cantonese suitor, made continued progress as he began to relax. I also found that he would respond to such analogies as telling him to treat his first meeting with Anna on the barge's deck as delicately as he would were he reeling in a fish, or giving him external images. In the third act, for instance, telling him to worry about wrinkling his brand new blue suit served to restrain just enough his tendency to fling himself around the set too much.
All week long one could sense the growing excitement in Beijing. Daily, the streets became more and more bedecked with flowers and banners and the main buildings and monuments in Tien an Men Square were outlined in lights. Not for us, of course: this was all in preparation for the 35th anniversary celebration which was to be a three-day observance of the People's Republic's founding. I was glad that the holiday came when it did, as I began to sense a slight staleness creeping into the rehearsal performances due to the need for the adrenaline that only an audience can inspire.
The National Day Celebration was one of the most memorable events I've ever experienced. Not only were there banquets, fireworks and spectacular parades; but the sense of pride, joy and enthusiasm emanating from the people was absolutely genuine and exciting to witness. Hotel rooms were at such a premium, though, that my American colleagues had to delay their arrivals till afterward.
The first to arrive was Ian Calderon e. He toured the theater and was introduced to the Chinese system of lighting--controls on the apron of the stage where the electrician can see the action, not unlike a prompter's box at a western opera house. Ian was amused and slightly dismayed to discover that in China, as in the West, theater architects tend to be ignorant of the practical necessities of theatrical production and thus, though the theater was new, certain problems such as lighting positions were age old.
Ming Cho Lee arrived shortly after Ian and we now had our group together for the first time. (Patricia Zipprodt's schedule did not permit her to return for the opening.) Ming was struck by the proficiency of the scene painting and the way in which the Chinese scenic artists and technicians had faithfully rendered his set. The actual construction was behind schedule because of limited shop space and the involvement of many of the technicians in building the elaborate floats for the National Day Parade. An additional reason was a drop in personnel: all workers who had given blood during a recent blood drive were paid extra money and given five days off!
I found that the three-day holiday vacation had been beneficial to the cast; after it, they launched into the difficult technical rehearsal period with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
The costumes were now mostly completed, Ming became Pat Zipprodt's surrogate eyes, and we were all pleased with the integrity to her designs. The one area which needed attention was making the clothing look old and worn. Any frustrations at the theater itself revolved around the fact that the famous Chinese compartmentalized bureaucracy extends to play production; it was often difficult to sort out who or what department was in charge of what.
My wife Betsy arrived at the beginning of the week, completing the American contingent. The Theater Association had waited for this to give a welcoming banquet at the famous Fang Shen Restaurant, set in the old imperial kitchens. This was scheduled for noon, with rehearsal slated for 3:00 p.m.
After the banquet we arrived at the theater to find that the large second-act barge set, which had been constructed in the alley beside the theater, was too large to fit through the loading doors and would have to be cut apart and reassembled on stage. Determined not to lose any more rehearsal time, I decided to rehearse on the set in the alley while the neighborhood looked on.
On our way to the theater, the morning before the last technical rehearsal, Ian and I were startled to recognize one of the stage hands bicycling away from the theater. When we arrived at the building we found it virtually deserted. Everyone, we learned, was at a meeting forced by the stage crew, who had refused to work. Ming, Ian and I were terribly concerned that we had in some way overstepped our bounds and had precipitated the action by perhaps pushing too hard or being insensitive to some issues. But we were assured that the situation had been developing over a long period of time. Just before lunch the problem seemed to have been resolved and people began to filter in, but we had lost the morning except for some minimal lighting work. The evening's technical rehearsal was the casualty of the morning's "job action." A group of very tired actors stumbled through an extremely ragged and frustrating series of missed cues, incomplete scenery and inadequate props and set dressing. Inevitably the specter of opening night four days away loomed menacingly over the proceedings.
On the day of dress rehearsal, the crew attempted to make up for lost time, but the "dress" itself was punctuated by backstage hammerings and noise, and follow spot operators talking back and forth among themselves on their newly acquired walkie-talkies. I was astonished at the actors' fantastic concentration in the face of so much general disturbance. I myself was so distracted by the technical problems and shortcomings that I had difficulty assessing the work as a whole.
The first public preview was not much better than the dress rehearsal. The curtain opened on a backdrop so badly hung that. it looked like an old bed sheet; and during the Mat-Chris struggle, a bottle fell off a shelf and rolled to the edge of the orchestra pit. The actors' performances were uneven; throughout the night, cues were missed, and even the curtain calls were ragged and badly lit. (Additionally, I finally lost my temper when I was told that the sitting room off the orchestra, which I had occasionally used, should not be used for my pre-show actor briefings because it was "reserved for guests." I was startled by what I considered feudalistic class distinction, vehemently protested that "actors are people too," and prevailed. Clearly the tension was getting to everyone.)
The great question now became whether to give everyone the Sunday off or press ahead. I felt that the actors were exhausted and that I risked over-taxing them. Thus, with a pledge that if they were given the day off, all would be completed by the second preview on Monday evening, I decided to risk a holiday.
The gamble paid off. When I arrived at the theater on Monday, I found it a beehive of activity and could detect substantial progress. When I met with the actors that evening, I found them rested and relaxed. The preview went considerably better, and though there were still quite a few problems, I saw a glimmer of hope of salvaging the show and I was nervously optimistic.
Opening day--Eugene O'Neill's birthday--was bright and sunny, and I hoped that this would be prophetic of the "weather" on stage that evening.
I sat literally with fingers crossed as the curtain opened for the first act. Ming's set received applause, a rare thing in China. The opening seemed a bit slow but had the right sort of energy, and by Anna's entrance I began to relax a little. Throughout, my antennae were tuned to the audience reaction; I listened for any shifting in seats, coughing or spitting. There was silence--a clear sign of our having engaged their interest.
The second act went very well. The follow-spot operators, critical to this act, were a bit behind in places, but the excitement of opening seemed to keep them on their toes.
I had split the play into two large acts with the break coming between Acts II and III in order to get the audience out in time to catch transportation home. (Public transit in Beijing stops at 11:00 p.m.)
At intermission we adjourned to the sitting room to host selected visitors for tea, as is traditional with Chinese theater. Everyone seemed excited and enthusiastic, but I still kept my fingers crossed.
Acts III and IV had the proper intensity and I spent them on the edge of my seat wanting to conduct every line and nuance. I personally felt that Anna's big revelation scene in Act III had gone better in some rehearsals, but when I looked around the silent audience and saw tears, I knew that O'Neill's magic for depicting human emotions was reaching them.
My penultimate plateau, the forgiveness scene between Anna and Chris in Act IV, came off as I had hoped. Now, if Anna's swearing her love for Matt on the cross did not bring giggles of embarrassment, I'd be home. I held my breath as he took out his mother's cross and Anna knelt, Buddist fashion--no giggles, the audience accepted the moment!
At the end of the play no one ran for the exits or their buses; they stayed for the Chinese translation of O'Neill's marvelous "Fog, fog, fog, all bloody time. You can't see vhere you vas going, no. Only dat ole davil, sea--she knows!" (Somehow I know how he felt.)
The resulting applause, the audience standing for the conventional American-type curtain call, filled me with an enormous sense of relief. Suddenly the long six weeks became worth the investment of time, energy, emotion and three years of planning. Throughout the weeks I had felt that this project must not fail; there was too much at stake. And my anxiety had grown in the last ten days as I felt the enormous pressure of professional and personal artistic honor at stake and, by extension, an important element of international cultural exchange. It had to be a success and, thanks to so many contributions from the artists of both societies, we had brought it off!
There was an enthusiastic and joyous onstage reception. The actors all appeared in O'Neill sweatshirts that Betsy and Ian had brought from Waterford. Distinguished Chinese officials, U.S. Embassy personnel and Theater Association officers all joined in the spirited opening night party. The speeches and general celebration closed with all of us raising our glasses in a 96th birthday toast to Eugene O'Neill.
Two weeks later, Betsy and I returned to Beijing after touring China. We were delighted to learn that, though there had been some initial public resistance to the "Chinese version of an American play," the "word of mouth" was such that audiences grew daily. We saw it the last night before it went into repertory and found that the actors had made additional adjustments on their own to continue to make it more Chinese. I found this a good thing and was delighted that they had taken up the concept and made it their own.
Our last day in Beijing was highlighted by a Sunday brunch given by the marvelous U.S. Cultural Affairs Officer, Leon Slawecki, and his wife Barbara. Here we said our final farewells to all who had shared this theatrical adventure. It was a touching and emotional leave-taking--a fitting finale to the entire experience. I will always treasure the generosity of spirit of my charming Chinese colleagues who, despite the various difficulties and cultural differences, had worked so hard in a joint effort to build a special bridge between our societies.
--George C. White
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