In college, the first production I was in was Gao Xingjian’s Bus Stop. It was by far the most non-traditional theatre piece I’d ever been involved in at that point in time–it was absurd, rooted both in the East and the West, and our director had staged us in a long cross with audience in the four corners of the rectangular playing space. It was my first exposure to contact improv, and the show was very physical.
Since that time I’ve kept an eye out for his other works, and last year The Other Shore was in my pile as I was looking for scripts to propose for Single Carrot’s fourth season. Gao’s notes to the actors encourage them not to get embroiled in what the potential deeper meanings of the play might be. He instead asks them to be alive in the moment, to focus on the other actors, and to work off of their impulses. I have my own list of important meanings that were packed into the play, but it wasn’t essential to me that the audience to take away my interpretation. I was much more interested to hear what deeper meanings the audience would draw from the piece after they saw it. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, the selection committee said Gao won for “an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama.”
I wouldn’t have attempted this production before working with Dara Weinberg on building a chorus for my production of Eurydice in 2009. I have always lamented crowd sections where an unmotivated and predictable speech pattern is created for the chrous. The Other Shore contains vast sections for the “crowd” with no suggestion of character breakout. Dara’s approach to a chorus–or at least how I explain her approach–is the chorus is a multi-layered single entity that must be able to embody all the unique facets of the whole. Every actor in the chorus must be an individual with regards to vocality, physicality, and intention, but must also think with a mind tapped into the collective whole. Dara encourages overlapping text. Actors may speak one word, one line, or an entire section of the text, as long as they’re listening, balancing, and evoking what needs to be conveyed.
The Other Shore text, and my production at Single Carrot, were explorations. Gao Xingjian is a Chinese playwright and author whose work in the theatre was transformed when he was studying in France. He was initially influenced by Beckett and the absurdists, and later by Jerzy Grotowski’s work, which seeped into his theatrical sensibility. The result is a Chinese playwright, equally influenced by an Irish playwright working in France (Beckett), a Polish theatre director shattering boundaries (Grotowski), and the body of traditional Chinese theatre. With The Other Shore, while Gao was testing his own sensibilities as a playwright and theatre maker, he was also unwittingly testing the waters of the communist regime. First rehearsed in mainland China under the direction of Gao himself, the play was closed down by government authorities for its political themes, and the production had to be moved to Hong Kong, where it was staged by Gao several years later in 1995.
The play is not traditional, to say the least. Our staging was equally non-traditional. Since working on Eurydice at Single Carrot in 2009, I have been interested in ways to give the actors more ownership over their work in rehearsal and performance. There were a variety of ways I worked to do this:
- From the beginning, with few exceptions, I cast the actors in multiple roles, so they would play different roles with different scene partners every performance.
- Only the individual actor knew her casting for a particular performance, so she would not be able to anticipate her scene partners.
- Each actor memorized all of the extensive crowd sections, which when coupled with the training he received on the choral work, meant that every night he could give a different interpretation and would say vastly different lines of the crowd section as driven by his impulses.
- I encouraged the actors to contribute to the sound scape of the performance vocally. At different sections, they would laugh, titter, click, clack, taunt, hiss, whirr, groan, moan, heave, cheer, etc.
- The cast selected their own costumes. I found a clothing designer in China using Etsy, and the cast individually selected their costumes from her work–ensuring we had a unity of design, but individual ownership over the costumes.
- There were only five or six moments in the performance that had specified blocking (anything potentially dangerous for the performers or audience, such as sections involving staged violence or lifts). Beyond that, the actors were instructed to feel the impulses of the group and themselves, and every performance looked radically different. A few times the actors found moments that particularly worked, and if they repeated it, I would actively encourage them not to attempt to replicate it, but to make new choices.
- Our pre-show began with several members of the cast playing music together. I encouraged each musician to then find different sections of the performance every night to play their instruments individually to add to the world and the action.
- Throughout the performances, I began introducing “wrinkles”. Wrinkles are new layers, challenges, or motivations I would give before a performance. The wrinkles would range from the introduction of a metal wash tub they needed to incorporate in as much of the performance as possible, to having them evoke a different element–fire, earth, wind, or water–every performance for four performances, and so on.
The performance was quite different from evening to evening, and the actors were never bored. I watched each show with great anticipation for what things they would bring out. Before rehearsals started, I was determined to not have set blocking for the production. Halfway through our process I got cold feet, and blocked the entire production extensively. One day after the play was fully blocked and feeling a little stale, I gave the actors the freedom to throw the blocking out the window and follow their impulses. It was absolutely gorgeous, and about 10 times better than my own blocking. While part of me was slightly envious that their impulsive blocking was superior to mine (which I thought was rather strong), the other part of me was elated. By bringing their collective creativity, this cast of twelve was able to do something more imaginative and inventive than any single artist could. I did not feel that the time spent blocking was wasted time, though, as it gave the actors a structure by which to explore the script.
In order to give the actors the freedoms I described above, we spent half of the rehearsal process building the ensemble. This production enjoyed a five month rehearsal process. Although we did not have three of the actors until mid-way through the process, the initial nine spent more than two months learning how to work together before we brought in the text. I borrowed freely from Keith Johnstone’s exercises in Impro, focusing heavily on activating the individual and collective imagination of the ensemble. We worked hard to create safe space where failure was expected. Since it was expected, it rarely happened. Each of the cast members was welcome to lead a workshop during a rehearsal, teaching a skill they had to the ensemble. We covered viewpoints, Meyerhold techniques, Suzuki, contact improv, Liz Lerman’s critical response process, and more, which gave the ensemble a shared foundation and established the learning environment. It was clear that I expected every artist to expand their boundaries during the process. I cast two dancers with very little acting experience, but treated them the same as the actors. The actors were expected to dance, and the dancers to act, and every one was seen as an important, generative contributor.
I staged the piece in the round, with one single row of audience in the long rectangle of Single Carrot’s space. In the center was a 9′ wide playing space, and I had a 2′ rail along the back of the audience where the artists could circle the space, which allowed for six entry points into the center playing space. In my work, I like to create immersive experiences for my audience without touching them or infringing on their personal space. Because of our configuration, the audience was often in the center of the action.
In order to enhance the intimacy and give a sense of ritual, we lit the space with 85 candles, which were lit by the actors during the pre-show while the musicians played and sang. Having candles creates a wonderful atmosphere, but the unfortunate problem is you cannot have lighting changes. I devised several solutions to that issue, which involved turning off the house lights at a strategic point when the action began to mark the shift from pre-show into the dramatic event. I utilized two leaf-blowers at an important shift in text, where we were plunged into darkness. Three actors then lit a smaller fraction of the candles giving us a darker, more intense mood. For a final shift as we exited the dramatic event and entered the denouement, we had two lighting instruments with sand captured underneath them. The sand was slowly drained out like an hourglass as the instruments were turned on, giving us a final look as we entered the last chapter of the production.
When the run of the production was over, for the first time after any show I’ve worked on, I felt a deep sense of loss. It wasn’t because I necessarily missed the production or the people individually. I later realized I felt loss over the fact that the ensemble as a unique whole was breaking up. I feel I could have given the ensemble any text, any concept, any spark, any challenge, and watch them create a thrilling performance with it. I could have given them Hamlet and four hours to devise the work, and I’m sure it would have been unlike anything I’d ever seen. I felt loss for the potential they had. It was much like when your favorite band breaks up, and you wonder what songs you’ll never get to hear. This production taught me that an ensemble is a potent and amazing creative force, and I owe a debt to all of my collaborators on the project for teaching me that.