Long-distance relationships aren’t easy. Lovers must keep romance alive through a variety of media (e-mail, phone, Skype), and in some instances there are time differences to contend with. One person’s late-night phone tryst is another’s early-morning wake-up call. Accordingly, forming a theatrical relationship across 12 time zones would seem next to impossible. But a recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by students of the University of Maryland (UMD) and their counterparts at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing (NACTA) proved otherwise.
The initial impulse to collaborate came from UMD professor of costume design Helen Huang, who taught a master class at NACTA in 2010. “At first we talked about the two universities doing an American comedy or a Chinese play in English,” says Huang. “But we eventually decided on Shakespeare. Shakespeare is almost a universal language, and Midsummer breaks down perfectly into the different worlds of the play.”
UMD’s theatre, dance and performance studies professor, Mitchell Hébert, would direct a group of American actors playing the mechanicals and the fairies, while NACTA’s professor of directing, Yu Fanlin, would guide Chinese students taking on the roles of the four lovers, Puck and the court. The two groups would rehearse separately and come together to put on integrated performances in September 2012 at UMD’s Clarice Smith Center and then in Beijing in October. The actors would speak in their native tongues and audiences would follow along with supertitles.
Preparation was key. “My team and I needed to get a crash course in all things Peking Opera,” recalls Hébert, who met with representatives from the Confucius Institute to learn more about the theatrical tradition. To that end, Hébert and Huang were aware that though Chinese students may know a fair amount about American culture, American students also needed to be savvy cultural arbiters. Doctoral student Robert Thompson, who assistant-directed, created a tailor-made course called “Chinese Culture and Performance: A Guide for the Traveler,” open to students in the 2012 spring semester before rehearsals began in late summer. Students were cast in the spring but didn’t begin rehearsals until August—just three weeks before the Chinese group arrived (with the exception of the fairies, who trained in the spring and summer with UMD alumna Andrea Burkholder, co-director of Washington D.C.–based Arachne Aerial Arts).
Hébert and Huang took two and four trips, respectively, to China to sort out the details of production and set design. “We decided that it would be impossible to split the design down the middle, so the American team took a slight lead on that and our Chinese counterparts created a duplicate set,” says Hébert. At the start of the two-year process, Hébert suggested that everything from costumes and props should be able to fit into two suitcases, but that number grew. Ultimately, a total of 26 suitcases went from the U.S. to China—Air Freight couldn’t guarantee arrival times.
Meanwhile, Huang, who served as a cultural ambassador between the two groups, sought funding from various UMD groups and generated interest about the show. A campus-wide initiative called “China Action” helped raise the project’s profile, and funds were secured from UMD’s business and engineering schools. If Huang were to manage something like this again, though, she admits that she would seek independent funding.
Huang also carefully translated e-mails. “At the beginning, translating had to be done really delicately,” says Huang with a laugh. Hébert also discovered the necessity of a good interpreter on a trip to China. “It’s not what you say but how it’s said,” he notes, remembering how he and Yu were barely able to communicate or move forward during one visit with a subpar interpreter. Fortunately, Hébert made another trip to China, and that time had a better interpreter whom he’d interviewed via Skype prior to traveling. Communication was smoother, allowing Hébert and Yu to converse freely and understand each others methods. Hébert was also able to observe student rehearsals, which was indispensable.
Says Huang, “Neither Mitchell nor Fanlin had ever co-directed, so they had to be aware of their egos.” Hébert offers: “Fanlin was so open and generous. Anytime I wondered about his approach I would stop and ask myself, ‘Does it move the story forward?’” Hébert also remembers speaking to his cast the day before the Chinese group arrived. “I told them that there is no template for something like this. And that we have to breathe and take this ride.”
One hiccup in the ride was the script, which the Chinese team had heavily adapted from the Chinese translation. “This was a change we were not fully aware of until they arrived,” says UMD student and Midsummer stage manager Ruth Watkins. “The script changed every day, all the way through performances—even when we remounted the show in China.” Watkins was in a unique position throughout the rehearsal process, not only because she speaks fluent Mandarin (and was one of the few bilingual people in rehearsals), but also because she was stage managing. (Chinese theatre doesn’t traditionally have stage managers.)
Fortunately for Watkins, Yu was impressed enough by her work during the U.S. premiere that he asked her to continue when the show moved to Beijing. “As a result, my stage management team and I had to train a Chinese crew not only in how to run the show, but also how to work with a stage manager,” says Watkins. “I quickly began appreciating things I had previously taken for granted, like having a standard language on headset. I had no idea how to say ‘stand by’ or even ‘sound go’ in Chinese.” But Watkins was undeterred, and her hard work paid off—even enough to spur interest from Chinese students about the study of stage management. “There was talk of starting a stage management program at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts while we were there!” Watkins enthuses.
But what about the art? Wasn’t the end result somewhat choppy? According to Huang, “Our show was a good marriage. The product was beautifully integrated, not patchy. That’s because our concept from the beginning was very clear, which is important for any groups interested in pursuing a project like this.” Hébert concurs: “Both cultures were equally represented,” he says, pointing out how traditional Chinese music was blended with Americana folk tunes in a score by Matt Nielson.
Music, perhaps even more than Shakespeare, is a universal language. When the production bowed in Beijing, the cast created a curtain call song-and-dance number to PSY’s ubiquitously popular Korean pop song “Gangnam Style.” Says Huang: “The audience had already loved the show, but that curtain call pushed the applause to another level!”
For Watkins, the experience was life-changing. “I think I speak for everyone when I say we all made lifelong friends. The passion and excitement we all brought to the show was so evident—no words in any language could fully capture it.”