BWW Interviews: Black Lab Theatre's Director and Cast of CHINGLISH Talks Abut the Show
Black Lab Theatre is hard at work preparing the Regional Premiere of David Henry Hwang's CHINGLISH for Houston audiences. Recently, I visited a rehearsal at Asia Society Texas Center to talk to director Troy Scheid and her cast, featuring Mike Yager, Vivian Chiu, John Dunn, Xin Jian, Janice Pai Martindale, William Wu, and Andrea Huang about the show.
Me: It's hard to find a detailed synopsis of the play, so, in your opinions, what is CHINGLISH really about?
Troy Scheid: I think the best way for me to think about the play is as a comic thriller, and that's probably why you weren't able to find a lot of detailed information. The way the information is given to the audience builds suspense, and if we told you the real identity or the real background of some of the characters, it would spoil the surprise. It would spoil the rollercoaster effect of experiencing the plot for the first time, but, for me, it's about a journey between cultures where everything you assume at the beginning, as an audience member, ends up being turned on its head in ways that are still surprising. So it overturns many stereotypes, both from American culture and from Chinese culture. And, in the world of business, talking about what's an advantage and what's a disadvantage, it starts as a story of an innocent abroad who turns out to be not so innocent. Then there are enemies who are not enemies, friends who are not friends, and businesses that are not businesses, so it definitely keeps you guessing right up until the end.
John Dunn: I play the role of Peter Timms in the play, and he's a British man who has been living in China for 19 years. And, for me, I think CHINGLISH is about, kind of, struggling to find your identity. Are you who you really say you are? Is anyone? That's something that anybody who goes and travels to another country will feel right away. You kind of connect with the people there, but then you're not really one of them. Where do you fit? We're all looking for where we fit. The play uses the structure of the East meets West set-up to play on the ideas of that.
Mike Yager: I play Daniel Cavanaugh, the maybe not so innocent abroad. I think that Daniel has an interesting journey in the show in that he's in a place where he does not speak the language, much in the way that I am an actor that does not speak the language, and it surrounds me throughout the course of this process. I think that he comes to an understanding of this culture in what lies between what is said. I think he learns to listen in a very new way. In a more real way. And I think that's what David [Henry] Hwang works a lot into this script is that both cultures come to an understanding not through language but through a shared sense of humanity.
Vivian Chiu: (Timidly) I agree. (Everyone laughs.)
Troy Scheid: I will also say for anyone who's had a culture shock experience or an immersion in another culture, you always learn at least as much about your own culture, your own language, and yourself as you learn about the culture you're visiting because your constantly trying to negotiate the new culture that you're in, and the only way you do that is to constantly compare it yours. Even thinking about things you've never examined before or that you took for granted, like grammar.
Me: According to playwright David Henry Hwang, CHINGLISH was inspired by the "ridiculously translatEd English signs" in China. Did you look at or reference any of these in your preparation of the show?
Mike Yager: Well, they're referenced very explicitly in the script. That plays into the beginning of a lot of the humor of the earlier scenes, especially, and kind of setting up this divide of what is said and what is understood and what is misunderstood. So, a sign reading "Deformed Man's Toilets" is a wrong translation of "Handicap Restroom."
John Dunn: I actually found a sort of little coffee table book at Urban Outfitters or somewhere called Chinglish that had a bunch of these signs in it, and, of course, you can find them all over the internet. I think my favorite one in that book, at least, was one that was two signs pointing in the same direction, and one said "Night Clubs" and the one underneath it said, "Fixed Expectations District." (John Dunn and Troy Scheid Laugh) So, that was my favorite of the ones I'd found.
Troy Scheid: But it does go both ways. In the play they also make the point that when Westerners try to use Chinese, many times it's someone who gets a tattoo in an Asian font that they think looks cool, but then says something stupid. So, it does go both ways.
John Dunn: Yeah. And there was actually a real world incident where a famous scholarly magazine published what they thought was an Asian poem on the cover, but it ended up being something a little bit more racy (Everyone Laughs), and it went out to the entire world.
Vivian Chiu: Actually, the play is inspired by David [Henry Hwang]'s own trip to China. He did visit the Cultural Arts Center, and he discovered all these mistranslated signs, so that was a real inspiration.
Andrea Huang: I actually lived in China for six years, and when I moved there I had to learn simplified Chinese because I was originally taught traditional. So having to learn simplified and being able to read simplified characters and the wrong translation, I saw all of that everywhere. (Mike Yager Laughs) Yeah. (Andrea Huang Laughs)
Mike Yager: And it's really great in that the play doesn't take any sides. It pokes fun at each of the cultures very equally, so I think it serves both of those audiences very well, in that respect.
Troy Scheid: Nobody's a villain. Everybody acts for what they think is the best.
Me: In what other ways did you prepare for your roles in CHINGLISH?
John Dunn: I've done a lot in preparation for this because most of my dialogue is in Mandarin, which I had a little bit of experience with going into this. I could get by. I could order food. I went to Beijing in 2000 for a short trip and was able to get around town, but this is a whole new vocabulary for me. So, I've been sort of taking classes at a local Buddhist temple that offers Mandarin classes. I've met with a professor of language at Rice on a regular basis. And last, but not least, Vivian Chiu and Janice Pai Martindale have also been assisting me with my pronunciation.
Mike Yager: They're his Tiger Moms. (Vivian Chiu Laughs)
John Dunn: They are my Tiger Moms. So, I've done a bit of that. And I also play a British man, so I was able to track down someone from the same city as my character and talk to them on the phone. So, that's what I did. (Laughs)
Vivian Chiu: I grew up in Taiwan, so the traditional Chinese values that I explore in the play as my character is definitely home to me. I also read about the Bo Xilai scandal. He's a former Chinese official who rose to become a party leader. Then his family was involved in an investigation because his wife was accused of poisoning a British consultant, who helped their son to be admitted, first, to a private school in England and then to Harvard. So, I read about her, about the scandal, as well as just tried to draw inspiration from these political wives in modern China as well the new party leader in China Xi Jinping's wife as well. She is also a performer.
Troy Scheid: I real all the current events news sorties about China that I could get my hands on since I knew I was going to work on the show. I watched movies that were in Mandarin just to kind of get it in my ear because I don't speak Mandarin. And I went to see the San Francisco production that Vivian [Chiu] was also in, and talked to people who worked on that show. Asked them what was helpful. Talked to the playwright; asked him questions. So, I really tried to put myself in the world of the play.
Mike Yager: As someone who has to learn no Chinese for the show, I drove down Bellaire a couple times (Everyone Laughs). Ate some truly great food.
Andrea Huang: Was that helpful?
Troy Scheid: In maintaining his outsider status, yes.
Mike Yeager: Exactly. Yes. (Pauses)I think the more in the dark I am, the better for my character.
John Dunn: One trip to Sandong Noodles, and you're done. (Troy Scheid Laughs)
Xin Jian (As Translated by William Wu): I read some Chinese articles, including international exchanges. Just from being in China, because I lived and grew up there, I saw a lot of different people in China, and I took inspiration from some of the more memorable people. From a very normal, ordinary person's perspective, I act out a real life person.
Vivian Chiu: I think what's also brilliant about David [Henry Hwang], he's not only a deft writer, he is so good at capturing the complicity of human relationships. I think in the play, it's not just about misunderstandings of cultures and language, but it's also really just about humanity. And it's a reminder that we don't have direct translation in all languages. A lot of the times we expect, in a given language, that we can find an equivalent vocabulary, which is not true. And a lot of times even though we speak the same languages, we still misunderstand each other. That's something I think David [Henry Hwang] wants explored.
Me: What has been the most difficult aspect of preparing for or rehearsing CHINGLISH?
Mike Yager: I think, for me, it's an obvious one because so much of the play takes place in Mandarin that it's been an incredibly interesting and challenging process from that standpoint because I don't speak the language. I've really had to be much more attentive than I ever have been in any show of not only what is being said, but of body language, the general flow of the show, and just an awareness of what is happening far beyond my own character arc. So, I think that's sort of made me a better listener and a better actor because of that. It definitely has.
William Wu: I think, off of that, there's a lot of words in Chinese that don't necessarily mean the same thing in English. So, just getting through the subtext of a lot of the information proved kind of challenging. We'd go back and forth trying to figure out what exactly David [Henry Hwang] was trying to say, and how the character would view what he was saying. A lot of the times, if you just read the English it has a whole different meaning than if you read it in Chinese.
Mike Yager: I think some of those challenges are expressed in the script most clearly in the scenes between Daniel and Xi [Vivian Chiu's character], especially the early ones in which there's a very real difficulty in communicating a concrete thought. I think that as actors it requires you to go about reassessing how you communicate through what you're saying and also through your actions, your gestures. And that's why I think it's been really fun to play with Vivian [Chiu] in those scenes.
John Dunn: For me, the biggest challenge is just really tackling this much of a foreign language in any role, especially because of the differences between English and Chinese. Mandarin is a tonal language, and trying to emote and trying to find a sense of self and a sense of character while still maintaining the tones of the language has been a big challenge for me.
Troy Scheid: I did not anticipate that it was going to be so hard to read through body language how a person emotes when speaking in Chinese versus speaking in English. That operative words are not where you thought they were going to be and the physical body language is different, so there's a lot of me saying, "Well, it looks like he's saying that sarcastically. In Chinese is this sarcastic?" So, we have supertitles for everything that lets the English speaking audience have a translation. But just figuring out how what I expect an English speaking performer to do with those words translates back to what a Chinese speaking performer does with the Chinese that's there was much harder than I thought it was going to be. It's also very difficult to find a bottle of Mr. Bubble that is the right size. (The Cast Laughs)
Vivian Chiu: Don't give away Mr. Bubble!
Troy Scheid: Oh yeah. It's an important plot point. (Laughs)
Me: The Chicago tribune heralded, "CHINGLISH has characters not clichés." What truth do you find in these characters?
Troy Scheid: There are a lot of smaller roles in addition to the three or four roles who are present a lot of the time on stage. There are several translators or characters that you only see for one scene. You know enough about them. They're not a cipher. You're given enough from context clues and the script to know that one is very young, one might be more mature, one's probably a difficult person to work for. They give you enough that you can flesh out a full portrayal from that. (Pauses) And it's also just much more interesting to deal with full blooded characters instead of people who are there to perform a function. Even though they are there to perform a function in the plot sense, they are also full human beings.
Mike Yager: I think that as an actor what you want is a character that changes, and the characters in this show all undergo immense changes from where they begin to where they find themselves at the end in very surprising ways, and that's always a fun process to enter into and explore.
Vivian Chiu: As an Asian actress, most roles that we are given are usually stereotypical submissive characters. The role I play is a local Chinese official who is central to the behind the scenes power struggle, which serves as the pretext of the corruption event. She's a very strong character, and a lot of people compare this play to M. BUTTERFLY, which David [Henry Hwang] wrote 20 plus years ago at the time that the West dominated China, the East. Now, with the recession, all the Westerners are needing to assimilate to the customs of Chinese culture. It's such a fun role to play.
Troy Scheid: It's the role of a lifetime if you can speak Mandarin. (Pauses) I also think M. BUTTERFLY nicely subverts the stereotype of the submissive Asian female, and I think this also subverts every stereotype you have in your head going into the show. What is an American businessman? What is a female Chinese politician or a Chinese politician? All of those ideas get turned inside out. Or what is modernity, you know? It just questions all of those.
Vivian Chiu: It's also how David [Henry Hwang] writes. A lot of writers try to write for characters who don't speak good English, and the language is not quite right. But, for David [Henry Hwang], I can almost reverse all of his broken English lines into Chinese, and it still makes sense. So, I can follow her train of thought in her own language. It is so remarkable. And she probably actually tried to calculate and analyze all the words she uses in the play. There are probably 70 plus simple characters she uses to communicate with Daniel.
Me: Many superlatives, such as fresh, shrewd, poignant, and energetic, thoughtful, timely, have been granted to CHINGLISH by reviewers. In your opinions, what about the show earns it such high praise?
John Dunn: I think we're at an important point. Vivian [Chiu] sort of pointed to this with the recession. But even without the recession, I think there has been this interesting relationship between the US and China for a while now. It's a symbiotic relationship, but it's also competitive, so you never know really who is the stronger country. If you ask certain people in America, they're like "Well, China owns all our debt, so they can basically just do whatever they want." But at the same time they make a lot of our products, so there's a dependency there. But there's also a give and take, and there's a lot of that, I think, present in the play. Just dealing with those kinds of issues is something I find that is new and fresh, aside from the way he has written these roles. There are roles for Asian actors that are much better than the standard roles that they would find, and then, even for a Caucasian actor, I can't name a single other play where a Caucasian actor is allowed to speak Mandarin on stage at any given length.
Mike Yager: I think that the globalization of culture being what it is and rapidly accelerating, I think it's important to have a play like this start that kind of conversation. Daniel enters into the beginning stages of this show in kind of a very arrogant way. He assumes that he is just going to kind of figure it out. He thinks he doesn't really have to worry about the ins and outs of what he doesn't understand because his American-ness is going to carry him through it, and I think he finds himself humbled very quickly. I think that's an important conversation for people to have because, as the world becomes smaller, everyone has to try to understand each other more clearly and with more humility and generosity.
Troy Scheid: I think that the play feels so fresh particularly because it talks not just about the present, but also about the future. I was talking to another interviewer the other day who asked, "There's an American business man who goes to China to help his business. Is this a play about taking American manufacturing jobs overseas? Is this a hot button topic?" And I said, "No, we're way past that. (The Cast Laughs) This is about a man who goes to China, you find out very quickly, to get manufacturing jobs for his factory workers in the US producing cultural items for China, which is maybe not the balance of trade right now, but I think this presents a very plausible future in addition to referencing recent company failures, recession, and that kind of thing." So, if a viewer walks into the play thinking about the current balance of trade with China, they're already a step behind where the play is going to take you. But that will be great because then they'll be surprised. (Vivian Chiu Laughs)
Me: Even though you haven't been able to put this production in front of an audience yet, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your CHINGLISH journey so far?
Troy Scheid: I would have to say having Vivian [Chiu] in the cast, since she worked with the previous productions, has been something that we would have been in deep trouble without. So, having her here to give suggestions...
Vivian Chiu: And I ask a lot of questions.
Troy Scheid: ...and ask a lot of questions (The Cast Laughs). That's great, you know, especially for a play that challenges all of the audience's assumptions. We're being challenged by her everyday because she's like a direct line to the playwright and has a lot of experience with the play, so that's been hugely rewarding.
Mike Yager: And she has such a passion and ownership of the show because she's spent so much time with it, and I think that purely by assimilation that has become our collective passion in bringing the show and doing it justice. I think we all know what a special opportunity it is to be the first ones to bring this show to this region.
Troy Scheid: Yeah!
Vivian Chiu: Someone told me I'm the ambassador of CHINGLISH. (John Dunn and Mike Yager Laugh) That's my favorite title. I've been with the play since the Broadway production, so I've been with the show since 2010 on and off. So, it's always exciting to work with different casts and see what everyone can bring to the table. I think the challenge for me, because I've been with the show for so long, is to see the play with fresh eyes and with people who haven't worked on the play to find that rhythm because a lot of things are so comical. But David [Henry Hwang]'s writing is just like a duet. Chinese, English. Mistranslation. It's an uproarious mangling of those languages.
John Dunn: I think the most rewarding experience has been the immersion experience I've gotten on this project. At our first read-through with Xin [Jian], we would stop-Xin [Jian] doesn't speak much English-and so we would stop for a time and have a full conversation in Chinese about what we thought about the script. And then back to English. So, just the experience of being completely immersed in the language, and then also seeing the themes of the play sort of in real life as people tried to find a common ground and an understanding even just of this script has been a fantastic experience.
Me: What do you hope Houston audiences will take out of CHINGLISH?
Troy Scheid: There is a very specific Houston reference in the play, and I cannot wait to see how the Houston audience reacts to it. (Pauses. Mike Yager Laughs) I cannot wait.
Vivian Chiu: I cannot wait to report to David [Henry Hwang] (Laughing) how the audience in Houston responds to the play.
Mike Yager: In that Houston is very multicultural by its nature, I think that there's a great opportunity, like it did in New York and I'm sure it did in Berkley, to have an audience that's coming from different sides of the spectrum and all enjoying this show together in different ways at first, but then ways that become very clear and unified throughout the course of the show.
Me: Why should Houston audiences be excited to see this production of CHINGLISH?
Troy Scheid: We can't give too much away, but it's part of Houston history. One of the big driving forces of this play is part of Houston's fairly recent history.
John Dunn: I hope for Houston that it encourages more Asian actors to come into the Houston theatre community because there have been a couple of Asian oriented plays that have been done here in Houston, and they have historically had trouble finding actors who were of the correct ethnicity. I think there was a production of JOY LUCK CLUB and they couldn't fully find as many Chinese actors as they needed, so I think there were a couple of Vietnamese actors in there playing Chinese. So, I really would like to see more diversity come into the Houston theatre community because even when I saw this audition notice on Theatre Port, I wondered "where are they going to find this many people to do these roles." So, that's my hope.
Mike Yager: In not over thinking it, I think the best way to sell the show is that it's just flat out hilarious. It's romantic, suspenseful, and heartbreaking. I think that it has the potential to be a huge crowd-pleaser, but in a more challenging way than perhaps you think of that term.
Troy Scheid: It's a linguistic farce. (John Dunn and I Laugh)
Black Lab Theatre's production of CHINGLISH opens n Thursday, May 9, 2013 and runs through May 26, 2013 at Asia Society Texas Center at 1370 Southmore Boulevard, Houston. For more information or tickets, please visit http://blacklabtheatre.com or http://asiasociety.org/texas. You can also call (713) 515 - 4028.
All photos and images courtesy of Black Lab Theatre.
The Poster for Black Lab Theatre's production of CHINGLISH.
L to R: Mike Yager & John Dunn.
Vivian Chiu & Mike Yager.
Xin Jian & Vivian Chiu.
L to R: Mike Yager, Janice Pai Martindale, John Dunn & Xin Jian.
L to R: Mike Yager, Janice Pai Martindale, John Dunn & Xin Jian.
Vivian Chiu & Mike Yager.