Chinese playwrights seek American audience

Updated: 2013-03-13 10:50

By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily)

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Beijing playwright Meng Jinghui is known as a "rock star" and Shanghai-based Nick Yu tops the list of most prolific playwrights in the Chinese mainland. Playwright, translator and librettist Candace Chong is a much sought after Hong Kong talent and Wei-Jan Chi's dramatic works span two decades in Taiwan.

But how many in the US have heard of these distinguished Chinese playwrights?

"I think we tend to be a bit myopic as Americans in the theater," said US Tony-award winning playwright David Henry Hwang, at a panel discussion in New York. "We know American work and we know a handful of works from England, but other than that, we're pretty ignorant about the rest of the world."

As this year's Residency One Playwright at Signature Theatre, Hwang organized the nonprofit off-Broadway company's inaugural Contemporary Chinese Playwriting Series, which has connected the four Chinese playwrights with US-based theater artists to develop and present English-language versions of their works.

To start the series of public and free readings that will be held in the Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center on March 15-17, Hwang moderated Monday night's panel discussion, "Playwrights of the Chinese World: Beijing, Hong Kong, New York, Shanghai, Taipei," at the Asia Society. The playwrights examined contemporary Chinese theater and their individual artistic processes.

The Chinese playwriting series is funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and based on the US-Mexico Playwright Exchange Program at the Lark Play Development Center, which seeks to help establish ongoing channels of cross-culture communication and collaboration.

The structure of the playwright exchange allows minimal time to practice and produce the author's work. Although the directors have communicated with their Chinese partners via phone or e-mail, the playwrights didn't arrive in New York until Saturday.

"It's an international blind date," said Victor Maog, director for Meng's play, Punks' Carnival. "I'm confident that [Meng] is open for a ride and I know I am."

Philippine-born Maog said the two will have about 15 hours to work with the actors on the partially improvisational play about Beijing's gritty underground punk scene, which includes songs, slapstick and seven men in drag.

"The first time I read the play, honestly, I was looking for a GPS," Maog said. "It's a series of collisions from the characters, to the storyline, to the order of the play, to the type of music, to the visual world, and I was lost."

"The process is not to present," said Daniel Jaquez, who is directing Chi's play, Playing the Violin, for the series this week. "The process is to work on the translation and wherever you get to, that's what you present."

Although the director and his Chinese partner have two different artistic visions, they must work together to mold them into one.

"It's just a scratching at the surface, but I think Signature and the Lark are onto something," Maog said. "They recognize the global makeup, theatrical makeup and the makeup of this country are shifting and ask how do we begin to have a conversation that shares things we know, understand and don't know."