In Reflection: The White Snake Part I
I picked The White Snake back in March, but little did I know what a massive endeavor I was undertaking.
Over the summer of 2016, I had the pleasure of interning at Steppenwolf Theatre Company where I got my first taste with being connected to some of the country's finest theatre artists. It was, however, my roommate that encouraged me to send a blind email to Mary Zimmerman, whom responded almost immediately.
We played a game of email tag for about several months before I was finally able to meet her in person, albeit only for a moment, at Goodman Theatre, where I saw her production of Wonderful Town.
We did, however, get to speak on the phone for a while. She unloaded lots of advice and thoughts on approaching the project, and I think it was definitely a conversation that really helped put this play on the path to success.
Production Meetings & Casting
The thesis, or through line of the play follows the white snake and her desire to be seen for who she truly is. The spirits remark that, despite her experience and fortitude in studying the Tao, she cannot transcend because she has not yet come to terms with herself, nor has she found her place in the world. The White Snake is about finding ones home, wherever that may be, and being seen for who we truly are.
With that approach, my designers were off.
Camille Charara in costumes worked on differentiating the spirit world and the human world. We decided to set the human world in modern-dress, and the spirit world would have remnants of ancient China, to pay homage to the story's origins.
I always like contributing to the design of my own shows, so I picked properties and sound. The show had few sound cues, as it was my intention to keep all the special effects produced by the performers, but props were a bit tough. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't culturally appropriating objects from Chinese culture, so rather than settle for a massive display of objects, I settled for items that had a universal and cross-cultural appeal: paper parasols, lanterns, bamboo sticks, and ribbons of silk. These items would be utilized for many things, but more on that later.
Sarah Norton designed my puppets, and she did a spectacular job. She had a fun time creating the snakes from dryer hose and silk noil. She used bamboo sticks as the rods for the actors to control the body. Our stag and crane puppets were amazing -- the stag was constructed from a mask and adorned with golden leaves for ears, strips of white silk for its beard, and bits of golden branches as the antlers. The crane was created from strips of silk spread across the body and tied at the arms. This replicated the wings of the crane, while one glove with feathers created the head.
Casting the play was a lot of fun. I asked auditionees to prepare a short poem or sonnet and a song. For the callbacks, we did two movement exercises. The purpose was to see who were the ideal collaborators: people who could be both leaders and followers when necessary. My harpist provided some inspiration music as the auditonees built four different iterations of a boat, and we traded spots as the actors read for various roles.
I concluded callbacks by pairing performers together to perform The Ribbon Dance from the Marriage scene. This was actually simple, my harpist provided romantic music and I had pairs perform the sequence by using a large felt fabric and an exercise in which couples could move as long as they maintained physical contact and eye contact.
I settled for a cast of nine in addition to my harpist making ten performers in total.