In Reflection: The White Snake Part II
We had a wonderful rehearsal process. My approach to this piece was to keep it as performer-driven as possible. Anything technical - be it sound, lights, or scenery - would be kept to an absolute minimum.
We had several categories of props that actors used to convey a variety of things:
2) Bamboo Poles
3) Silk ribbon strips
As for scenic elements, The White Snake featured an impressive display of string lights, hung like a pagoda roof over the playing space. The set consisted of five 8ft x 3ft platforms that sat upstage of the playing space and were masked by muslin fabrics. The muslin was painted and treated to simulate calligraphy panels of ancient China. I actually told Jason, my scenic consultant, to rip it off directly from the opening sequence of Mulan in which the great wall of China was painted upon a canvas. Our version, however, did not use any buildings or human-created landmarks. Instead it was a series of landscapes, with Mount Emei, the home of our spirits, at center.
I divided rehearsal into three distinct periods: the workshop, actual rehearsal, and tech. The workshop phase consisted of my ensemble and I looking at the major images of the piece and experimenting with different pictures and ideas.
Just a side note - I'm going to be using Lady Bai and white snake interchangeably here.
We began by going from scene to scene. I knew I wanted a series of recurring images to serve as "bookends" of the play.
I recalled a YouTube clip I watched for research, and I loved this above image the dancers created. The performers were hidden beneath a large hive structure that would blossom open occasionally. I knew this was the image I wanted to open with, mostly because it was metaphoric.
The hive was created twice in our play, at the top of the opening sequence and then again at the end when the white snake is imprisoned. The idea of creating these bookends was to convey to the audience that they were approaching something like a novel and opening the cover to reveal the story. In addition, the image also represented the Thunder Peak Pagoda. Thus, the audience arrives at the site of our heroine's destruction and it opens up to teach them her story.
When the hive blossoms, the parasols separate into two columns, containing the playing space. In retrospect, I probably should have left this formation throughout the duration of the play so as to line the stage and establish what Zimmerman calls "the open field of play." Oh well.
Each time the hive opened, the parasols would eventually find these parallel lines signifying the beginning and ending of our tale.
The columns were a nice touch because it created a path for two of my favorite images in the play: Guan-Yin - the thousand handed Bodhisattva, and Lady Bai returning the red umbrella to Xu Xian.
Other great moments of workshopping included creating:
Clouds: There were two sets of clouds in this play. Using the white parasols, the performers would simply roll them by their handle to spin the top and delicately bounce to and fro. Our first cloud featured four performers -- two on separate sides of the stage -- rolling back and forth until coming together at center to form one large cloud. Our second cloud featured Xu Xian being handed a white parasol, and two other performers joining him as they opened their umbrellas up and "caught" him mid air. They were both quite beautiful.
A Boat in the rain: This went through several different iterations. Originally we had two long horizontal blocks that doubled as benches and then the deck of the boat. However, I hated how stationary the boat was, so I moved the performers off and instead had them stand undulating. This still wasn't to my satisfaction, and thus I asked the boatriders to walk in rhythm with the music. This was far more effective. For the rain, we attached blue strips of silk to the tips of bamboo poles and used them like flags to create the flow of water. Eventually, the rain people formed the outer edges of the boat and walked in time with the vessel. There were four rain puppeteers that stood in a rectangle formation "sliding" on a horizontal axis, while the actors aboard the boat freely walked in and out of the square.
We had a boat made completely from bamboo poles for Fa Hai and Xu Xian to use. It was a simple formation with Jo Ellen, the boatman, at front, and Fa Hai and Xu Xian clutching two poles in each hand, rocking them steadily.
My favorite boat was post-Water Battle. In the storm, Greenie and Lady Bai are aboard a tiny raft. Greenie clutches a battered and ripped up parasol as the lights flash and the sound booms the cries of an angry sea. Around them, the ensemble clutches blue silks and undulates rapidly to create the effect of waves. Visually, it's intense and stunning. Juliana Tassos helped choreograph some movement vocabulary for the stormy waves.
Soul Scarves: This was a tiny detail that I never explicitly told the cast. I needed to create the red house in the west, and I knew I was going to do it simply using the actors' bodies and limbs to outline a roof. To give it the red color that the script called for, I had them clutch red silk strips as they burst into formation. In order to hand off the red strips (without having to go through stage management), one of the actors, Jo Ellen, had a great idea to "sell" them from an overturned white parasol as if she were a vendor. It was an excellent idea -- Jo Ellen sold the strips to the townsfolk, all of whom wrapped it around their necks. When Xu Xian arrives, he is clearly wearing a rainbow-colored scarf (his soul, which is pulled from him later on) with some glitter affectations. It was a nice way to separate him from the townsfolk, by indicating that his soul was something special.
Two large snake bodies: The green snake and white snake have moments where they transform into large snakes completely embodied by a line undulating parasols. This wasn't an original idea - Zimmerman had written it into the script (albeit at different moments than I used them). Workshopping this was more a matter of precision and speed rather than artistic merit.
Pharmacy Ballet: I can't take credit for this name, Aline (my producer) was the genius behind it. This was one bit that kept changing before I became satisfied with it. It was essentially a Shakespearean dumbshow, or better yet - a Vaudevillian sketch. The entire point of it was to demonstrate the growing prosperity of the pharmacy and give a glimpse into how Lady Bai was curing her patients. To create it, I split the actors into two separate groups and had them come up with movements they were envisioning. During their workshop, I played that super annoying Benny Hill song because I knew I wanted some liveliness and comedy in the bit. We ended up combining each group's bit and it evolved from a zany, whacky kid's show into a jazzy, highly choreographed bit. I never found it quite funny, but audiences ate it up. Show's what you know though, right?
Kunlun Forest: Originally we had the actors equipped with bamboo poles, but I found that the forest was much more intimidating with one pole. The idea was that the forest could be either interpreted as a test Lady Bai had to pass to impress the immortals, or it could simply have been an obstacle to overcome. We kept both in mind since the nature of the play is to explore different interpretations of the source materials. Jo Ellen held a bamboo pole and beat the ground, creating a steady drum throughout the chant. One thing that never changed was darkness -- I gave the actors flashlights in rehearsal and I turned off everything so we were in pitch black. This made it difficult to stage, but oh so cool to look at.
The Water Battle: The most difficult challenge was staging the water battle, but we approached this in two phases.
Phase One: we spent a day just coming up with vocabulary on how air and water would be physically manifested. We watched numerous YouTube clips - including snippets from a Chinese opera version and little bytes from Avatar the Last Airbender. We knew we wanted to utilize the silk somehow, so it was decided that the blue silk strips would be the weapons of the water spirits. Green parasols that we used to create Greenie's body seemed like a natural fit for the air spirits: green is the color of air, and umbrellas often are associated with heavy winds. I particularly enjoyed how the parasols also looked like those objects used to blow air from chimneys -- that motion did get used in the final sequence.
Phase Two: After we picked our inspiration images and solidified some vocabulary, I had Jo Ellen come up with basic choreography for the full dance. Thank GOD she did, I'm in no way a choreographer. Using a really intense battle song I found months ago, we patched all of our pieces together to create a living, breathing, and swinging dance-battle. The final change I made to the water battle was swapping out Fa Hai's green parasol for a battered white one, which would later become the rutter and sail for the escape-ship that Greenie and Lady Bai use for their egress.
Guan Yin: Guan Yin was my favorite image in the play. She was the first thing I had in mind when we started rehearsals. Zimmerman remarked to me that she had always found the scene boring, but it was one that I was ecstatic to try. In Zimmerman's original production, she introduces the White Snake in its parasol-line form. I stowed that away and instead created the traditional Guan Yin. Seven actors stood upon blocks, all directly behind Juliana, who was the face of the Bodhisattva. She controlled the motions and the actors would follow. The end result was stunning.
I should add, as disclaimer, that all of these moments did not come after just a day's rehearsal. Many of them kept changing (even during tech, much to the chagrin of the actors) before they reached their "final" versions in performance. To be frank, I was not entirely satisfied with some of them, and if we had had more time these instances would probably still continued to have evolved.
When we workshopped through the whole play, it was a matter of putting all the pieces together and improving on our flow. An exercise I would use to help build characters was by taking a scene (every scene had no more than three or four speaking parts interacting at a time) and having all the actors trade parts until they had all played each other at least once. It was extremely productive, because actors playing their own characters could nab and steal what they liked from other performances, and furthermore it also got them acquainted with the text more intimately.
There is no task as fun yet as daunting as rehearsal - it's my absolute favorite part of the process. I hate performances, opening nights, etc. They're too much anxiety on me, but our rehearsals were always brimming with creativity and (more importantly) productivity.
One daunting task I had was incorporating music into the piece. I had two composers - Jake Smith and Kirsten Mossberg (both of whom I literally cannot, pun intended, sing enough praises for) - that created a score alongside my harpist, Celia. Truthfully, music seemed intimidating, but my ensemble was game. My two major soloists, Mason and Juliana, are extraordinary singers, and the rest of the cast easily picked up a tune.
As for my harpist, I was straightforward with her from the beginning: "You are a performer," I said. "So think of yourself as an actor. Contribute your music when the conversation calls for it. Make sure you understand the tone and the beats of the scene so that whatever your play makes sense."
Celia had no problem at all, she was always ready to improvise when the moment called for it, and in addition she did a great job of recommending pieces for us when we needed them. For instance, it was Celia who recommended using "Watermelon Man" as the background to the pharmacy ballet, and Debussy's Petite Suite "En Bateau" for the first boat. In general, collaborating on music was something I was terrified of, but actually found myself enjoying immensely. I think it may have been because I was trained as a pianist and singer, so I knew how to communicate what I felt the production needed more articulately -- but that might be giving me too much credit. Celia, Jake, and Kirsten are just wildly intelligent individuals.
KILLING MY DARLINGS
Two moments audiences will never get to see (thank the lord)
1) I put "All Night" by Chance the Rapper in right after Lady Bai drinks the realgar wine. I thought it would be a fun moment to juxtapose the story's mystical tone with some hip-hop energy and contort the white snake's view of reality. It was a cool experiment, it looked great in rehearsal, and the dance we created along with it meshed really nicely among the actors, but ultimately it was a huge interruption in the tone and pacing of the play. Funny story too - I told my actors "I'm gonna be cutting lots of stuff, but if anything is staying, it's this."
I'm thankful I went back on my word.
2) We created a cool labyrinth that was just far too long. It involved four actors using bamboo poles as walls to guide the acolyte who was leading Lady Bai and Greenie into Fa Hai's chamber. Great concept, poor execution.
I am immensely proud of our production of The White Snake. It was definitely the play I needed to reawaken that spark inside of me. There are, however, still moments and even structural elements that I wish I could address.
Closing the play was like standing at an art gallery and looking at a piece I insisted was unfinished, but my agent forced me to display anyway. I felt that while I was tremendously happy with its composition, there was so much more that could be done. But, perhaps, with another production.
This post is only a sketch of the effort and it took my ensemble to create the world of Hangzhou. While it gives a great summary, there are somethings that are simply beyond expression. At the end of the process I can only reflect how extraordinary this experience was. There is nothing quite like the pure joy of getting to make good theatre. I am happy to have finished it, but more blessed to have shared it with my friends and family.
Until the next one,