Hannah Cherrington-Hall speaks with the director, producer and the cast about their new production 5 Women Wearing the Same Dress and the English language theatre scene in Shanghai.
So this is your first spring production of 2015, would you say there is a relationship between the time of year and the themes of the play?
Spring and early summer are always great times for marriages. People are ready to put the dreadful winter behind them, but still can't let go of the memory of how cold it recently was and are constantly afraid that the temperatures will dip once more before summer finally arrives. I feel that the characters in the play are similar, ready to put the past behind them, but still constantly bringing it up and fearing its repercussions.
What is it that drew you to working with this script?
Shows I had worked on before, such as Almost, Maine and Rosemary's Baby were very fragmented and consisted of many short scenes. Though I greatly appreciated the creative possibilities this offered in terms of style, set and narrative storytelling, I wanted to put on a show that had none of that. I wanted a play in one location, during one continuous period of time, with a constant flow of dialogue. This would allow me to focus more on the performances themselves rather than all the other crazy details that I tend to get bogged down with on more complicated shows. This has been a great experience and I hope the performances will speak for themselves.
This production first took to the stage in 1993, what obstacles did you have to overcome to update the play for an international audience of the 21stcentury?
Well, for starters, the original is set in the American South. We changed the setting to make it more identifiable. A lot of pop culture references from the 90's had to be updated, as most had to do with celebrities. Some language that has become outdated also had to be altered. We also added Shanghai references that we know the audience will appreciate.
Irrespective of when it was written, there is so much to identify with in the show – timeless issues like body image, identity, sexuality, regrets, insecurities, love, friendships, rivalries… Searching character portrayals that are timeless, too. We all have known or know of a Georgeanne or a Trisha or a Tripp.
And then, like we said amongst ourselves while reading it, the script could be said to be analogous to the whole expat experience in Shanghai - like Shanghai, it is full of false sentiment, drunkenness, debauchery, self-pity and dark secrets. And like Shanghai it is also fun, engaging, easy to lose oneself in, and incredibly difficult to leave. We are sure it will find lots of resonance with the Shanghai theatre-going crowd.
The entire play takes place in one bedroom; do you think only in comedy there can be so much reliance on the script and acting alone?
Many great dramas also take place in one location. The problem is that audiences can get a bit bored without enough visual stimulation. Comedies usually can make up for that with witty dialogue and outrageous blocking. Whether it is a comedy or drama, I firmly believe that the director's only job is to make sure that people don't get bored. Even if a play takes place in one room, the set, costumes, light and sound should be designed specifically to keep people's attention on the stage at all times, allowing them to fully appreciate the performances unfolding before their very eyes.
What are your thoughts on the English language theatre scene in Shanghai?
The many recent shows that have been produced in Shanghai are the culmination of years of efforts from very creative people. This is proof that Shanghai both has the talent and appetite to deliver great English-language theatre to both the expat and local communities. The fact that there are so many shows also means that the audience's demands are increasing, and delivering solid performances and better production value are now becoming key to any successful run. This has led to a dramatic increase in the quality of the shows, and I now find myself constantly debating which shows I will have time to see on any given weekend. This is a great dilemma to have for any theatre-lover!
Would you say that each year the level and selection of talent grows in Shanghai?
It definitely changes, the very nature of the city ensures that, with the constant dynamics of people leaving and arriving. So many people from so many backgrounds, cultures and experiences just serve to enrich the fabric of what the city’s theatre scene has to offer.If the last couple of years is anything to go by, yes, the bar is being constantly raised, and it is just so exciting to watch this happen and to look forward to where it will go from here!
What was it like working with five lead actresses?
Working with the cast was by far the best part of this show. They are all incredibly talented in very different ways. I had worked with Cecilia Garcia and Violet Mount on a few projects before, so we already knew each other’s work methods quite well. Emma Chandler, Janet Hwu and Emma Merritt were all part of last fall's production of Cabaret, so everyone had some experience with the Shanghai theatre scene. This made things a bit easier since the cast had to spend less time on getting used to the East West workflow and we could all focus on the text. Because this is an ensemble piece, the relationship between the actresses is very important not only when lines are spoken, but whenever an actress is in the room. Non-verbal communication and body language therefore became a very important part of the rehearsal process.
Answers from the cast
Would you say there is something different about working with a predominantly female cast?
It is really rare to find a show that has a predominantly female cast, and I haven't done this since doing an all-female version of Julius Caesar at drama school. It's great working with girls in the sense that there's less explaining to do and we're all on the same page. Artistically speaking, there's a sensitivity and security when working with ladies, so when the more difficult themes come up in the play, I feel secure enough onstage to see how far we can push a scene emotionally. Gender politics aside, we do have Jerome Mazet as part of the cast, as well as some great fellas in the production team, and our director, darling David. All the boys have been incredibly supportive and empowering. There are some differences, not the least of which is that, going against stereotype, there's been zero offstage drama and bitchiness. But, as in any production, the ultimate goal is to have a great show, and that's true regardless of whether you've got a vagina or a penis - Cecilia Garcia
As the play’s title states, you will all be wearing the same dress. Did any of you have a say in the costume’s design? Surely some of you are more buzzed about the dress, and the fitting, than others?
I've personally really enjoyed the show's dressmaking experience, especially because we've been lucky enough to work with David Maillet who is this really talented young French designer, and a really lovely person as well. He is so open to input too--he was drawing the dress design and I made a suggestion, just asking him something about the waistline really, and he was like yes! Of course! You are all goddesses! You all HAVE to be comfortable! And he said it all in a totally sincere way, even though I'm sure I was a pain to work with at times. I kept asking for different alterations and adjustments, but he was always very kind and patient with us. It can't have been easy trying to come up with one design to suit five very different women, but he was great and very sweet, so I quite enjoyed the process. - Emma Chandler
You can watch the trailer on youku by clicking here
April 23rd, 24th & 25th – show starts at 8pm
April 25th & 26th – matinée at 5pm
Venue : Strictly Designers United, Building A, 55 Fuxing Dong Lu (near Zhongshan Nan Lu)
Tickets : 150 rmb in advance, 180 rmb on the door
For reservations and further information please contact East West Theatre on email@example.com, 182-0216-4553, or www.eastwesttheatre.com
WORDS BY HANNAH CHERRINGTON-HALL