This story was corrected on Sept. 27, 2012. An explanation of the correction follows the story.
In 1599, playwright William Shakespeare and his playing company, Lord Chamberlain's Men, built what Shakespeare would end up calling the Globe Theatre.
Of course, this is the same man who wrote, “All the world's a stage …” When two worlds collide, however, to do something that has never been done before, we get the true meaning behind Shakespeare's words.
The University of Maryland's School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, in conjunction with the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, is ready to make history and will put on Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” today through Sunday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, located in College Park.
This show, for the most part, is three years in the making. Actors from both China and the United States have worked on and perfected their roles. Tonight, actors from both countries will be on stage together, speaking in their native tongues, with neither missing a beat. Subtitles displayed on screens will provide translation from Chinese to English for the audience.
The idea came from University of Maryland faculty member Helen Huang, according to Mitchell Hébert, American director for the show. Being Chinese, Huang sometimes goes back to Beijing and teaches.
“She came back and had met with a colleague of hers at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, a guy named Li Wei, and they talked about, 'Hey, wouldn't it be interesting to do a co-production?'” Hébert says. “The Chinese were interested in doing a Western play with a Western institution and Helen said, 'Well, why not us?'”
Of course, the idea itself is intriguing, but when the cold light of day hits, different thoughts pop up, Hébert says.
“It's daunting when you stop to think about it afterwards,” Hébert says. “Once the idea kinda got dropped into our laps, then the process became 'Sigh.' There are several different avenues. There's logistics, 'How do you do it?'; the other one is, artistically, 'How do you frame it?'”
Yu Fanlin, the director in China and professor at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, also worried about different aspects of the show coming together.
“This is the first time we've attempted to make such a bilingual co-production and the first difficulty we have had is how to transform the script, the original play, into something that we would want to present to the American audience,” Yu says with help from interpreter Joceyln Yu. “The second difficulty that we had is in analyzing the script and trying to present the performance on the stage in a creative way in creative settings. And, thirdly, this co-production, we can say, is a subtle mix of Asian culture with American culture and we blend in some elements of Chinese traditional Peking opera. And one difficult part is how we organize, how we blend these elements in a subtle way.”
Costumes, set pieces, props — so many things from Chinese and American culture have been intertwined for “Midsummer.” A lot of bamboo was utilized, and the stage will have several silk panels hanging from the ceiling and stretching all the way to the floor. How else will the fairies fly through the air?
Like something you'd see in a professional Cirque du Soleil production, the fairies will spin, twist, climb and roll themselves up in these silk panels. Learning to do that and being physically prepared to do that didn't come easy for the fairies.
“I'm afraid of heights. I'm afraid of flipping upside down and backwards, so the first aerial rehearsal we had was in May and we were doing a move that we do in the show, and I fell,” says Riley Bartlebaugh, who plays the fairy Mustardseed. “I was only, like, three feet off the ground, but I fell, and I had to take a break, I had to walk out of the room and let myself decompress and it hit me recently just how far I've come and how confident I've become. It's night and day for me, personally, as someone who came in terrified.“
Other actors were extremely excited about the chance to work with the silks.
“When I found out we would be climbing with the silks I was like 'YES!' because when I was, like, 1, I broke my arm because I climbed on my parents' bed. I jumped, fell off, broke my arm,” says Anna Lynch, who plays Moth. “I've fallen from horses, I've been Peter Pan, they've flown me around and I was like, 'YEAH!'
“It was a struggle because we felt like we were getting tangled in the silks and you didn't know how to get down and you were weak.”
On that front, one of the things the fairies had to do this past summer was get in shape.
“Physically, someone was talking with me over the summer because we had to do a lot of training on our own, just to get our strength up, and they're like, 'What do you have to do to get ready for the silks?,'” Bartlebaugh says. “And it's like, 'Oh, well, your feet have to be strong because you have to hold this lock for a very long time and your arms have to be strong because you have to pull yourself up and your abs have to be strong because that's where all your stabilization is and then your legs have to be strong so you can do this. …'
“And it's like, basically everything. Everything. If your toes hurt, it's because they're not strong enough.”
Silks aside, another concern was how would the Chinese actors handle the culture shock of coming to the United States? Thanks to the Internet, according to Sun Shangqi, who plays Hippolyta and Titania, the actors handled it just fine.
“When we arrived in the United States for this play we also brought the traditional elements of Chinese culture and Chinese performing arts with us. This is not only a blend of cultures in the play, it's also a collaboration of the two cultures, between the two sides of the actors,” says Tantai Yiyan, who is the second assistant for Yu and plays Egeus. “Just like a hot pot, which includes both Chinese flavors and U.S. flavor, which the culmination has made the whole hot pot delicious and we really enjoyed it. Even though we had some language barriers, we communicate with heart and that kind of removes the language barriers that we had. We've been having a very good time with our U.S. counterparts.”
“I believe it's not only a collaboration of Shakespeare's play, it also gives both of us — the U.S. and the Chinese side — the opportunity to improve our understandings of each other's culture, Yu adds. “And it gives us an opportunity to improve our education of theater arts. During our stay in the United States we have truly felt the kindness and friendliness of the American people and we thought that with our communication and the collaboration we hope to spread this message of friendliness into a bigger scale. In that way, we can improve mutual understandings of each other in two countries, in two societies and improve the relationship as well.”
To be on the cusp of presenting groundbreaking work, both Hébert and Yu are extremely pleased and excited about how the show will be received. After the initial five-performance run at the Clarice Smith center, the cast will fly to China and perform the show four more times before calling it a wrap. Getting to this point, though, still feels like a dream for most.
“For a long time, this was not a reality — it's a thing you have a meeting about, 'Let's talk about the China project,' or, 'OK, let's do this or let's do that.' And you'll go off and do some other part of your life because there's a long lead time going into it,” Hébert says. “Then, all of a sudden, one day the Chinese cast shows up here and instantly it is real. Even though you've been rehearsing, thinking about it, designing stuff, it's somehow — yeah, it's real, but human beings coming in and occupying the same space as you're meeting with them and talking with them, listening to them, watching them work, it's when this whole thing became incredibly human to all of us in a really deep way.”
“Every time I see us run a portion of the show I'm just overwhelmed with pride. Whether or not I'm in the scene, whether or not it's from our side of the Pacific or their side of the Pacific, I see us rehearsing and it's just this warm feeling that engulfs me and it's like, 'Wow, this is actually happening right now. We're actually doing it,'” Bartlebaugh says. “Years have gone into this production before we were a part of it. I think it's three years into this production, millions of dollars and that was the daunting part that was riding on my shoulders coming in at the end of the summer, coming into this rehearsal, was that so many hours, so many tears, so much money has already been poured into this production before the actors even stepped foot into the rehearsal room.”
For these students, these professors — it's more than just a once-in-a-lifetime event. This will be a part of their lives forever.
For behind-the-scenes photos and videos from the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, be sure to visit http://tinyurl.com/mdmidsummer
In a previous edition of this story, interpreter Jocelyn Yu was misidentified. Also, the production is being produced partly by the university's school of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies, which was not mentioned previously.