Going to China to work with the talented artists of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre was an incredible experience, both personally and artistically. The company celebrated its 25th anniversary by inviting guest artists from Russia, France, Britain and America to do iconic plays from their countries. We were honored to be part of this season.
Even though the story of "The Glass Menagerie" begins in winter, David asked for a pale palette so the actors could be lit like the fragile figurines of the title. Knowing the costumes would be among the few realistic visual elements in a poetic space (and that American vintage wouldn't be very easy to find in China), I shopped for period suits, coats and accessories to bring in my suitcase. The Chinese prefer new things, so I was grateful that the actors were willing to wear the old clothes I found. The ladies' dresses, men's shirts and Amanda's shoes were custom-made in Shanghai. It was a humbling challenge negotiating the language barrier in fittings. I hadn't fully grasped how technical our costuming terms are until the day I struggled to explain what I meant by hem tape! Luckily, our thoughtful young producer, Lena Sun, found a Mandarin/English production dictionary to consult when we were stuck. I brought period patterns that were close to my designs and our draper Master Lee adapted them expertly to fit. At my request, he also abandoned his efficient, modern finishing techniques for more hand work to make the clothes look homemade.
The best part was getting to know the city by shopping. Fabric and trims were sold in warehouse-sized buildings full of individual vendors. My patient assistant Zongzong would lead me through a maze of stalls to find buttons, buckles, silk and lace. To communicate, we typed into an app on her phone, laughing when the translation often made no sense. Once when I tried to say we should buy 5 meters of fabric, the app said 5 inches! (See my post on China in Perspectives to read more.)
After weeks of hard work with this generous, hard-working company, we previewed a production we would have been proud of anywhere. The actors took risks, finding the humor and heartache in their complex roles. The best part was that audience members who weren't familiar with Williams' work were moved by the story. It was amazing to be able to follow the play in another language. Now we want to go back!
By: Tennessee Williams • Translation by Qian Lin
Director: David Esbjornson
Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez • Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski • Sound Design: Wang Yixuan
Cast: Song Ruhui, Lan Haimeng, Zhu Jie, and He Ping.
Photos: Yin Xuefeng