Around the Horn: Read Any Good Books Lately?

First, thanks to my fellow Offenders for being so understanding and covering for me while I’ve been opening my new show.

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Although I’m a writer, I’m not proud to admit that I don’t read as much as I’d like to. Sure, I read scripts, and books related to my work (i.e. those I’m adapting into scripts, or would like to). But nowadays, I don’t read for pleasure as much as I used to. My most recent book was Eddie Huang’s memoir, FRESH OFF THE BOAT. OK, Eddie sent it to me, and it’s being made into an ABC television pilot, but I don’t have anything to do with that project, so I think this still counts as pleasure reading. Eddie’s a chef, TV personality, and the owner of Manhattan’s Baohaus, where I’ve long enjoyed his cooking. I really enjoyed his memoir about growing up Chinese American in Florida, which reminded me of earlier Asian American works from my own youth, now through the voice of a younger generation, with a brash, hip, in-your-face style.

How about you guys? What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Kung Fu Journal (February 22, 2014)

KUNG_FU_JOURNALTony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is currently in previews for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24 (this Monday) and has been extended to March 30. This is his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU. Read previous entries here.

Well, my work is done.

From left to right: me, associate choreographer Al Blackstone, Leigh, and stage managers David Lurie & Jillian Oliver (well, her back), juggling incense and oranges. Photo by Alan Muraoka.

From left to right: me, associate choreographer Al Blackstone, Leigh, and stage managers David Lurie & Jillian Oliver (well, her back), juggling incense and oranges. Photo by Alan Muraoka.

This past Wednesday, we “froze” the show. For our last rehearsal, Joanna Lee & Ken Smith, our Cultural Advisors, led an End of Rehearsal ritual – sorta culled from Taoist traditions, but mostly improvised. We processed through the “house” (audience area) and stage, holding sticks of incense, while sprinkling rice wine, all intended to seal in the good energy we generated doing our work here. Given contemporary fire and smoke regulations, we were limited to six sticks of incense, so that’s how many we used. Joanna had us parade counter-clockwise, only making left turns, to circumnavigate the theatre. Afterwards, we each received a clementine to eat. Will this ritual do any good? Can’t hurt. And the sandalwood incense smelled nice.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Kung Fu Journal (February 15, 2014)

KUNG_FU_JOURNALTony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is currently in previews for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24 and has been extended to March 30. This is his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU. Read previous entries here.

Cole Horibe, Phoebe Strole, and the cast of KUNG FU. All photos by Joan Marcus.

Cole Horibe, Phoebe Strole, and the cast of KUNG FU. All photos by Joan Marcus.

Apologies for this tardy post, but as I noted in my previous entry, previews are the most intense part of the production process. With new pages flying, dances being reworked, and technical elements redesigned, the premiere of a new show requires a company and creative team to be flexible and talented, with a Protean work ethic. Leigh, our director, is a stunning leader, cramming into one four-hour rehearsal schedule changes that would require a week to incorporate during your average Broadway preview process. Which is a good thing, too. This show resembles a Broadway musical in its number of moving parts. And the big Broadway musicals I’ve written have gotten up to six weeks of previews (another show, SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK famously previewed for almost six months). We, however, have about two and a half weeks to get our work done.

Kung Fu Journal (February 6, 2014)

KUNG_FU_JOURNALTony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is currently in previews for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24 and has been extended to March 30. This is his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU. Read previous entries here.

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This past Tuesday, we had our first preview: the first performance of our show before a paying audience. The actors were amazing, and earned a standing ovation at curtain call. But this is no time to rest. On the contrary, this is when the real work begins.

A couple of major Bruce Lee fans showed up for our first preview. Photo by Joanna C. Lee.

A couple of major Bruce Lee fans showed up for our first preview. Photo by Joanna C. Lee.

We’re in the most intense part of the process, when the creative team learns from audiences what is and isn’t working. While the opinions of individual patrons may or may not be correct, the audience as a whole is rarely wrong. If we think something is funny, and the audience doesn’t laugh, it’s not their fault, it’s ours. Maybe the line doesn’t work. Maybe the actor isn’t delivering it effectively. Maybe the staging is sabotaging us. Or the lights. Or any number of other variables. So we listen to the audience every night, and continue making changes, in all areas.

Kung Fu Journal (January 30, 2014)

KUNG_FU_JOURNALTony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24. This is the first of his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU. Read previous entries here.

On Tuesday, January 28, we started technical rehearsals, or “Tech.” Mondays are usually days off in the theatre world, so our last day in the rehearsal room was Sunday the 26th. We did our third run-through of the show, with a small audience in attendance. Not only did the actors go from beginning to end without stopping, incorporating all the dances, but their performance was exhilarating, thrilling, and totally bad-ass. An incredible amount of work had been achieved: a new show, built virtually from scratch, all in just three and a half weeks. We were ready to move onto the stage.

Christopher Vo, Phoebe Strole, and Reed Luplau, in their new backstage robes at the start of Tech. Chris let me lift this from his FB page.

Christopher Vo, Phoebe Strole, and Reed Luplau, in their new backstage robes at the start of Tech. Chris let me lift this from his FB page.

Of course, the fact that the run-thru felt triumphant doesn’t mean my job is done. On the contrary, immediately afterwards, I huddled with Leigh and dramaturg Oskar Eustis, who is generously taking time out from his day job as the Artistic Director of New York’s legendary Public Theatre. We decided to rearrange the order of scenes at the end of the show. So the actors showed up for Tech to be greeted by 23 new pages (of a 107 page script)!

Tech is intense. We add all the design elements to the show – sets, costumes, lights, music, projections, and many other components. The workdays are long –noon til midnight. The audience portion, or “house” of the theatre, looks like something out of Mission Control: dotted with tech tables, each designer hunkering over computers with his or her assistants, supervising different aspects of the production.

Kung Fu Journal (January 23, 2014)

KUNG_FU_JOURNALTony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24. This is the first of his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU. Read previous entries here.

On Tuesday, we did our first run-through of the entire show. As I’ve written in previous posts, KUNG FU consists not only of scenes but numbers – fighting and dances, underscored with music. The amount of work often requires that various components be created separately. We have two rehearsal rooms going at almost all times. Leigh might be rehearsing a scene, while Sonia’s working on dances in another space, Jamie might be teaching Chinese Opera, or dialect coach Deb Hecht could be coaching actors on the authenticity of their accents. Like a movie, we’ve rehearsed many elements out of sequence. So putting everything together from the first time is exciting – and teaches us a lot.

Left to right: Fight Director & cast member Manny Brown, with actors Clifton Duncan and Francis Jue.

Left to right: Fight Director & cast member Manny Brown, with actors Clifton Duncan and Francis Jue.

The run-through went surprisingly smoothly. All the preparation of our show’s various parts, plus the cast’s dedication and hard work, paid off. We didn’t have to stop once. Afterwards, the creative team – including Leigh, Sonya, fight director Manny, Leigh’s assistant Alan Muraoka, and Sonya’s associate Al Blackstone – huddled to discuss what we’d learned.

Kung Fu Journal (January 16, 2014)

KUNG_FU_JOURNALTony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24. This is the first of his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU. read previous entries here.

We’ve now been rehearsing for two weeks, and a tremendous amount of work has taken place. Putting together a production team is like creating a short-term family – you hope everyone gets along, that the group will be harmonious rather than dysfunctional – but you never really know until people start working together.

At least for the moment, we have a very happy family. The atmosphere in the room is positive and supportive; everyone works extremely hard, and is really excited about the show we’re creating. My concept was to put together an entire cast of actors who are also martial artists and dancers. There are 17 numbers in KUNG FU – each some combination of martial arts, Chinese opera movement, and/or dance. Here the artists who are creating these numbers:

Here’s a photo of Manny that I copied and pasted from his FB profile.

Here’s a photo of Manny that I copied and pasted from his FB profile.

Emmanuel “Manny” Brown is our fight director as well as a cast member. He holds black belts in kung fu and several other martial arts forms, and most recently, comes from the cast of SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK, along with several of our other performers. Manny’s been working on my Bruce Lee project almost as long as I have. Back when I was trying to write it as a musical, Manny was part of those early workshops. Besides being incredibly skilled, he has a warm, positive spirit, and is an encouraging teacher. I feel very lucky that he’s stayed with this show as long as he has.

Kung Fu Journal (January 8, 2014)

get-attachment.aspxTony Award-winning playwright/Offender David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for his new play KUNG FU, which has its World Premiere at the Signature Theatre in New York on February 24. This is the first of his weekly blog series giving our readers a glimpse into the rehearsal process for KUNG FU.

We’re just finishing our first week of rehearsals for my new show KUNG FU, about the great martial arts and film legend, Bruce Lee. Our first rehearsal, on January 2nd, was particularly emotional for me. Probably because it had taken twenty years to arrive at that day.

Me with my long-time artistic partner, director Leigh Silverman, at the first day of rehearsals for KUNG FU. Photos by Erik Carter.

Me with my long-time artistic partner, director Leigh Silverman, at the first day of rehearsals for KUNG FU. Photos by Erik Carter.

I first had the idea to do a show about Bruce Lee back around 1993. Even then, it seemed clear that China was rising, and would regain its centuries-old status as a world power. When I was a kid in the 1960’s, however, the image of China was completely different: poor, uneducated, hopelessly dysfunctional, the “sick man of Asia” (a phrase Lee used in his movie FIST OF FURY). Bruce Lee gained international stardom in the 1970’s, as that image was just beginning to change. He therefore became the first pop culture manifestation of a New China. I wanted to write about that.

Around the Horn: College Application Edition

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I have a 17 year-old son, so this fall is college application season around our house. Granted, I applied to college back in the Paleozoic Era, but I’m still shocked by how much the process has changed. First, it’s so much harder to get into some of these schools! I did my undergraduate at Stanford, which would probably never admit me today, since my SATs were mediocre. Second, I applied to like three colleges, whereas students nowadays seem to go for around ten. The rise of the Common App makes doing so somewhat easier, but each college still seems to require its own extra essay or set of questions. And nowadays, kids are encouraged to visit the colleges they’re interested in, so there’s that.

Around the Horn: Pet Projects Edition

Way back in the early-1990’s, I came across a story I knew I had to make into a movie: the Opium Wars, fought in the mid-19th century so England could sell illegal drugs in China. Basically, Britain started out with a trade deficit problem: a huge appetite for Chinese goods, such as tea, silk, and porcelain, but little that China wanted to buy in return. So Europeans taught the Chinese to smoke opium, and eventually cornered the narcotics market, which nicely corrected their trade imbalance. When China’s Qing Dynasty rulers tried to stop the flow of opium, England went to war to keep the seas free for drug cartels.

Commissioner Lin, destroying opium

This story has all the elements of a classic epic film: historical backdrop, large-scale battles, and colorful characters, but with an interesting twist. In this War on Drugs, the drug lords and kingpins were Europeans. Conversely, the heroes are mostly Chinese, such as Commissioner Lin Zexu, who confiscated and destroyed British opium, as well as anti-drug Chinese street gangs. This totally turns on its head our conventional images of good guys and bad guys. I saw it as a counterweight to films such as TAI-PAN, which depict 19th-century British drug barons as swashbuckling adventurers. In historical fact, the Taipans were the narco-terrorists of their day.

Well, it’s now been almost twenty years since I had this idea, and I’ve never been able to get any major Western production company interested. A Chinese movie called THE OPIUM WAR, directed by Xie Jin, was released in 1997, but I’m still trying to get a similar project going on this side of the Pacific. Lately, I’ve started to think I should do it as a stage play.

How about you? Do you have any pet projects that you’ve been trying to make for years or even decades without success, but continue to haunt you?

Around the Horn: Marriage Equality

One big issue around the country this week has been the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the issue of marriage equality. I’m assuming that my fellow Offenders join me in supporting the right of gay couples to marry. Throughout my adult life, I’ve been fortunate to have had both straight and gay friends. As we all got older, most found partners and began pairing up for the long term. Except those who were gay couldn’t get married, which always struck me as unfair.

The issue really hit home for me, however, about seven or eight years ago. The partner of a good friend suddenly suffered a heart attack and went into the hospital. Even though they’d been together ten years at that point, my friend didn’t have any legal standing to visit his partner, nor would he be able to make medical decisions should this become necessary. Thankfully, President Obama mandated in 2010 that the partners of gay patients were entitled to equal rights of visitation and medical consultation, but this example really made me conscious of the many ways — small and large — that the inability of gay couples to marry relegated them to second-class citizenship.

Was there a particular moment or incident in your experience that brought home the issue of marriage equality for you?

Around the Horn: What Language Do You Speak Edition

There’s that old joke: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? An American.” Personally, I feel ashamed and embarrassed that I don’t speak a foreign language. My parents were Chinese immigrants, but they spoke different dialects and therefore English became the lingua franca in our home. As a kid, I had to attend Chinese school on weekends, but of course hated doing so and, this being the assimilationist 1960’s, my folks let me quit. I took French, Latin, German, and Spanish in elementary, middle, and high school, but can’t do any better nowadays than maybe count to ten in each.

As a college student, I studied Mandarin for two years, and as an adult, have made periodic stabs at hiring Chinese tutors, but my Chinese still totally sucks. My relationship to Mandarin is similar to that of a frustrated smoker to his habit: every now and then, I make an attempt to overcome my deficiency, only to eventually give up and relapse — in my case, into monolingualism.

What about you? Do you have proficiency in a language or languages other than English? And if so, was it something you acquired as a child in the home, or through determination and hard work?