Tony 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.
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.
Theatre people tend towards superstition. For instance, it is supposedly bad luck to say “Macbeth” in a theatre, so we refer euphemistically to “The Scottish play.” As stage artists, we create something ephemeral, which only exists for an evening, never to be seen in exactly that form again. The length our shows run is also determined by factors beyond our control: a combination of critics’ reviews (which, while still important, have become less make-or-break in the internet age) and audience word of mouth. There is a degree to which success – if defined commercially – is random. You make the best show you can, than roll the dice. All we really own is the quality of our work. The KUNG FU team did an astounding amount of work throughout rehearsals and previews. Now, our production is ready to be seen and judged. I’ve been wanting to make a show about Bruce Lee for 20 years, and I finally got to do so. That’s the real reward. Anything else is icing on the cake.
The night after the show was frozen, I felt hungry, and ended up doing something I rarely do: wandered over to the McDonald’s in Times Square, for a Big Mac with fries. Alone at one of the world’s busiest intersections, I reflected on how much I enjoy what I do. Sometimes, parents (particularly Asian parents?) find it difficult to accept their kids going into the arts, favoring instead a more stable career. But what exactly is “stable?” You can become an engineer, but then the government cuts funding for space exploration or something, and you get laid off. On the other hand, if you do something you love, you are more likely to work hard, because it’s not really going to feel so much like work. Now in my mid-50’s, I have to say that if you can follow your dream, and pay your bills doing so (two big “if’s,” but why not try?), I can’t imagine a better way to live a life.
The final change I made was to rewrite Bruce’s last line in the show. After many incarnations, I restored it essentially to what it had been in my very first draft. Edward Albee’s great 1959 play THE ZOO STORY contains a line I have always loved: “Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” It feels very satisfying that all these changes have brought me back, in the final moment of the play, to where I first began.
Opening Night is Monday, February 24.
Here’s our trailer.