Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. BUTTERFLY) is in rehearsals for the Broadway premiere of his latest play CHINGLISH following a hugely successful run in Chicago at the historic Goodman Theater. DHH has graciously agreed to blog weekly throughout the rehearsal process to give our readers a glimpse into how a major theatrical production comes to life. Today, the start of rehearsals for the Broadway premiere.
We’ve just finished our second week of rehearsals, and I’m struggling with a feeling which I also experienced in Chicago: things seem to be going really smoothly, what’s the catch? When’s the other shoe gonna drop? Christine, one of our cast members, said to me last night, “You’re sort of a worrier, aren’t you?” Er, maybe. But opening a show is sorta like giving birth. Even when things seem to be going well, you stay alert for signs of trouble.
Our new cast member, Gary Wilmes, who plays Daniel, the white American businessman, has a challenging task. Everyone else in the company went through a full rehearsal process in Chicago, then performed the show before audiences eight times a week, for six weeks. Gary’s got to learn his lines, find his character, understand the arc of the scenes, and basically get up to speed with his fellow cast members. And to his credit, he wants to do this work honestly, not just go through the motions. Gary compared this to jumping onto a moving train. I imagine it can’t be easy to be the guy in the room starting out way behind everyone else. But he’s tackled his assignment with grace, humor, and loads of hard work. And the cast has supported him with affection and generosity. This week, Gary’s labors really started to bear fruit. His scenes now feel energized, confident, and emotional. Which also makes them funnier. Because sometimes the best humor comes, not out of trying to make people laugh, but from feeling things more intensely, being more invested in the stakes of a situation, than people in everyday life.
I’ve also been keeping the cast on their toes with rewrites. Many good scriptwriters are compulsive rewriters. We believe the text can always be made better. There’s a saying that plays are never finished, they’re just abandoned. Which means, at a certain point, my colleagues usually make me stop rewriting; the critics are coming, and we have to “freeze” the show.
Rewriting also involves filtering criticism. When you’re working on a play or musical, everyone has an opinion about how to make it better. I think it’s important to listen, because every now and then, someone will offer an idea which articulates something you felt intuitively, but hadn’t yet clarified for yourself. Very rarely, however, will someone else give you a suggestion you can just incorporate wholesale. Even good notes usually only identify problems. You still have to come up with the solutions yourself. Listening to criticism requires you to stay closely in touch with your own instincts — to determine which ideas resonate in your own heart, and which are irrelevant to your script.
For instance, there’s a moment towards the end of the play when the character of Vice-Minister Xi, our female lead played by Jennifer Lim, appears at a big public event. In Chicago, she stepped out onstage and waved to unseen press and photographers. Leigh suggested that this moment always felt a little anticlimactic. The audience was excited to see her walk on, then disappointed that she didn’t really do anything. So I added a short speech for her, which energizes that moment, and helps it land dramatically. Other useful notes over the past few weeks have come from our producers, my dramaturg Oskar Eustis, and my wife Kathryn.
There’s also a risk of tinkering too much. You can start to rewrite just for the sake of staying busy, or because you can’t let go. Sometimes, you have to step back before you start screwing things up. So it’s a delicate balance. In general, I’ve rewritten CHINGLISH less than probably any play of mine since M. BUTTERFLY.
I have to tell myself that’s ok. The time may have come for me to let the rehearsal process continue without a lot of additional script changes. To give Gary time to learn his part. And Leigh a chance to get the production to the next level. To let go — just a little.
For me, that’s hard. As a parent, it’s not unlike what I experienced the first time I let my teenaged son travel to school on the subway by himself. Perhaps this is “the catch.” That other shoe dropping. To start trusting that the script may be getting pretty close to its final form. Which can be a challenge — especially when you’re sort of a worrier.
Here I am, talking about the show.
(Read DHH’s week 1 Broadway rehearsal blog here)