Director/Playwright Interview: Snow in Midsummer

Director/Playwright Interview: Snow in Midsummer


My name is Francis Cowhig, and I am the
playwright for Snow in Midsummer. My name is Justin Audibert, and I’m the
director for Snow in Midsummer. Justin and I started working together through the RSC
because the RSC had commissioned me to do an adaptation of Snow in Midsummer
which is based on the classical Yuan Chinese play The
Injustice to Dou E? “The Injustice to Dou E Which Moves Heaven and Earth.” And so Justin had worked at the RSC before, and
so I think they really believed in his ability to kind of hone this
show. And so we first met over the Internet.
Yeah, we did. It was a Skype conversation to begin with, and I had expressed an
interest in… the RSC at the time were running a project which involved
translating Shakespeare’s plays into Mandarin and adapting Chinese classic
stories into English, and then because of that they had commissioned
Francis, as she just explained, and then I got involved as a director because I
think I expressed this interest in that whole kind of canon because, I suppose, as
an artist one of the things I’m really interested in is stories that we don’t
know. You know, that’s the kind of thing that really motivates me. We had a summer
workshop that was very hands-on, improvving a lot of scenarios with this
amazing Asian acting company, and so Justin definitely helped generate
a lot of the plot during that summer workshop. I would say that Frances would
take the kind of work we’d done in the daytime with the actors, and I mean, quick
as you like, she’d write scenes, and the next day
they’d come in, and we’d try them out and we’d adjust them a little bit and the
actors would say no about this or what about that, and Frances would go away and write.
And actually, all through the original rehearsal process up until like two
weeks before we opened, Frances was still rewriting and tinkering with scenes,
weren’t you? I think up until two days until we opened. Yeah, big, big things and new scenes and yeah
we were still… yeah. We did. I mean, all through previews we reordered the
structure of stuff as well, and I think that was one of the most
enjoyable parts of the whole thing, actually. You know, we both were
really keen to try and just keep pushing this story, and I think that’s one of the
things that we’re excited about getting another chance to do it because there
are still a couple of things that we might want to change or adapt or grow,
and I mean that’s really exciting to be here and particularly with the
company of actors that are used to work in that way as well, and that want to
change things. I think that’s really exciting. I had read it before I knew
that Francis was writing it, yes. So I had read it. I have since watched a couple of versions of it, Chinese opera versions of it, on video.
Yes, I mean the very form of Chinese opera is so different kind of theater,
and it’s not dramatic in the way that we… I mean, it’s all about the singing and the
music and the costumes. Whereas I think the thing that Frances has done so
brilliantly–she’s written like a completely contemporary story. She’s
taken this epic, mythic play and just made it completely sing for today. You
know, that’s really exciting. The way that people experienced theater back then
during the Yuan Dynasty was more similar to how we experience a baseball game
now because the audience had total freedom to talk, eat, nap, come and go as
they pleased. It was a much more relaxed and, frankly, probably more enjoyable than
today theater experience, and so for that reason the way that you told the story
was completely different. In the original play, you hear the same plot probably
four different times just in case you fell asleep, and so if a current audience
kind of experienced that play, I don’t think they would really know how to
understand or appreciate it because now we’re very kind of fascist with our
audience experience. And so I had to kind of rewrite, you know, our current kind
of a ‘ADD’ audience attention span. So both plays are about a young
widow who is framed and executed for a crime she didn’t commit, and her angry
ghost causes a three year drought. And the contemporary adaptation is set
during ghost month which is a Buddhist holiday in July or August of every year,
and during ghost month, the idea is that the gates of the underworld open and ghosts
are free to visit as they please– kind of the barrier between the world of
the living and the world of the dead thins, and disappears. And so
into this there are so many superstitions about ghost month that
kind of create the rules of the world of Snow in Midsummer. So things like you’re
not supposed to cut your fingernails during ghost month because it’s an
invitation for spirits to visit. You’re not supposed to get married during ghost
month. You’re not supposed to move, and so in the contemporary adaptation, we use
a lot of these superstitions as kind of rules of the world. So, in the very first
scene there’s a marriage proposal, there’s people kind of moving, though not
permanently, to a town for a short while, and there’s a lot of things that you’re
not supposed to do during ghost month that happen. And that is why a ghost is
able to enter the world. And so in the play, we enter the play first by
meeting the character of Dou E. It’s a prologue, so we see her three
years earlier when she’s selling weavings on the street, and then when we
see her being, you know, taken away or we see her…something bad happens but we
don’t know what. And then for the remainder of the play, we’re in
the present moment in which a wealthy female entrepreneur has just arrived to
this drought-forsaken town to buy ailing factories, and her younger daughter
Feifei, who is a very devout believer of all these superstitions, begins to be
kind of haunted and tormented by a ghost, and that
kind of haunting is what starts to drive the contemporary action. In terms of the
relationship between Snow in Midsummer, Frances’s version, and the original story,
obviously the key thing we’ve kept is the way that women are treated in
society, and that is a focus. Now, Frances looks at it through a 21st century lens,
but nonetheless that whole relationship with who holds
power, who uses power, and who abuses power holds really true in Frances’s
version. I think the other brilliant thing that Frances has done is
she’s got this metaphor running through it about a missing heart and the various
ways in which we as humans can miss our hearts, both literally, metaphorically and
spiritually. And I think that’s a really amazing tactical idea that
I think is beautiful. Yeah, I mean, as soon as I just decided to set
the story in contemporary China, a lot of the themes just emerged organically by
just kind of examining what the givens would be if you just updated the story
of a woman executed for a crime she didn’t commit to the present to
present-day China. So, things like, until three years ago in China, it was totally
okay for executed prisoners to have their organs harvested without their
consent and sold to the highest bidder around the world, and so I played
with that. Or used that to the idea of this girl who’s executed, her organs are
harvested without her permission and sold to wealthy people around Asia. And I
really am interested in making visible the invisible
relationships in global capitalism, the relationships between poor
people within China and wealthy consumers all over the world. And
so Dou E is very literally looking for pieces of her mutilated
body that have been taken without her consent and spread around the world. I
think one of the things that surprised me the most about the original was that
so many people said to me that they had dreams about it afterwards, which
really…. yeah… and I did. I had really quite a few dreams, but that really
surprised me. I mean when you’re dealing with a play that looks at the spiritual
and what the spiritual means in today’s world. It fascinated me that it permeated
peoples’ subconscious, or unconscious in that kind of way. I thought that was
really interesting. One of the things that I think Francis captures
brilliantly in the play is just the speed of change in China, and that, I
think, subverts peoples’ expectations of China in a really exciting way. And
actually, in loads of ways, it’s hyper modern, and it’s kind of super capitalist
and super industrialist. You know, the Chinese make an awful
lot of the world. I mean it’s the workshop of the world,
really, and so even though essentially New Harmony’s a village, it’s a village powered by this enormous economic growth, and with that, the minute you
stop doing that, you then have bars and restaurants, and
all sorts of those kind of other aspects of modernity and seeing
signs of consumption, capitalist consumption, and it
felt really important that the play do that, but at the same time, the very
nature of the story is we’re in a drought. So it’s what do those things look like
in a society that’s been ravaged by a drought for three years, where maybe
you’re arguing the natural world is fighting back at you, or maybe
the point you’re making is you can’t defy the
natural world. It will always…you know… And I think that’s the thing that feels very integral to the physical actualization of the
play, really, that sense of what happens when you plunk a lot of today, a lot of
modernity, into the natural world that has
obviously it’s own laws and its own rules. And that
clash feels very important. I’ve lived in East Asia from ages 9 to 18 and
have gone… My mother’s from Taiwan, and my father was a US diplomat, and so I lived
in Beijing from 1996 to 2001, which was a kind of a massive period of
transformation in China, specifically in Beijing, and you know just witnessing the
kind of surrealist things that would happen on a daily basis, for example,
especially when they were trying to get the Olympic bid, you know they would seed
the clouds to make it rain so it’d be a blue sky day for the Olympic Committee.
There were all these dead trees outside my diplomatic
compound, so they spray-painted them green before the olympic
committee came through. They put up all these plastic palm trees and illuminated
them with neon green light, and so this you know just playing the the givens,
again, of the kind of surrealist things that are just done to kind of create
this sense of beauty. And so, you know, China has such a rich history of kind of
hiding what’s going on with theater. For example, during the Cultural Revolution
and the Great Famine when all these people were literally starving to
death, they would suddenly plant all this fake
grass when Chairman Mao was coming through the village where everyone’s
starving to just make believe that everything’s going ok. So
we kind of play with a lot of the things that are in kind of a literal reality of
current contemporary China and also their past and how they engage with the
weather and natural and man-made disasters and try to cover up. I think
one of the things so compelling about the story is the pace at which Snow in
Midsummer unfolds. What we wanted to do in creating the show is kind of have the
audience on the edge of their seat all the time, not ready for the next twist,
not ready for the next turn. And I think what Frances has done so
brilliantly is not only does it have that momentum, but emotionally it keeps on
hitting you towards the end of the play over and over
again, and it’s a fantastic experience being in the audience having that. You
have both, we hope, a visual feast but we kind of hope you have an emotional punch in
the guts as well. And all through the lens of a kind of mystery thriller, whodunit
structure. So hopefully it stays engaging and interesting but there are clues
throughout that keep you kind of focused and interested in the story.

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