Time for the most exciting theater happening of this week – East West Theater premieres this friday with California Suite, Neil Simons’ 1976 bittersweet comedy. EWT is one of Shanghais first locally-based English theater groups in Shanghai. In an interview with Shanghaiist, producer and actress Rosita L. Janbakhsh and directors Jonathan Geenen and Daniel Connelly, tell their thoughts around the play, life as an artist in China, male dominance within the theater world, and much more.
East West Theater, you seem to be a busy, hard working ensemble – only last month you presented Waiting for Godot, and now you´re on stage again. Normally, a theater production takes several months… how do you manage?
J: Actually a normal production in the professional theater is lucky to have more than three weeks rehearsal. We had four weeks of evenings for this as well as working with two directors to maximize the time. So I think this was a perfect amount of time to produce it. We actually had more time for this than Godot if I’m not mistaken.
R: East West has always put up productions quickly. Then again, oftentimes that is the nature of movement in Shanghai in general. It is quite a fast paced city…here it is all about the promotion and less about the reviews (as opposed to Broadway and the West End).
Where: Shanghai Workers’ Culture Palace 上海工人文化宫小剧场, 251 Bei Hai Road near Yunan Road 北海路251号二楼近云南中路
Runs from: Friday, June 5 to Sunday, June 7 8pm
However, the number of weeks may not be much but the number of hours we commit during those weeks is quite intense – often we rehearse twice a day. This time around the load has been diversified due to the nature of this particular play. We have been able to use two directors and 4 different casts, thus allowing us to spread the work around, so to speak. With less lines to learn, the time constraint is eased. The amount of commitment and character exploration is still just as vast and deep.
D: This is my first play for East West Theater. California Suite has proved to be both a labor of love and a love of labor. Given the right environment, high quality actors can move mountains. The ensemble have done so with California Suite.
This is your first comedy of the season, did you feel you wanted a somewhat cheerier play with a bit more action in it as a contrast to Waiting for Godot?
R: Our plan has always been to choose plays vastly different than the previous one. Godot in its way was a comedy, albeit dark and often tragic. On the surface California Suite is very much a laugh out loud comedy, however, it requires both the cast and audience to relish in the back stories of each particular situation. Comedy – the most thorough and deep seated comedy – is often based on the most tragic or depressive of circumstances
J: Although California Suite is lighter in appearance, I believe that the questions it asks of the audience are just as deep and relevant as any well written play.
What are you´re thoughts on sticking to the original play, in terms of the text/language and set design? Do you strive to be as close to the original idea as possible, or do you welcome modern, more experimental productions?
J: I think that all plays are dead as door nails on the page. As actors, designers, directors, or any profession in the theater, you have to find a way to connect with the text and serve the play. Sometimes the strangest things end up serving the play much better than any cookie cutter design ideas would and that’s how we like it. Necessity is the mother of invention and East West has never been short of that.
R: It is always about the original work – the words on the page by the playwright. Depending on one’s definition of “experimental” one could say that EWT has put up “experimental” theater productions since we often have had to come up with creative solutions to create an appropriate set or costume or even audience seating. Budget, logistics, venue, time… all create limits in a way, but EWT has always strived to use the limits to empower the end result.
The acting has always been the core of our theater ensemble, we strive to keep at the purity of what theater is and has always been since modern traditional theater became established as far back as Shakespeare’s theater group at the Globe…its the work, the acting, the writing…these are the roots.
California Suite withholds a great deal of marriage madness and domestic disputes. Considering Neil Simon married five times, do you think the play is somewhat autobiographic?
J: I will resort to a quotation from the great stage director Tyrone Guthrie on this: “Work can only be universal if it is rooted in a part of its creator which is most privately and particularly himself.” It is then the actors job to find that in his interpretation – to find that which is most privately and particularly himself and let it shine through the work.
R: All art is in someway a reflection of an artist’s life…as an actor (i am also acting in this production) one has to draw upon their own life experience… it’s what makes it real and believable and relatable. As for Neil Simon, many aspects of his writing were autobiographical and some of his pieces more so than others. In this particular piece, the last scene “Visitors from Chicago” is in fact based upon his own experience as a young newlywed on vacation with his wife and two best friends (also a young married couple).
What kind of audience do you think will enjoy California Suite?
J: Everyone over the age of 18.
R: It is a mature comedy…completely relatable to those aged 15 or older.
D: Anyone with a pulse will love this play.
Is this a comedy that will only give us a good laugh, or will we learn something important from it, as well?
J: I hope both.
D: When we laugh at comedy it is often with relief that other people possess our own frailties. There are a million laughs in California Suite. You’ll learn a series of how not to’s: how not to play tennis, how not to sleep with a prostitute, how not to throw up at the Oscars, how not to banter with your ex.
Can you tell me some interesting trivia about the production process? Any mistakes, any strange things happening?
R: The most interesting aspect is that I found a venue within 24 hours, sourced the script within 36 hours and cast the play within 3 days. In Shanghai where scripts of western plays in English are few, venues book up far in advance and finding actors involves the opposite problem of every other city (there are always too many actors and not enough roles). The beginning of the production process was a feat in itself. Everything fell into place and simply fit together. I attribute that to the kindness of many people we are surrounded by in Shanghai, people simply wanting to help because of their love and desire to support locally based art.
D: In every sense of the phrase, my stage manager, one of my actors, and I, have been taxi ridden. We’ve discovered a Shanghai beyond the reach of Google.
Most of the big theater productions we see around the world are written by men. Do you in East West Theater think it´s important to highlight female playwrights?
J: I think that this is a very interesting comment. I think East West Theater probably fares better than other theater companies in that we have presented two plays written by women out of the ten we have done. Not consciously. Because they were very good plays. I don’t think that I will ever highlight work or choose it based on gender, race, or any other qualities that would make the choice of play questionable or to try and sell it or what have you. Great work has universal qualities and that is what we are after.
R: Ultimately, its about creating great art. One of our biggest productions to date was written by an extremely talented female playwright: Yasmina Reza. Last fall we produced an all female cast play written by a female as well.
East West has always had a female producer. With California Suite, a play written by a man, all of his female characters are quite strong, much stronger than the men often times. It isn´t simply or always who wrote what, but more of what was exactly written. It is very important to highlight female playwrights and we as a theater ensemble have been lucky enough to explore that avenue thoroughly and successfully.
D: I think it’s important to highlight good writing. Full stop.
You are a nonprofit group, does the EWT productions still cover your living expenses or do you have to have extra jobs on the side?
J: In my entire professional life I have done work “on the side” but I look forward to the day when I don’t have to.
D: I continue to eat fish for a living.
R: As a nonprofit, everyone has either full time jobs or other side jobs in which they make most of their living. The artistic director and myself as producer, work at EWT full time but still must work other jobs to cover living expenses.
Thus is the nature of being an artist and in love with art, often it is not about the money, it is about the ability to create and become enthralled in what we love. As opposed to trying to do this in New York or London, we do not have to be those “starving artists.” We can at least cover living expenses, so we’re simply struggling artists. Every production is a struggle… but we keep putting up plays, no matter the obstacles, because in the end it is about the experience and the creation.
How is it to work as an artist in China? How about the censorship, how limited are you when it comes to putting up plays that might be considered politically provoking?
J: I have never really thought about it. When I choose a play that has a plot that addresses those issues specifically, I would have to take it into consideration. Although I would argue that trying to understand humanity through any art form is about as political as one can get.
R: Working as an artist in China is very different as China is still very much a developing country and has one with a particular political system. It creates a unique working environment, one I like to call “the wild wild east”. In terms of politically provoking, ultimately we are guests in this country and as such must be aware. However anything you do can be spun to be “scandalous” or “provoking”. Have certain aspects of the society we currently live in limited our choices? Of course. Has it prevented us from doing a play that we wanted to do? Yes… But the thing that has limited us more than the “censorship” has actually been lack of access to raw materials, the basis of theater, the script and plays themselves. Without the play…there is no production.
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Picture from: http://www.impawards.com