People in China recently experienced contemporary American dramamany for the first timethanks to aWest Virginia Universitytheater professor.
Playwright Frank Gagliano spent his sabbatical sharing his knowledge of the stage with students at Peking Institute of World Theatre and Film atPeking University, where his play,Big Sur,was performed. It was the first contemporary American play to be produced at the Chinese university, and Gagliano was the first U.S. playwright since Arthur Miller to be in residence in China while his play was being produced.
Another American, Joe Graves, the artistic director of the Peking Institute of World Theatre and Film, both directed and starred inBig Sur.Graves also trained the Chinese students who performed in the play.
In �€~Big Sur,I wanted the students to feel an emotional connection with the material,said Gagliano,but I also wanted my American play to connect with the Chinese audience, most of whom did not speak English.
Gaglianos plays are internationally known. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and educated at the University of Iowa and Columbia University, he was part of a 1960s group of off Broadway playwrights. Gagliano has been the Benedum Professor of Playwriting at WVU for 31 years.
Big Surwas originally commissioned by NBC in the late 1960s for itsExperiment in Televisionseries and later adapted for the stage and performed all over the United States. In China, the play was performed by students who had no acting experience, since there are few theater departments in Chinese higher education.
I chose �€~Big Surbecause I thought the content and theme would appeal to Chinese students,Gagliano said.It was written in the 1960s when there was remarkable energy and experimentation in theater. In so many ways, that period was a turning point in form and subject matter, as well as in political and social areas.
I also thought �€~Big Surwould appeal to the Chinese because whats happening now in their country is similar to the big changes Americans experienced in the 1960s. China has more than a billion people, and the country is very diverse. More people in China have cars than ever before and are traveling across their country and seeing it for the first time.
Big Suris about a middle-aged man named Jeremy Chester, who wins a car in a church raffle and decides to head west across the United States to Big Sur in California. His dream for the trip is to really communicate with people, something he has never been able to do before.
The play is about the dislocation of the American psyche and the deeper wounds that were the outgrowth of the 1960s,Gagliano said.The central theme is our inability to truly communicate at any level of emotional or spiritual depth with each other.
Ironically,Big Surwas being performed by Chinese students who often found it a struggle to communicate in English. Most of the audience also did not speak English, but there was a translation of the English text for them to follow in Chinese.
The highlight of the production was when one of the characters, Chesters American Indian friend, who had not spoken throughout much of the play, suddenly began speaking. He turned out to be very hip, but tragic, Gagliano said, and he was looking for his roots in a rapidly changing American culture. It was Gravesidea to have the character, when he finally spoke, speak Chinese and to have Chester answer him in English.
It was very moving,Gagliano said.The audience was able to be a part of this experience where two people overcame the barrier of language. The emotions portrayed were very honest and direct.
In addition to working with the production ofBig Sur,Gagliano taught playwriting and conversational English classes at Peking University.
The scenes the Chinese students turned in were extremely sophisticated,he said.Many of the students from that class have now completed plays and plan to produce them at Peking University this semester. Ive also been writing letters of recommendation for some of them to go to graduate school in the U.S.
The WVU theaterprofessor plans to return to China in 2009 to do another of his plays,The Prince of Peasantmania.This play, to be done in Peking Opera style, will be a co-production of the Beijing Institute of World Theatre and Film and the professional theater in Beijing. Gagliano also has a new book of fiction coming out calledAntons Leap.
Information about these and other works by Gagliano, including hisChina Journal,are available on his Web site athttp://www.gaglianoriff.com.