ArtsWest: Ex-interim Artistic Director Annie Lareau on her direction of the theatre’s latest production, Chinglish
Article and photo by Amanda Knox
In the wake of Chinese New Year, ArtsWest Theatre has welcomed home ex interim Artistic Director Annie Lareau to direct the theatre’s latest production, Chinglish, by Tony award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. Lareau—tall, warm, and full of energy—shared some time prior to rehearsal to discuss her vision and mission.
Let’s get right to it. What is your connection to this play?
I chose this play for a couple of reasons. One, I’m really interested in seeing more diverse casts onstage. It’s sort of a passion of mine. Then, David Henry Hwang is a seminal Asian-American writer in our country and he’s not done often enough. This is his newest piece, and when I heard that other theatres were passing it up because it’s challenging, I took up the gauntlet. It’s an important piece, it’s a comedy, and it’s fun. It’s also just doing his work and bringing more Asian-American actors to the stage. All those things combined led me to choose this piece, even if it’s a big challenge.
Can you talk to me a bit about the specific challenges?
The big challenge is that about a third, if not more, is spoken in Mandarin Chinese. It’s a really difficult language, because it’s tonal. When you see the play, you’ll see a lot of supertitles, which allows for the comedy and tension of mistranslation. It’s in the timing of the lines, because, for a non-Mandarin speaker, you have to read it to get the joke. I also found that directing was difficult, because the tonality of the language affects the rhythm and cadence of the lines. There’s the added challenge of coaching actors through not only new lines, but a whole new language.
How are you playing up the role of language?
David Henry Hwang wrote it into his play, about how things are misinterpreted or misunderstood. We’re certainly playing up the comedic element of how you can say things in Mandarin to an English-speaking person because you can get away with things you normally wouldn’t get to say. There’s comedy and tension in the translation of the lines, and in the conflict between what a character is saying and what they’re really saying.
Is your production of Chinglish grounded in real-world current events, or does it stand alone?
It has larger implication to the community in terms of our ability to understand each other and our place in the world. It’s not just about language. It’s about culture. It’s about what’s important to all of us. It’s a play about business, but also about love, so it has larger implications about both cultural relations and human relations. But it’s a very fun look at that. It’s not heavy-handed.
Can you talk to me a little bit more about your passion to get diversity onstage?
I think there’s a real lack in American theatre in the equity of color on our stages. And diverse stories told by diverse voices. It’s also a problem in movies. I mean, look at the Oscars. But when we live in a city and community whose population is diverse, we have a responsibility in arts to show what our community is really like in terms of who lives here and what stories are told. This particular story is written for five Asian actors and two American actors, and that’s one way of getting at it. There are other ways too. There’s color-blind casting. It’s something everyone’s aware of now, but this awareness still needs to lead to concrete action.
When did it first occur to you that there needed to be more diversity onstage?
I’ve been aware of it for a while. I’ve been in the theatre community for over twenty-five years, and while I didn’t think a lot about it at the beginning of my career, it’s become important to me, especially when I’m directing and responsible for putting the actors and the story onstage. There are not many people in the city who get to do that. And it’s hard. It’s hard to find actors of color because there is not enough work for them to stay here. They don’t get the same experience. They don’t get to build their chops and become stronger actors. It’s become important for me to change that as much as I have the opportunity.
In directing this play, have you been surprised by anything?
I was telling my cast the other night that I started dreaming in Mandarin. Of course I didn’t understand it, but I was amazed at how it’s infiltrating my world. You start to pick it up. You realize you actually recognize what someone is saying. It’s surprising because at first it sounded like gibberish and I thought, “How am I going to do this?” It’s also been great to see the actors find the intensity in the moments.
What is the intensity of this play?
The intensity comes in the scenes between our two leads, a Chinese woman and an American businessman who fall in love, but they’re married to other people. It’s an intensity of finding love even if you don’t speak the same language and how it’s complicated.
That seems like a more universal concept, because even when two people speak the same language, it’s not necessarily that they’re speaking the same language.
How is the audience going to go into this play versus how are they going to come out?
I think they’ll go in through the comedy of mistranslation that we’re all familiar with. The background of the set will be plastered with all these mistranslated signs like, “Deformed Man’s Toilet” instead of, “Handicap Toilet.” And it goes both ways, like all these people in American wearing Chinese characters that they think means one thing but actually means something offensive. You go in through that lens, but you come out with a deeper understanding of the differences and similarities in the cultures. I don’t want to blow it, but there’s a whole crux of the plot that turns on what it means to be successful in business and what you deem as impressive. It’s both very funny and very telling, what success looks like.
Any parting thoughts?
I hope people come! And I hope people are able to come away having found the underlying truth through the process of being lost in translation.
Chinglish will be playing at ArtsWest Theatre (4711 California Ave SW) from March 5th-29th, Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets cost $15-$34.50 and may be purchased at the Box Office, online at https://artswest.secure.force.com/ticket, or by phone at (206) 938-0339.