Fleshing out the Dramaturgy of Gao Xingjian

By Claire Conceison

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright 2002)

Video of the University of Michigan production available here

The plays of Gao Xingjian present a daunting challenge—even in English translation and even for an ideal audience familiar with both the Western postmodern experimental and Chinese cultural, religious, and social conditions that influence them. They challenge the reader, actor, director, and critic more than most other contemporary plays, in part because of their global cultural influences and in part because of their effort to produce a unique bodily practice for the actor and a new aesthetic of performance for the spectator. In return for rising to this challenge, audiences and artists alike are rewarded with an intense experience that remains with them long after leaving the theatre. With the international attention showered on Gao since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, this is precisely the moment to urge our departmental and student theatre organizations to bring his plays to life on our university stages; and, as this essay will show, doing so is surprisingly possible and incredibly rewarding.

Fig.1: Program from University of Michigan production of The Bus Stop. The background is a painting entitled "Meditation" (1994), used by permission of Gao Xingjian

Fig.1: Program from University of Michigan production of The Bus Stop. The background is a painting entitled “Meditation” (1994), used by permission of Gao Xingjian

Literary critic Henry Y. H. Zhao asserts in his recent study of Gao’s dramaturgy that Gao is “ultimately a dramatist” (143) and that his style is that of a “director-like playwright” (45) [1]; he writes his plays for performance and offers numerous suggestions as an appendix to each script, detailing ideal staging techniques. If indeed his dramaturgy is foremost in his body of literature and his plays are expressly performative, then consideration of his plays in/as performance is crucial to an informed understanding of Gao as a writer, intellectual, and exile. What I discovered in actually staging one of his plays at the University of Michigan in March 2001–after reading Gao’s scripts in both English and Chinese over the past decade–was that I had never truly engaged with the play Chezhan (The Bus Stop) until I actively envisioned (and realized) it as performance. I also assigned the play to my theatre history class and found that those students who read it and those students who saw it staged (both in English translation [2]) had drastically different experiences. Many students who read the script and attended a performance reflected contrasts in reading and viewing/participating similar to my own.

What I choose to focus on in this article is less a “case-study” of my own production of The Bus Stop and more a practical proposal regarding why staging of this and other plays by Gao Xingjian is an excellent idea for university communities today–and how promoting such a practice is beneficial to us as scholars of Chinese literature and culture, to our students, and to our communities at large. I will also suggest that staging Gao’s plays is economical, entertaining, growthful in terms of actor training as well as critical spectatorial engagement, and valuable in terms of contributing to current university agendas of interdisciplinarity, globalism, and multiculturalism. It is in the context of these latter claims that I will cite examples from my own experience of staging The Bus Stop.

In all honesty, when I began to review the script during the brief winter break in December (in preparation for rehearsals in March), I was seized with self-doubt: why did I choose this play? How can I keep it from “dragging” and losing the audience? Will this be my first directorial failure? I believe that a major reason why stagings of Gao’s plays are so rare (and why so many productions are directed by Gao himself) is that many directors share these same feelings when reading a Gao script, despite the assistance of his insightful staging suggestions. Although Gao resists the comparison, even a superficial reading of The Bus Stop yields images of Waiting for Godot and other Beckett pieces. In Bus Stop, years go by as a group of citizens waits endlessly in boredom at a bus stop without ever catching a bus to the city. Representing a cross-section of Chinese society in the early 1980s and including a variety of ages and roles (with titles such as Old Man, Girl, Hothead, and Supervisor), there is more character and plot development in Bus Stop than Godot, but the basic structure is not terribly dissimilar.

Fig.2: Opening scene of Bus Stop, with the Silent Man and Old Man.

Fig.2: Opening scene of Bus Stop, with the Silent Man and Old Man.

Many directors shy away from absurdist plays in general, particularly the daunting masterpiece Godot–and many who take it on prove through their productions that they were unprepared for it–but Godot persists as a hallmark of experimentation and social commentary, [3] and I believe that Gao’s Bus Stop will enjoy this same fate among his body of work. My original motivation for choosing the play was that Gao had just won the Nobel and staging one of his works would help make the theatre department more aware of this playwright, and this landmark event. Furthermore, I recognized Bus Stop as Gao’s most easily “accessible” play (for both actors, audiences, and myself as director) and knew there were three available English translations (as well as the original Chinese) that I could draw on for rehearsals (see note 2). I also knew the play would attract attention because of the controversy it generated after it was staged at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre by Lin Zhaohua in 1983. Criticism of both Gao and the play was debated in newspapers such as Xiju bao (Theatre News), Wenyi bao (Literature and Art Gazette), and Jiefangjun bao (People’s Liberation Army Daily) in 1984 and future performances were banned. [4] A play with this kind of background appeals to the general public (and university community)’s fascination with human rights restrictions in the People’s Republic of China and, for better or worse, brings them to the theatre.

Fig.3: Passengers hail an approaching bus. [To view a video clip, click here for high speed connections; click here for low speed. (requires QuickTime)

Fig.3: Passengers hail an approaching bus.

Fortunately, once rehearsals began, I saw things in the play that are simply invisible on the page; watching the actors moving and interacting with the space and one another created images, patterns, and actions that cannot be created in the act of merely reading printed dialogue. The actors also infused the play with humor and intensity that is not manifest in the script. This is what makes Gao a brilliant playwright: he actually does compose a kind of “hidden” action in his language that emerges only in rehearsal with living bodies; he himself envisions it, but can not possibly pass this vision on to a reader. In this way, Gao truly is a director as well as a playwright, and his written suggestions for staging are a roadmap other directors can use to help release the hidden physicality that is actually contained within his texts. This is not to say that there is any one ideal stage version of a Gao play: I am quite certain that any production of Bus Stop (even if each one were to attempt to carry out the playwright’s appended staging suggestions faithfully) would be entirely unique–this is a credit to the pliability of Gao’s text, in particular the flexibility of the dialogue he writes for his actors/characters.

Fig.4: Passengers continue years of waiting at the same bus stop. In foreground is The One Wearing Glasses, standing center is Girl, seated right is Carpenter.

Fig.4: Passengers continue years of waiting at the same bus stop. In foreground is The One Wearing Glasses, standing center is Girl, seated right is Carpenter.

What the diverse ensemble of student actors, the designers, and myself created was a highly entertaining and thought-provoking theatre experience for our audiences. In the ultimate expression of Gao’s originality, the audience composition and reactions varied so much that each new performance was a vastly different experience than the previous one; after producing Bus Stop in Ann Arbor, it did not surprise me to learn that the 1983 production in Beijing prompted audience members to return repeatedly on successive nights right up until performances were halted. Our own production yielded a tremendous response, particularly among theatre students, and a large portion of the audience remained in the theatre for a lengthy discussion following the Saturday matinee performance. I join my students in asserting that this is precisely the kind of theatre experience we should offer our student actors, audiences, and university communities.

Fig.5: Girl wonders if the young man in the city will still meet for their arranged first encounter.

Fig.5: Girl wonders if the young man in the city will still meet for their arranged first encounter.

In the remainder of this essay, I will rather systematically elaborate on some incentives and suggestions for “fleshing out” Gao’s plays at your own university.

Gao’s “canonization.” The Nobel Prize makes Gao Xingjian the patron saint of Chinese playwrights. The Nobel provides immediate international recognition and status, and a rationale for making students (and colleagues) aware of his work. Along with facilitating stagings of his plays, we should include Gao’s scripts in reading lists for courses in Chinese and Asian literature, dramatic literature, and theatre history. Because of the recent publication of many of his plays in various anthologies, these scripts are more accessible for both course reading and theatrical staging. Publication in English-language anthologies also furthers Gao’s penetration into the theatrical and literary “canon.” Of course, such de-marginalization is always somewhat ironic in the case of experimental playwrights who intentionally work from the “fringes” of society; however, Gao follows in the footsteps of previous recent Nobel honorees such as Dario Fo who are adept at accessing mainstream sources of funding and recognition while continuing to speak sincerely from a position of dispossession and alienation.

Fig.6: Program for the original 1983 production of Bus Stop, which was performed along with Lu Xun's "The Passerby" (Guoke).

Fig.6: Program for the original 1983 production of Bus Stop, which was performed along with Lu Xun’s “The Passerby” (Guoke).

Nontraditional casting. Most university theatre departments (and regional theatres) are committed to increasing the presence of actors of color in their productions and departments, and Gao’s plays invite such expansion in ways that are palatable to both the staunchest affirmative-action proponent and the most strident Eurocentric traditionalist. Traces of Western influence in his plays and his status as a European artist make him less repellant to the latter, while the availability of his roles to actors of any ethnicity as well as his status as a Chinese writer make him appealing to the former. For faculty and students on both sides of the heated nontraditional (often called “colorblind”) casting debate, [5] Gao’s plays pacify because they present roles that are non-race-specific: they neither present the necessity of casting non-white students that realist plays with specifically Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American characters do, nor do they exclude such students based on the same criteria. Gao’s plays take place in unspecified locations and do not include family members related by blood—so there is no pressure to cast students of a specific culture who may not be available or talented, and no excuse not to cast the student of color who is available and talented.

Fig.7: Old Man discovers that his watch has stopped, while The One Wearing Glasses announces that her watch registers the passage of several years.

Fig.7: Old Man discovers that his watch has stopped, while The One Wearing Glasses announces that her watch registers the passage of several years.

Bus Stop is a good example: although its original context is certainly early 1980s Beijing and the text is peppered with references (such as the novel popularity of yogurt) to urban China of that time, the situation is clearly humanistic rather than cultural, and strikingly universal. In our production, we cut references that could become confusing or distracting (such as repeated references to and presence of Front Gate Cigarettes, the omission of which from the action of the play also allowed us to avoid fire code concerns) and retained localisms that we knew the audience could process quickly and easily (like Chinese Chess) without creating an exclusively “Chinese” atmosphere; we also kept the references to Hothead’s obsession with finally tasting yogurt for the first time because it enhanced the humor of the play so wonderfully. None of the characters in Bus Stop or Gao’s other plays have Chinese names (they are always identified by role type), though in some plays (like Between Life and Death) a figure such as a Buddhist monk appears. Exceptions are the untranslated, unperformed plays Necropolis andTale of Mountains and Seas, which feature historical Chinese persons—but in his suggestions for staging these plays, Gao emphasizes that they should be performed using circus and vaudevillian techniques, which lend themselves easily to cross-racial gestures.

The Michigan production of Bus Stop featured African American and Eurasian actresses among the cast of otherwise caucasian actors; the presence of actors of color together with white actors, along with the absence of Chinese or Chinese American actors, provided a different resonance to the play than if the cast had “seemed more Chinese”; while it did not distract from associations of the play with its original cultural and political context, it served to enhance the play’s ability to be reinterpreted in other ways. Furthermore, Bus Stop and some of Gao‘s other plays lend themselves well to non-traditional casting in terms of increasing roles for women, another common concern for university theatre departments (which often have a surplus of female students competing for roles in plays from the Euro-American canon, which offers far fewer roles for women than men). Although Bus Stop is written for six males and two females, I cast women in the roles of Supervisor and The One Wearing Glasses and changed them both to female characters (as opposed to having actresses play the male roles in “drag”). This brought out new aspects of these characters and their relationships with others waiting at the bus stop, and transformed that community from a male-dominated one into a gender-balanced ensemble. In particular, it added a dimension to the scenes between Glasses and Girl that reflected a sweet bonding of female characters fearfully losing their youth, whereas before it was a far simpler romantic attraction. [6]

Feasibility. Beyond the feasibility of Gao’s plays in terms of multicultural and gender-friendly casting, they are also ideal in terms of available theatre spaces and funds. Some university theatre departments have budgets for huge mainstage productions with lavish sets and costumes, but some do not–and even those that do certainly welcome the occasional play that requires very little of its designers, technicians, and finances. With the possible exception of the two unpublished plays previously mentioned, Gao’s plays all fit into the category of what Grotowski would call “Poor Theatre.”[7] They emphasize the presence of the live body of the actor as primary focus and thus downplay conventional Western stage elements such as elaborate scenery, props, and costumes. Gao does often invite use of lighting and sound to compliment the actors’ actions and moods, but he by no means requires sophisticated lighting and sound plots–or any at all. In the stage directions at the beginning of The Other Shore, for instance, Gao suggests that the play can be performed anywhere from a living room to a gymnasium or circus tent, and that lighting can be dispensed with for daytime performances.

Fig.8: The One Wearing Glasses (right) studies for the college foreign language exam in the city, while The One Being a Mother (left) mends clothes for her husband.

Fig.8: The One Wearing Glasses (right) studies for the college foreign language exam in the city, while The One Being a Mother (left) mends clothes for her husband.

This low-budget approach to theatre makes Gao’s plays extremely versatile and ideal for university productions. They can take place indoors or outdoors, in a theatre or a lecture hall, in a dormitory or sorority house, or in any number of “found” spaces all over campus. A single production can in fact move to different locations for its performances, reaching audiences of varied populations in the process. This becomes an asset rather than a disadvantage, as it invites the creativity and spontaneity from actors that Gao desires. Also, it means that student theatre organizations can produce Gao’s plays without the resources of an actual theatre department. It also means that academic departments not typically involved in cultural production–such as Asian studies or comparative literature departments–can mount stagings of The Bus Stop and other plays (even a Gao “festival”) with very little money and no designated performance space. [8] The challenge in directing a Gao piece is the actor training and rehearsal process, and so for this reason, as well as others to be detailed later, it is to the advantage of academic departments and student theatre groups to try to collaborate with trained and experienced directors. (You might be surprised, however, at how many of these humble theatre artists are actually hiding in other departments!)

Actor development. One of the most persuasive incentives for producing a Gao Xingjian play is that it provides student actors (and student or faculty directors) with a rare opportunity to experiment with unconventional uses of the actor’s voice and body. While most undergraduates are groomed for the professional market with traditional Stanislavsky-based acting methods and varieties of physical and vocal techniques ranging from Meisner to Linklater, few are trained to open their “instruments” fully to the demands of an avant-garde theatre piece, though many will participate in precisely this kind of performance activity after they graduate. In this sense, Gao is a friendlier guide than other absurdist, postmodern, existentialist, or experimental playwrights. In addition to his helpful production suggestions at the end of each play, he has also developed an idea of the “tripartite actor,” which he has explicated quite clearly. As an extension of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt–a principle which first theorized the distanciation of the actor from both the character he portrays and the audience–Gao’s tripartition situates the actor as three simultaneous subjects: his actual self, himself as actor, and actor as character. This allows for a range of possibilities that are indicated in Gao’s play texts in different ways–at times through the physical action called for in a scene, and at times in the dialogue itself (one example of the latter is in the second half of Dialogue and Rebuttal when Man refers to himself in the second-person as “you” and Girl refers to herself in the third-person as “she”).

Beyond his theory of the tripartite actor (which is useful for any director to explore fully before beginning rehearsals for a Gao Xingjian play), Gao is actually trying to provide material that will lead to the development of an entirely new kind of actor—one that our undergraduate theater departments (and graduate MFA programs, for that matter) certainly do not produce. Gao wrote The Other Shore as a series of “exercises” to help train such actors, and director Mou Sen used the text in Beijing in 1993 in an attempt to carry out Gao’s intentions. [9] Gao describes his vision of the ideal actor explicitly in the first item of his production suggestions at the end of The Other Shore:

As with the actors in traditional [Chinese] opera, these new actors must be versatile and their skills should include singing, the martial arts, stylized movements and delivering dialogues. They should also be able to perform Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov [sic], Aristophanes, Racine, Lao She, Cao Yu, Guo Moruo, Goethe, Brecht, Pirandello, Beckett, and even mimes and musicals. The present play is written with the intention of providing an all-around training for the actors. [10]

Clearly, no one play can train actors in all of these diverse techniques and styles, but at least Gao is opening up the possibility of a theory of a “total actor” that disposes of neither tradition nor experimentation, neither the Western nor Eastern “canon” and performance codes. This is a new and refreshing idea for most actors, who move from one acting teacher to another, most of whom valorize certain training approaches to the disparagement of others. It would be a rare exception to find an acting instructor who opens her students up to the totality of possibilities that Gao suggests. In fact, to most teachers, the styles Gao lists would seem contradictory, and an attempt to instill them in one actor would be considered counter-productive. But Gao proposes otherwise, and from my experience of witnessing student actors open themselves to entirely new rehearsal and performance techniques in our production of Bus Stop (and previous shows I had directed using similarly varied techniques), I tend to agree with Gao that his vision of actor training is an exciting one that yields remarkable results.

Fig.9: Old Man in foreground by the bus stop sign as passengers continue to wait.

Fig.9: Old Man in foreground by the bus stop sign as passengers continue to wait.

Gao’s range of experimentation in this regard varies among his plays, so a highly experimental work like The Other Shore might be appropriate for a seasoned director with adventurous and confident actors, while one with a plot structure and characterization recognizable as somewhat “realistic” (such as Warning Signal or Bus Stop) is more suitable for productions by faculty and students outside a theatre department. Unfortunately, an English translation of Escape, Gao’s play about June Fourth, is not readily available. When it is published, it will be an apt choice for college production, since it is written in the more narrative style of some of his earlier works and addresses the important topic of the spring 1989 democracy movement in China (which is unfortunately becoming increasingly distant to college students since they were so young when it occurred). Of the currently available scripts, Bus Stop is most user-friendly for most Gao novices, but I do hope that his more recent plays will also reach university stages (several of them have fewer characters and thus are quite useful as student-directed pieces). Bus Stop has wonderful moments that highlight Gao’s tripartition of the actor, such as banter between Old Man and Supervisor (which I directed in the style of Chinese cross-talk) and several polyphonic moments (when actors’ lines overlap), including the closing scene of the play, when all actors break out of character for their final speeches, delivered autonomously yet simultaneously.

Spectator engagement. In our production of The Bus Stop, I chose to have the actors and audience create the sound effects of approaching buses using their own voices and bodies. (To view the instructions for the audience printed in the program, click here.) This enhanced both tripartition of the actor and participation of the spectator (who should not be distanced in a purely Brechtian sense, but actually implicated and involved in the action as Gao wishes). Furthermore, rather than use instrumental or recorded music as Gao indicates in his notes, I collaborated with a Chinese composer Lu Pei (a doctoral candidate in composition at the University of Michigan School of Music) who created a wonderful score with stones, paper, and water bottles as “instruments.” Each audience member found one of these objects on his or her seat upon entering the theatre, and was instructed to tap stones together, crumple paper, or blow into a water bottle at appropriate moments during the play. Though we took an enormous risk in implementing this approach, the result was a playful engagement of each individual spectator combined with a communal participation which together provided entertainment, involvement, and co-creatorship. For most audience members, it made the experience more enjoyable and the play more humorous, but also made them feel complicit in the darker themes of the play.

Fig.10: "Heads we stay, tails we go": The One Wearing Glasses confronts The Girl. [To view a video clip, click here for high speed connections; click here for low speed.] (requires QuickTime)

Fig.10: “Heads we stay, tails we go”: The One Wearing Glasses confronts The Girl.

This kind of theatrical experience—the kind that Gao offers—is as rare for university audiences as it is for actors, and is another incentive to introduce Gao’s dramaturgy to students, faculty, and larger communities. Audiences for The Bus Stop often remarked that it was an entirely new feeling for them as a spectator and that they wished there were more opportunities for such experiences. They found themselves engrossed in the story but also aware of their participative responsibility, entertained by the humor but also disturbed by the plight of the characters and the hopelessness of their situation. Many informed a cast or crew member later that the play had not left their minds even weeks after it had closed. This kind of theatre activity is what every university should strive for, and the diversity of spectators it brings together in the theatre, sitting side by side, can be as revolutionary as the acting style and audience participation techniques employed.

Interdisciplinary potential. Along with commitments to multiculturalism, eradication of gender bias, and other lofty and challenging goals, universities are increasingly encouraging interdisciplinary collaborations and traversing of traditional departmental boundaries. As we all know, this is more easily said than done, but theatre is a wonderfully productive way to do it. I have been involved in several productions at various institutions that have succeeded in transcending disciplinary borders and promoting increased communication and collaboration among faculty, staff, administrators, and students. Bus Stop was an example of precisely this kind of project. Both in its execution and its reception, it brought together colleagues and students from several departments and programs, including theatre, Asian studies, world performance studies, Chinese studies, Asian American studies, comparative literature, visual arts, music, and women’s studies. [11]

Fig.11: Passengers pass another night at the bus stop. Red light and recurring vocal pattern signify their memory of The Silent Man, who long ago left the bus stop to reach the city on foot.

Fig.11: Passengers pass another night at the bus stop. Red light and recurring vocal pattern signify their memory of The Silent Man, who long ago left the bus stop to reach the city on foot.

I would encourage anyone producing a Gao Xingjian play to make extensive efforts to network with each of these (and other) programs by inviting their involvement and/or attendance. In our case, such cross-pollination contributed to all areas of the production, from casting to funding to eventual audiences for performances, including the post-performance discussion. Many students who auditioned for Bus Stop were not theatre students and heard about the show from other sources due to advertising via email lists, papering on campus, and my direct communication with colleagues in other departments, who in turn encouraged their students to audition. Likewise, many in both the university and local communities who came to the performances had never attended a theatre department production before and were made aware of it from sources beyond the department’s ordinary publicity networks. Part of the success of our publicity was due to the generosity of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, which provided funding for posters and programs (costs that went beyond the allocated $100 from the theatre department). The Center also provided refreshments for the post-performance discussion and paid the fee for having the show professionally videotaped. Clearly, the intercultural and interdisciplinary nature of the choice of play contributed to additional resources in terms of both finances and people. This potential for sharing resources of other branches of the university is yet another incentive for theatre departments to choose such projects. And in pursuing such liaisons, keep in mind the additional resources and potential audiences in areas of the university apparently unrelated to the play itself: the fifteen cases of bottled water we required for audience members to use in our production were kindly donated by the Absopure company at the request of a University of Michigan football coach. Networks outside of the university community can also be utilized: in addition to local advertising, our production was posted on the MCLC listserv, which led to helpful dialogue between myself and colleagues at other universities–some of whom traveled from as far away as Bowling Green State University to attend a performance.

Any performance of a Gao Xingjian play benefits from post-performance analysis in the form of a talk-back with the actors or an informal academic symposium. Regardless of the material “content” of the play chosen, Gao as an intriguing literary and artistic figure deserves discussion, along with the controversy surrounding his Nobel bestowal, his status as both “Chinese” and “exile,” and his revolutionary ideas about actor development and theatrical aesthetics. Faculty and graduate students from many departments in the university can be invited to contribute to or at least attend the discussion after a designated performance. In our case, the discussion was enhanced by contributions from Chinese literature scholars David Rolston, Yi- Tsi Feuerwerker, Margaret Baker, and Sheun-fu Lin, as well as feedback from theatre professors in the Residential College. I can think of few more productive and enjoyable ways to build stronger departmental bonds than through a theatre production of this kind.

Fig.12: Passengers gather under Carpenter's sheet of plastic seeking shelter from the rain.

Fig.12: Passengers gather under Carpenter’s sheet of plastic seeking shelter from the rain.

Theatre is the most collaborative of the arts and cannot exist without the efforts of a wide array of people; by its very nature, it brings together artists, technicians, scholars, students, and the public. In the case of Gao Xingjian’s plays, opportunities for interdisciplinary contact between departments that ordinarily would not collaborate are significantly increased. Whereas theatre and English, classics, or romance language departments might have occasional interaction prompted by season production choices, communication with the Asian studies department or Asian Pacific American studies program might never occur. When I joined the faculty at University of Michigan, there was a classical Chinese opera expert right upstairs in Asian Languages & Cultures that none of my theatre department colleagues had ever heard of or met. It is up to us as faculty to create opportunities that allow departments representing the intersections of our own scholarly interests to become acquainted; we also benefit tremendously from such efforts by discovering colleagues and resources of whom and of which we are likewise unaware. There is ample evidence to suggest that the time is right for introducing more universities to Gao Xingjian as a playwright of international significance. There is his penetration into the global literary and artistic mainstream with his winning of the Nobel Prize (though he was already far better known and produced in Europe than the US before the prize); there is the capacity of his plays to help reach university goals of multicultural representation and interdisciplinary collaboration; there is the exciting challenge of his dramaturgy to introduce students to experimental forms of acting and audiences to new modes of reception—and there is the potential to do all of this on a minimal budget with the assistance of shared resources. Whether mainstreaming Gao means assigning one of his scripts in a literature course (and having the students experiment in class with embodying and vocalizing it), or encouraging student theatre groups to explore his plays in workshops and independent productions, or convincing the theatre department to mount a festival of his works, the effort will yield rewarding results. Gao’s plays were written to be performed, fleshed out, experimented with, and ultimately enjoyed by an audience. To understand why he truly deserved to win the Nobel Prize, one must participate in some aspect of this process; it is in fleshing out Gao’s plays that their brilliance emerges. We ourselves, our students, and our university communities can benefit tremendously from this intercultural, experimental, and collaborative act.

[1] Henry Y. H. Zhao, Towards a Modern Zen Theatre: Gao Xingjian and Chinese Theatre Experimentalism. University of London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 2000.

[2] Students read the original English translation, Carla Kirkwood’s “Bus Stop” in Modern lnternational Drama (SUNY Binghamton, Spring 1995) and the performance was based on the second English translation, Shiao-ling Yu’s “The Bus Stop” in her anthologyChinese Drama After the Cultural Revolution (Edwin Mellen, 1996). A third English translation by Kimberly Besio entitled “Bus Stop” can be found in Haiping Yan’s anthology Theater and Society (M.E. Sharpe, 1997).

[3] One interesting circulation of Godot as such a hallmark was Meng Jinghui’s production of Dengdai Geduo during his final term at the Central Academy of Drama. Meng is the most successful experimental young director in China today, but he was almost dismissed from the Academy for his staging of Godot. A professional staging of Godot set in a contemporary bar with female Estragon and Vladimir was directed by Ren Ming at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre in 1997, and the following year Lin Zhaohua created an experimental Chekhov-Beckett fusion Three Sisters Waiting for Godot to mixed reviews.

[4] Several Western sources have reported that the play was halted by officials during its run, which was limited to 10-13 performances (see, for example, Yan Haiping, Theater and Society, xviii). In my own research at the archives of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre in July 2001, however, I found that the original run of the play was only scheduled for 17 performances (which were public and had been advertised in the press) and that the brief run was due to the actors’ obligation to perform Gao’s earlier play Juedui xinghao (Warning Signal) in Dongbei; a July 1 article in Beijing Youth Daily reports that the play will be performed again a month later. The reprisal of the run was indeed canceled due to the controversy that ensued, but there is no printed evidence of the campaign against the play and Gao appearing before early spring 1984. In fact, an article by Gao published towards the end of the play’s run in June 1983 (penned the day after it opened) addresses only the play’s experimental use of polyphonic dialogue, which seems to defend against comparisons to Beckett rather than any apparent political criticism.

[5] Proponents of “nontraditional casting” call for actors to be cast across racial, ethnic, and gender lines, and also seek increased opportunities for actors with disabilities. For a recent revisiting of the nontraditional casting debate in a late-20th century context, see the controversial argument (conducted in print over a period of several months) between August Wilson and Robert Brustein (along with subsequent commentary by other prominent theatre practitioners) in American Theatre magazine issues from September, October, November, December 1996 into 1997.

[6] With this gender conversion (particularly of Glasses) there is also potential for a homoerotic impulse to surface in performance; I left this entirely up to the two student actresses playing Girl and Glasses to explore and in their performances it was only subtlely hinted at, but it remains provocative territory to explore in future productions in which Glasses is cast as female.

[7] This, of course, is not accidental: Gao is clearly influenced by his knowledge of Grotowski’s theories and actor training techniques (even citing them explicitly in one of his production notes to The Other Shore). The best primary source for further reading on Grotowski is his collection Towards a Poor Theatre (Simon and Schuster, 1968) or The Grotowski Sourcebook, edited by Richard Schechner and Lisa Wolford (Routledge, 1997).

[8] I directed The Bus Stop through Basement Arts, a student theater production organization at University of Michigan funded by the department of Theater and Drama. Every weekend a new play opens (usually with four performances) in a versatile basement black box space, created with a total budget of only $100.

[9] For information on Mou’s experiment and for more detailed analysis of Gao’s aesthetic of the tripartite actor, see Zhao, p. 135.

[10] Gao Xingjian, “The Other Shore”. In Gilbert C.P. Fong, trans., The Other Shore: Plays by Gao Xingjian. Hong Kong: The Hong Kong University Press, 1999: 42. (An earlier translation of “The Other Shore” by Jo Riley can be found in An Oxford Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Drama, edited by Martha Cheung and Jane Lai (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[11] I suggest that women’s studies programs be invited to contribute particularly in productions of plays such as Between Life and Death and Dialogue and Rebuttal, whose characters convey attitudes towards women that actors and audiences alike may find disturbing and quite likely offensive. Gender construction in Gao’s plays is a topic that has received far too little scholarly attention.