|20 Jun 2022
|Context Winter 2021
By Seth Rozin, Producing Artistic Director, InterAct Theatre
It’s difficult to put into words how I feel right now. Of course I’m tremendously excited and, as you might expect, a little apprehensive. You can never predict how an audience will respond to any work we do. But I also feel very much at home. Actually, I feel like I’m home again, since we have been closed for the last year and a half due to Covid. This is the opening production of our 2021-2022 season.
I chose to produce The Chinese Lady for several reasons. The moment I read it I knew we had to do it. The play is about a young Chinese woman, Afong Moy, just 14 years old, who was supposedly the first Chinese person to arrive in America. She dreams of being a cultural ambassador, sharing the story of her country and its cultural traditions with Americans. But she is in fact exhibited around the country as a “specimen” of Oriental culture. She is put on display as a racial curiosity, a “freak” to entertain white audiences who believe they belong to a more advanced culture and society. Lloyd Suh’s extraordinary play confronts that abhorrent practice in complex and imaginative ways, making it exactly the kind of play I have wanted to do since I founded InterAct in 1988. Our mission, as we say on our website, is to produce “new and contemporary plays that explore the social, political, and cultural issues of our time.”
In the photograph, it looks as if the set for the production is still in the process of being built. Ladders, scaffolding, and construction materials surround the set. In fact, the entire stage is the set for the show. This is the result of a novel concept that the director, Justin Jain, had for staging the play within the frame of our current moment. The production exists in two worlds at the same time: the world of the play, set in America in 1834, and the contemporary world the audience watching the show is living in now. Audiences for The Chinese Lady are asked to play a double role. They are the people attending this cultural curiosity in 1834 and, at the same time, they are sitting in the theatre watching themselves watch the same cultural curiosity. This technique of meta-theatre, which we employ on occasion, endows the experience with a heightened awareness of our own complicity in the othering that happens in the space. There is also a third world, inside Ms. Moy’s heart and mind, which the talented actress Bi Jean Ngo gives voice to in the play.
Our new Proscenium Theatre was expertly designed by Philadelphia architect Christopher Kircher of Metcalf Architecture and Design. It’s ideally configured for staging a play like The Chinese Lady and enables us to fulfill InterAct’s artistic mission. People who saw productions at our old space on Sansom Street, The Adrienne (the original home of the Wilma Theater) will be surprised to learn that the footprint of both theatres is the same. We didn’t want to dramatically increase the number of seats, but we did want to create a space with more height and depth to allow for greater artistic possibilities, while maintaining the intimacy we had spent years cultivating with our audiences. The Adrienne had challenging sight lines because of structural pillars on stage and in the house, while the Proscenium Theatre at The Drake maximizes design and staging opportunities for a space of its size.
Obviously, all plays are meant to be seen live, and can lose a significant part of their impact when performed virtually. But The Chinese Lady is so fundamentally about a live, in person audience watching this live, racist spectacle as 19th- Century Americans that it feels like the right play to welcome audiences back into our theatre. Our audiences don’t come to InterAct just to be entertained; they want to be directly engaged with what they are watching onstage and feel provoked to consider the play’s implications about themselves and the world today. I expect Lloyd Suh’s play, and Justin Jain’s direction of it, to accomplish that as powerfully as anything we have produced to date.
Another reason we chose to do this play was a very practical one. We are still a long way from putting Covid behind us, so we are taking strong precautions to ensure that our audiences are safe in the theatre. Everyone coming to the show must show proof of vaccination and will be required to wear a mask indoors. InterAct staff will help direct people to socially distanced seating (we’re limiting our capacity to 60% to start the season). Patrons will be allowed to sit together with their companions, but they’ll be separated from others by an empty seat or two. This is a play that requires only two actors, so we’ll be able to ensure social distance between actors and audience. A two-actor play will also enhance the intimacy of people coming together to share this live theatre experience.
Of course, no one has any idea what will happen in the coming weeks, months, years. But I have great confidence that our upcoming show will put us on the right path, and that Philadelphia’s great theatre culture is coming back, alive and well. We are incredibly excited to welcome audiences back to our theatre, and to all the theatres in Philadelphia.
As told to co-editor James Schlatter on stage after a rehearsal for The Chinese Lady and one week from reopening after an eighteen-month pandemic shutdown
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