America's Shanghai surprise

The Joy Luck Club, which has taken 11/2 years to reach fruition, finally hits the stage in Shanghai on Friday. THEA KLAPWALD reports on the play that brings together theatrical talent from two continents.

FOR director Arvin Brown, the scene was a familiar one. Actors lounged about puffing on cigarettes as the room began to fill with smoke. With hellos all round, he entered the rehearsal room.

Production manager Diane Divita followed close behind, bearing notes on the six-hour rehearsal that was about to start.

The cast began to file in, taking up seats as they chatted among themselves. The stage manager rushed from one end of the room to the other, a bundle of nerves. It was one week before opening night.

Brown stood to give his notes. This was the first run-through - that meant no stops for comments or questions.

Everything was as it was supposed to be, with one exception - the cast attentively facing Brown were actors from the Shanghai People's Art Theatre, and none of them spoke more than a few words of English.

The hall was not Brown's familiar rehearsal studio in New Haven, Connecticut, at the prestigious Long Wharf Theatre where he has been artistic director for 25 years, but one in the heart of Shanghai.

And if it were not for the patient Zhang Fang standing next to him translating every word, the show would most certainly not have gone on.

This was a momentous event for everyone involved. After 11/2 years, they would finally see the theatrical version of The Joy Luck Club premiere at the Shanghai Centre Theatre.

Adapted from Amy Tan's wildly successful novel about the relationships between four Chinese women and their US-born Chinese daughters, the project had been spearheaded by the Yale-China Association.

The first phase of production went smoothly and quickly: three representatives from the Shanghai People's Art Theatre, including Chinese artistic director Yu Luosheng, went to the Long Wharf Theatre in the US to study development and management techniques.

The second phase took longer to realise.

''Money was there and then money wasn't there, and then finally we gained complete sponsorship from Northern Telecom,'' explained Brown.

With resources secured, the project went ahead. Brown instinctively turned to Ming Cho Lee to design the sets. A native of Shanghai, Lee's experience spans three decades, and includes Broadway.

''I thought it was a good project because we are putting together a piece of Chinese-American life - the difference between generations, and the perception of life between naturalised citizens and those born in the US. I still think Chinese here have misconceptions about life in the US. This is a wonderful opportunity to bridge the gap,'' said Lee.

He later brought costume designer Susan Tsu on board. Based at the University of Texas at Austin, Tsu had just finished reading Amy Tan's second novel, The Kitchen God's Wife , and was musing to herself that the book would make a wonderful play, when shereceived a call from Lee.

''It is rare that you get to bring such personal experience to a play,'' said Tsu. Her father came from Shanghai and she was able to design many of the costumes based on family photographs. ''It is not usual that you bring your family photo album as sketches,'' she said.

Divita joined as production manager, and American actor Jim Andreassi jumped at the chance to join the production, too. He immediately began studying Mandarin, as many of his lines are in Chinese.

With the American side complete, they were ready to head east. AN ENGLISH script was adapted from the book by a talented young Korean-American playwright, Susan Kim. The finished work was then sent to Shanghai.

''I was a little concerned about what might be difficult for Chinese audiences was Amy Tan's great sense of irony, and that her books deal so much with the disillusionment of Chinese in America discovering the limitations of the American experience in conflict with their Chinese roots,'' said Brown.

''The Chinese still tend to glamorise the American experience; I felt that was going to be tricky . . . The test of it will be with audiences.'' Two drafts were completed before Brown and artistic director Yu felt they had a working script on their hands.

''I have left it very open to the actors and Mr Yu to tell me during the rehearsal process where they find lines awkward or where they may feel . . . there is a discrepancy with their text,'' said Brown.

For actress Xi Meijuan, it is ironic that she has been cast. When The Joy Luck Club was being filmed in China last year, she had a small role in it.Now, she plays Jing Mei, the Chinese-American daughter around which the play mostly centres.

She believes the play's subject matter is particularly relevant to a Chinese audience. ''It is about the estrangement of two generations and I think we can understand that well. The style of the play is not traditional, but I think that the audience can understand it.'' While Xi and most of the actors are confident the play will be accepted by Chinese audiences, Yu is not so sure.

''Chinese are used to a storyline with a clear plot, and this doesn't have one,'' he said. ''This is a play in vignettes. We try to pull out the emotion within the vignettes and make it stronger so as to grab the audience. In this respect, the script has brought with it a lot of challenges. If we were performing Shakespeare or [Eugene] O'Neill, the difficulties would not be as great because of the form. I am very concerned about this question.'' Yu has good reason to be concerned. With the recent commercialisation of the theatre due to cuts in government subsidies, he has a lot riding on the production. If it is a hit, the much-needed profits will fill empty coffers. If it is a flop, it could have a crippling effect on the company, which has invested a large amount of money in the production.

Regardless of its success in Shanghai, the show will continue on to Beijing before touring the rest of China, and perhaps Southeast Asia.

''I hope my concerns won't be realised. I hope every seat will be filled,'' he said with a smile.

The Joy Luck Club will be performed in Mandarin by the Shanghai People's Art Theatre at the Shanghai Centre Theatre in the Portman Hotel from Saturday to August 15. It will then move to The Shanghai People's Art Theatre from August 18-22, 25-29 and September 1-4.