Dear InViolets and InViolet Supporters:
Hello from the Great Northwest! I’m writing to you from beautiful Ashland, Oregon. For those of you unfamiliar with Ashland, this little town is seated in the Rogue Valley, five hours due south of Portland and cozied up to the California state line. It is the headquarters of Dagoba Organic Chocolate; a once favored vacation spot of novelist Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita was finished in Ashland); and perhaps most notably, it is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), where I have had the great good fortune to be working on The White Snake adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman.
InViolet’s leaders, Michael and Angela, have asked me to talk about my experience working with Mary and OSF. I have nothing but good things to say. Mary is a genius— and I say that with all the weight that word implies— and OSF is a unique and brave arts organization. For example, when Mary was initially meeting with Bill Rauch, OSF’s Artistic Director, she asked him to look her in the eyes and say, “I understand there will be no script on the first day of rehearsal.” And he did! It was a leap of faith for OSF to program and market The White Snake without a script and it is testament to Mary’s genius that she was trusted to unfold the story in her own time.
This is how we would work. Each day, the cast would walk into rehearsal and pick up the new pages Mary had written the night before or early that morning. We would read through the new scene once for comprehension, Mary giving small notes as to why she had written a line a certain way or why this action was happening at this point in the play. Then, she would stage the scene. Once the new material was staged, we would run the full play from the beginning, adding the new scene to the end. Working this way, a new scene each day and frequent run-throughs, is like Christmas for the actor. It’s surprising and wonderful and forces you to focus on the present. (Ha! Pun intended!) You can’t play to the next scene— or worse, to the end of the play— because you don’t know what the heck it is. You are completely innocent to what may or may not happen, just as we are in life. And while running the play every day in rehearsal may sound daunting, it’s actually very helpful. You build the necessary stamina to navigate the demands of a Mary Zimmerman play, which are often physical, technical, and emotional feats.
Our rehearsals were short, usually four hours long, but extremely focused. I still can’t believe how much we accomplished in that small amount of time, but I chalk it up to two things: Mary has a very clear idea as to how she wants to tell the story, both verbally and visually; and the majority of the cast were OSF company members, many of whom had worked together for years. Her clarity of vision, along with the inherent comfort level of the ensemble, allowed us to create the play with ease and enjoyment.
Mary once joked that she wants things, “fully realized and instantaneous.” It’s kind of true, but I think what she really means is that she wants her actors to attack the material with no fear. There is no creeping into a Mary Zimmerman play. There’s no time. As I said before, you get to read the scene once and then you stage it. Not a lot of table work. On top of that, I don’t care who you are or how healthy your ego is, no one wants to suck in front of Mary Zimmerman. What she brings to rehearsal is so smart and specific, you want your work to be exceptional as well. And because you’re moving so quickly— memorizing fast so you can have hands free to operate a snake puppet, or pull yards and yards of china silk into the form of a cloud— it forces you to trust your initial instincts about the scene and sometimes fill in the acting moments after the scene has been staged. Initially, I felt uncomfortable with this, but what I grew to understand is that most of the acting work is already there for you on the page. Mary is writing for you. She takes your strengths, your quirks, your warmth, your sense of humor and puts them into your character. It is also one of the reasons why there is no script before the first day of rehearsal. Mary channels the energies of the actors and the demands of the story through her creative subconscious and trusts that what resonates with her, will also resonate with the audience.
I’ve included some pictures and a short synopsis of The White Snake. I hope you enjoy them. This play has been a real gift to me. As my castmate Lisa Tejero once said, “The White Snake is a balm for the soul, artistic and otherwise.” I don’t know if this is true for other actors, but I find it rare to work on a play where everything comes together to lift the art form. It’s part of the reason why I joined InViolet. You stack the odds in favor of making great theatre when you work with a living playwright, a rep company of artists, and a supportive audience. Wow! Writing this makes me so excited for This Is Fiction by Megan Hart! Onwards friends! Let’s make something magnificent!
Amy Kim Waschke
The story of The White Snake is a popular Chinese fairytale that first appeared in the T’ang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Over hundreds of years the story has evolved and, depending on the times, the central character Lady Bai (Lady White) is depicted as a villain sorceress or a heroine in love. In Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation, Lady Bai, a lonely snake spirit studies the Tao in hopes of finding enlightenment. After 1700 years she is able to change her shape into human form. She meets an old friend, Greenie, and the two snakes decided to transform themselves into young maidens and visit the human world for one day. On earth, she falls in love with Xi Xian, a poor scholar, and decides to stay. Lady Bai abandons her quest for enlightenment in exchange for a human existence— for love, a domestic life running a small pharmacy, and a baby. Unfortunately, a meddling Buddhist monk, Fa Hai, reveals to Xi Xian that he is married to a snake and plots their separation. Once Lady Bai’s secret is revealed, Xi Xian realizes he loves her just as she is. However, the religious zealot Fa Hai won’t allow this unconventional marriage. He tears Lady Bai away from her family and traps her under Thunderpeak Pagoda for many years.