Court Theatre’s Artistic Director discusses the upcoming production of M. Butterfly

April 6, 2014

By Mitch Marr

Court Theatre’s Artistic Director discusses the upcoming production of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, artistic success, and his fruitful relationship with UChicago scholars. M. Butterfly, at Court Theatre May 8–June 8, was developed partly in response to Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture, a faculty-curated concurrent exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art. Both the play and the exhibition are part of UChicago Arts’ Envisioning China, a five-month a festival of arts and culture at the UChicago featuring more than 40 events and exhibitions.

What prompted you to take on M. Butterfly?

Charles Newell: In the last three years Court Theatre has formed a Faculty Advisory Council that I meet with regularly throughout the year to discuss what we’re all thinking and planning and dreaming. In one of those conversations, Judith Zeitlin, [William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Theater and Performance Studies], said, “I’m putting together this exhibit about Peking Opera visual imagery at the Smart Museum. Is there any play that you’d be interested in doing opposite?” David Henry Hwang had just been on campus doing a talk back with students and I’d been speaking with him about his play M. Butterfly, which I’ve wanted to do since reading it back when it was originally written and produced. So I said to Judith, “What about M. Butterfly?” 

How closely did you work with David Henry Hwang?

CN: He and I had a couple of conversations in which I was essentially asking him permission to operate out of the instinctual response I had to the play. And he could not have been more generous and more encouraging. In my work with other contemporary playwrights – most conspicuously Tony Kushner, David Auburn, and Richard Nelson – when it works best is when they help me not make the mistakes that they’ve seen other directors make. They don’t in any way try to guide how it should be done, but rather encourage whatever unique response I may be having. So David did exactly the same thing. He helped steer me clear of pitfalls that some other directors have consistently fallen into with the play, but at the same time was not at all prescriptive about how to do the play. 

How will your interpretation differ from previous productions? 

CN: Here’s the thing: I’ve never seen a live production or even the film version of M. Butterfly. So I’m coming at it completely from what’s on the page. The original production of M. Butterfly had such a singular design element, and many productions try to emulate that original design, which in photographs that I’ve seen was quite beautiful. However, my interest—and David the playwright was incredibly supportive of this idea—was not to emulate the original design but rather find a new approach to the piece. Essentially, that’s been driven by the simple idea that this play is a memory play. It starts with the principal character Rene Gallimard in this French prison in 1988 and he then proceeds to tell us the story, which is then reenacted. Essentially we never leave his imagination or leave the prison. So we developed a very dynamic, less literal, more metaphorical and emotional landscape to tell this memory play even as we bring in the elements of Peking Opera and Puccini performance. 

How has your production been influenced by Peking opera? 

CN: One of the things the David Henry Hwang said was, “Charlie, you’ve got to have someone who can really do the choreography and the movement” because there are many different styles contained within the play. After a long national search I finally went back to…find who did it in the original Broadway production. David introduced me to Jamie Guan, and now Jamie and I have become not only collaborators but also dear friends. He came out to Chicago and we had a weeklong choreography workshop [for our cast and dancers]. 

Who else has shaped this production?

CN: It goes without saying, but Judith! Her passion and her understanding of Chinese Opera…was incredibly helpful. The other thing that has been really extraordinary for me has been bringing in my theater and music collaborator Doug Peck, who does all of our musicals with me at Court Theatre. He is an opera fiend. I’m doubtful that any other production has had anything like Doug’s expertise about Puccini. 

What has been the most challenging part of working on this particular piece?

CN: It’s both the challenge and reward: This is a world that I knew almost nothing about before starting this process. I evaluate any artistic experience or production at Court not on the typical markers of ticket sales or reviews or awards, but rather by how much I and the artists involved and the audience grow. Do we learn more? Do we expand our vision and our understanding? So with this piece, through the playwright’s extraordinary mash-up of lots of different aesthetics and lots of different cultural references, I’m hopeful we’ll all understand more about the necessity to create the imagined beloved as a way to find self-identity. I never know where my gut instincts will take us, but when we get to the closing performance, I want us to say “Wow, that really stretched us and moved us and expanded who we are as people.” That to me is the signature of artistic success.