Mitchell Hébert, professor of theater at the University of Maryland (UMD), co-directed the School of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TPDS) and National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts' (NACTA) bilingual production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Helen Hayes Award winner discussed being a part of such a groundbreaking project and seeing it evolve from concept to successful stage production.
Mary Best: How did you first get involved with this special production of A Midummer Night's Dream?
Mitchell Hébert: It was the fall of 2010 and my colleague Helen Huang and professor Li Wei came up with this idea of doing a co-production. They were very interested in doing Shakespeare. Helen contacted me about co-directing, and I said sure, even though I had no idea of how to go about doing this. I wasn't about to say no, it just sounded too exciting.
MB: What went into planning the production?
MH: My co-director, Yu Fanlin, came over to the states in February 2011 and we had a couple days of meetings for just a real nuts and bolts discussion. We were just trying to see if mechanically we could break the play down in such a way that it would make sense in terms of which parts American actors and Chinese actors would play. We tried to follow some kind of logic - the Chinese actors portrayed the court, Oberon, Titania and Puck, while the American actors played the Mechanicals and the fairies. A bunch of us went to China in May of 2011 to talk about design and concept and who would do what. There was lots of Skyping, lots of emails, and it took about 2 years to get ready for the actual rehearsal period.
MB: What about A Midsummer Night's Dream made it the perfect Shakespearean play to unite the American and Chinese cultures?
MH: There's the element of magic - it (takes place) in the forest, so it's very elevated. We were working with (NACTA) and their specialty was Peking Opera. We wanted to work with some idea mixing Peking Opera with Western performance styles. When you get in the forest and into a fantastical environment, it gives you permission to open it up and really explore different kinds of physicality.
MB: What was the most challenging thing when you were bringing the production together?
MH: It really did come together pretty smoothly -it stunned all of us. The only thing I can point to wasn't that difficult, but having a really good interpreter was important. We had a set of meetings where the interpreter just didn't understand what we were talking about, but it was hard.
MB: What did you find most rewarding about co-directing this production?
MH: It was a life-changing event for many of us. For me the most rewarding thing was watching (the students) open up to each other and come together and the bond they formed. The whole reason to do a project like this is to watch art transcend cultures and languages and bring people together in a basic fundamental way. It was watching (the students) open up and share with each other and share with the audiences in both countries, who really loved it and I think it had a lot to do with the generosity of the performances.
MB: Was there anything different about performing it in Beijing versus putting it on in America?
MH: The American audiences really loved it. We got standing ovations after every show and you can't really ask for more. In some way, it was even more intense in China. We had people standing three across in the aisle for the Monday night show. It struck such a chord with them. They applauded and cheered. When Puck would come out and did a flip in the air, they howled and cheered like at a football game, applauding his skill. It went up a level in China. I can't tell you why, but we were stunned, and pleasantly so.
MB: Besides the bilingual presentation, what makes this a different experience than everything else you've ever done?
MH: I think it has to do more with a deeper thing. The Peking Opera goes back thousands and thousands of years, and we don't have anything that really comes close to that in America. It was trying to make sure that if they were going to perform a Peking Opera, what could we do that went deep into our roots. It's one of the reasons I made the Mechanicals musicians [picturd below] and had them playing bluegrass. I tried to find a thread that ran through both cultures, which was our music. Nothing I've done approaches that. Working in such a way, even though it takes a lot of time and planning, is really worth it for other countries and cultures to reach out to each other and it's an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved. There were so many aspects to this productions that were intangibles. Without Helen (Huang) this wouldn't have happened. She did an incredible amount of work. I think everybody really wants to be told something isn't doable and you want that opportunity to rise to your best.