Feature Story
Back Issues
In short
Comrade Language
About Us

  All materials © 1999 
  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 7, November 26 - December 2

Coco's Road to Nirvana

One of China's leading actresses brings American playwright Arthur Kopit's off-Broadway satire to Beijing as her directorial debut.

In a small private room of the Shanghai Shanghai Club restaurant, eight people sit around a table of half-empty dishes and half-full beer glasses, watching a small, 12-inch TV precariously balanced atop an antique serving table. Holding lit cigarettes, their hands rest on the table, the rising clouds of smoke creating a distinctly backroom atmosphere. The dark wood-paneled walls around them are populated with large posters of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and John Wayne. This is no karaoke session. Nor are they watching the latest installation of Princess Huanzhu nor the nightly news.

The four actors, stage manager, assistant director, literary translator, and production accountant are watching a 90-minute videotape of a movie producer trying to convince his partner to slit his wrists, eat excrement and castrate himself to demonstrate 'commitment.' They watch intently. Critically. Not forgiving a single screwed-up stage direction, misspoken line, or neglected nuance of character.

They're watching themselves in a rehearsal of the first Chinese production of American playwright Arthur Kopit's searing off-Broadway farce, Road to Nirvana.

The group of eight has just finished dinner and two cases of beer in celebration of surviving the first 15 days of non-stop rehearsals of a play whose dialogue and style is more difficult than anything they've done before. They're back at work, critiquing each others' performances, searching for solutions to stage direction problems, rooting out weaknesses. But even after only two weeks of rehearsals, they obviously enjoy what they see.

Furthest from the screen, the beautiful, overworked 34 year-old actress playing the title character parks her head on her arm, venting disapproval of her own performance. "It needs work," she says, then quickly parries herself with an optimism that comes from 15 years of acting. "But don't worry, I'll get it!" she reassures the other actors. "I'll get it before we go up!"

The director and producer agree.

As they should. Because the actress, stage, film and TV star, Shi Ke (Coco Shi), is one of the finest actresses of her generation and commands unquestioned respect on the stage.

They also agree, in part, because she is the director and the producer. Graduating from the Central Academy of Drama in 1989, Shi Ke quickly rose to national prominence in films such as A Killer's Love (Shashouqing) and Rock 'n Roll Youth (Yaogun Qingnian). Numerous starring roles in TV, including the award-winning Have a Good Time (Guo Ba Yin), and a reputation for tireless professionalism brought her further renown. She also soon distinguished herself as a standout singing talent in the Chinese musical Sunrise (Richu), where her classically-trained voice won the multi-talented performer ringing accolades.

But beneath her fame and success runs an odd current of misfortune-bad timing more than anything-and which speaks more about her character and talent than any of the millions of feet of film that bear her image and voice.

While still a student at the Central Academy of Drama, Shi Ke was chosen to play the female lead in a small film called Red Sorghum, to be directed by a young, unknown filmmaker named Zhang Yimou.

But for reasons that remain the stuff of legend, at the last minute the part went inexplicably to her classmate Gong Li instead. A note from Zhang informed Shi of the last-minute change in cast. (Explanations abound: casting couch politics, the cinematographer's visual preference, and an attractively whimsical tale about a coin toss remain the most resilient.)

The Red Sorghum role would create China's first international film icon and a partnership between Gong and Zhang that would last for half a dozen more internationally-acclaimed films.

Shi Ke, by all accounts, was the better actress.

Upon graduation, her classmates prepared to stage their commencement performance, an annual and much-anticipated performance at the Academy.

Tickets sold out well in advance. The class had already established itself as one of the finest in more than several decades. It should have been a bright spectacle. But the play, set inauspiciously for June 4, never happened. Shi Ke and fellow classmates were hence sent out into their careers in a time of turmoil and deprived of an important rite of passage.

But the incident that would test her mettle as an actress and a person, brought her in quick succession hard-won acclaim for her command of stage, then brutal persecution.

In March 1995, after the initial run of China's first privately-financed and hugely successful play Don't Bother Me After the Divorce (Lihunle, Jiu Bie Zai Lai Zhao Wo), a contractual dispute broke out between the Central Experimental Theater Troupe and the show's independent producer, Tan Lulu.

According to later statements by Tan, the Troupe got greedy, making unreasonable demands about revenue-sharing and copyright ownership. The Troupe then illegally booked and sold 7,000 tickets for a second run at the Haidian Theater. When the show's two star actresses, Shi Ke and Jiangshan, failed to appear, ticket-buyers were furious. As TV and print news organs quickly focused on the incident, the two actresses were caught in the cross-fire, unjustly blamed for an intentional 'no-show' and vilified by national media frenzy.

The Central Experimental Theater Troupe then waged a Cultural Revolution-style political campaign against Shi Ke (including 'big character' posters and criticism meetings) and eventually expelled her from the Theater, her work unit at the time. A state-ordered nationwide media blackout on any news of either actress soon followed.

In other words, Shi Ke's entire world came crashing down. Although the so-called 'no-show' affair threatened to end a career that had just begun, Shi Ke steadfastly endured a year of false accusations in which she chose not to state her side of the case. Instead she accepted the lonely ignominy of being nationally famous for reputedly betraying the art and audiences that she loved above all.

Last year, in a separate interview with this reporter, Shi Ke read to me a newspaper article she'd later written, explaining the affair to her audience. When she approached the end of the article, there were tears in her eyes, as she read her own words, "For me, happiness is standing on a stage."

She returned to the stage in the hit play Women are Pretty (Nuren Piaoliang) although this production was once again marred by contractual disputes.

With any luck, Shi Ke's new play will be free of this kind of trouble: she is producing and directing it herself.

For her directorial debut, Shi Ke chose American playwright Arthur Kopit's off-Broadway hit Road to Nirvana, a vicious satire of Hollywood greed and icon-worship, penned in response to the Broadway production of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, starring Madonna.

"I wanted to find an off-broadway play," Shi explains. "Too many of the foreign plays performed in China tend to be old classics, very far from our experience."

While acting in the 1997 film Concerto of Life (Shengming Ruge) with Broadway actor Wang Luoyong (Miss Saigon), Shi Ke discussed the idea of bringing contemporary off-Broadway works to China.

While searching for suitable material, including Steve Martin's hit comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Shi Ke encountered a translation of Kopit's play in Shanghai. Taken by the gutsy satires, compelling style, and finely-wrought and bitingly funny story, Shi Ke quickly secured rights to the play as translated by Shanghai playwrights William Sun and Faye C. Fei. In Kopit's tale, third-rate independent film producer Al and his partner Lou (short for Louise) invite Al's ex-buddy Jerry to help them secure the film rights to the life story of a distinctly Madonna-like star named 'Nirvana'.

The film is to be entitled Moby Dick. Due to amnesia related to over-indulgent drug use, Nirvana has forgotten her own life, and hence copied Melville's classic instead, replacing Ahab with herself and turning the great white whale into a 'great white cock.' When Jerry objects that the ludicrously obvious story-theft won't pass muster with an audience, Al says, "She doesn't think her fans have read Moby Dick."

In what turns out to be a hilarious metaphysical scam, Al and Lou (a former nun turned Hollywood agent-cum-drug dealer), convince the down-and-out Jerry (whose life was ruined by Al five years before) to agree to an escalating series of 'sacrifices' to make the big movie deal happen. In the end, Jerry eventually gets talked into willfully sacrificing his manhood to the megastar Nirvana in a conclusion that is both hilarious and eerily powerful.

"It's very American, very direct, very harsh," says the first-time director. "For actors, the content and style of this play is really exciting and has really gotten into our bones. Chinese playwrights tend be too implicit and veiled in their use of language. This play, in its directness, is really groundbreaking for us. It's like we're tossing a little bomb into the Chinese theater."

One of Road to Nirvana's main satirical components is Kopit's dead-on lampoon of David Mamet's trademark dialogue style. The staccato, hyper-naturalistic, expletive-loaded, and almost improvised feel of Mamet's dialogue not only sparked a revolution in American theater, but has consistently given many of the world's finest stage and screen actors severe headaches.

Kopit's Mamet-esque half-spoken, overlapping, constantly interrupted dialogue posed an obstacle not just for Shi Ke the director, but also as producer.

"Many of the actors I wanted to cast for this said they couldn't take it. They just weren't used to this kind of play. Some even felt that it was too dirty," says Shi, herself possessing a nearly photographic ability to memorize dialogue.

"This kind of performance," Shi explains, "is so naturalistic and unlike the classical theater style we were used to. Dialogue in Chinese plays is often very logical, and clear. The dialogue in this is very illogical, in a very life-like way, and therefore imposes tremendous challenges for learning the lines, much less getting the performance right. We often laughed at ourselves during the early rehearsals; not only were the lines themselves funny, but our difficulty in nailing them down was a joke as well!"

For the role of Al, veteran stage and screen actor Liu Jinshan enthusiastically accepted the part, and was so supportive and committed to Shi Ke's first project he put off several roles for the two months it took Shi Ke to settle casting and scheduling conflicts that delayed the production's start date.

Liu's die-hard commitment to China's most promising new director was also strongly reflected in rehearsals.

"There are so many lines," says Liu matter-of-factly, "and it's not just a matter of memorization, but getting their nuances just right. Every night, I ponder the lines while driving, at home, even in the shower. I ponder, ponder, ponder."

Throughout the first week of intense rehearsals, Central Academy of Drama graduate Geng Xiaolin (playing Jerry) echoed Liu's comments, as he punctuated rehearsals with chain-smoking, lots of rubbing of his forehead, and repeating the familiar mantra "Too many lines. Too many lines!"

The role of Al's lover and con-partner confronted China Youth Art Theater actress Liu Dan with the opposite problem. "I have too few lines!" she complains. Although a key character, Lou's role relies less on her dialogue than her function, a sort of threatening harsh bad-cop foil to the back-stabbing, ingratiating good-cop role of Al that demands an actor's ability to project presence and meaning on stage without dialogue.

In addition to directing and producing, Shi Ke plays the title character, Nirvana. Although also a star in her own right, the parallels between the actress and the part stop here. Nirvana is a ditzy, power-hungry media monster who believes she is the reincarnation of an 18th Dynasty Egyptian ruler. Shi Ke on the other hand is one of the sweetest people you'll ever meet. "I'm far and close to her [Nirvana] at the same time," she says.

"Close because of my experience in this profession; far, in terms of her fear of others using her, and her inner life."

Indeed, the lead actress, director and producer of Road to Nirvana, shares one more thing in common with the iconic goddess in her play: power on stage.

It's a kind of power that draws equally from pure ability and a strong work ethic, as much from strength as a willingness to be vulnerable, a balance won at a dear personal cost. Unlike Nirvana, Shi Ke's powerful presence on stage is one that gives rather than takes from the audience. As a director, the power translates into what she gives her actors, and is testified to by her ability to inspire them to get one of the most difficult contemporary plays onto its feet in a mere two weeks.

And her power is most obviously from a wellspring that was there at the beginning of her career. As a three-year-old girl, the rambunctious little Coco (as her mother called her) would routinely interrupt the political meetings that took place in the courtyard outside her house. Prancing out into the middle of an ongoing meeting the precocious, wildly energetic girl would break out into spontaneous song-and-dance routines.

And they couldn't stop her. For one thing, she was doing her own renditions of Cultural Revolution songs, praising Mao mostly, that none dared interrupt. More importantly, she was happy, and in her rightful place, and that, quite simply, is powerful.

Road to Nirvana opens November 26 at the China Youth Art Theater and has a second run at China Children's Art Theater, starting December 6.

November 26-December 4, 7:15 pm
China Youth Art Theater, 67 Beibingmasi Hutong, Jiaodaokou Nanjie, Dongcheng District
Tel: 6407-5959

December 6-14, 7:15 pm
China Children's Theater, 64 Dong'anmen Dajie, Dongcheng District
Tel: 6512-9687

Tickets and information: 133-0101-0597 or 135-0121-2364 (English).

Previous Stories...

The Kindest Cut Laser Eye Surgery in Beijing

Mian Mian: Chronicler of China's Chemical Generation

Men in Towels

A Beijing Cabbie's Summer of Love

Artist or Ad Man 
- The whimsical work of Zhao Bandi

Beijing Scene and the scene in Bejing

Turbulent Years

Brave New Beijing

Paper Tiger

Pavilion of Women

Jia Zhangke: Pickpocket Director

Escape from Beijing

Back to School

Bigamy is best

Eating in China

Rock'n Roll Entrepreneurs

I want MY MTV...
in Mandarin!

Black Memories

Wired China

China Internet Ins & Outs

Summer Shape Up! Keep Fit in the Capital

Abstract ! Painter Aniwar

Joan Chen Sweeps Awards with Directories Debut