Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with two of the key members of the artistic team on our production of The Good Person of Szechwan: Min Kahng (Composer & Music Director) and Natalie Greene (Choreographer & Movement Director). Listen below!
AC: This is Alicia Coombes, the Creative Content Manager for Cal Shakes, and I’m in the room with Min Kahng, Composer and Music Director; and Natalie Greene, the Choreographer and Movement Director of The Good Person of Szechwan. Thank you for joining me. I’m going to pass the mic and ask Min and Natalie to introduce themselves and tell us a little bit about their background.
MK: Hi, my name is Min Kahng. I am a Bay Area based playwright and composer and have been writing for a little over 10 years now. Most of my work has been produced through Bay Area Children’s Theatre. I’ve been fortunate enough to have several world premieres there, most recently was Gold, the Midas Musical. And I have also had a production called Four Immigrants that was put up by Theatreworks Silicon Valley back in 2017. And they just this year won the Regional Tony Award. And about five seconds of my score was was broadcast live on the Tony Awards. So I am I like to say Tony adjacent.
NG: My name is Natalie Greene. And my background is in dance, dance theater, musical theater, and devised theater. And currently, I am the Artistic Director of a small devised theater ensemble called Mugwumpin. We are in residence at Counter Pulse making new work. Because we have an intense research process and we make work from scratch, it usually takes us about two years to build a show. So we’re in the beginning of a new process. I also teach at the University of San Francisco in the Department of Performing Arts and Social Justice, where we do a lot of investigating how performance and community engagement initiatives can place the arts as a central part of social change. And I’m lucky enough to work in both the dance and theater programs as part of USF’s program.
AC: I’d like to ask you both your background and previous experience with Brecht, and what you brought to the table—what was in your head before you started.
NG: So I had read Brecht, and I had never been able to stage a production, I had never worked with a Brecht show, really coming to life and getting on its feet. And so what I knew from the page did not translate to the stage directly. And I thought at first that there was a big gap. And that I really needed to study and I took to reading and learning as much as I could, sort of assuming for a while that there was some academic knowledge that I didn’t have that I really needed. And while some of that was really useful, particularly breakfast ideas around gesture—gestus—that there would be one physical quality, shape, or movement that could encapsulate a character’s entire attitude, perspective, all of the character traits might be absorbed into one movement or posture. And that was fascinating for me. And learning about other sort of Brechtian ways of considering the body as a part of performance was fascinating. But I also learned in the process of speaking with a few academic theater people as well as speaking with people who know me well and know my words, I was also reminded that so much of the contemporary performance that I’ve made, and so much of the contemporary performance that I’m interested in has been deeply influenced by Brecht. So while, I assumed there is this big gap and I got all nerdy and I really started to do as much research as I could, amazingly, what I came up with was that, so much of what I’ve made has this way of disregarding the fourth wall or re-adopting the fourth wall when when one desires that; of commenting on itself; of popping in and out of direct address to the audience, or ignoring the audience; of busting into song or dance, and then dropping the song or dance completely; of panning out for some sort of a grand dramatic gesture or narrowing in for something very specific or a certain political or cultural reference. That scope and scale that we are invited to work with in the Brechtian way of making theater is a scope and scale that I was familiar with. I was deeply comforted by the fact that my academic research just reminded me that there’s something Brechtian about the performance world that I have been working within and the way that I’ve been working, has great reference to Brecht. And so it was almost like a homecoming, or going back to the source of that: I’ve been influenced by this, and now I get to really do it, and do it with Eric, and do it at Cal Shakes and do it with Min. And it was pretty great. I enjoyed it.
MK: Yeah, I had studied Brecht, in one class in college, I was a rhetoric major at UC Berkeley. And so my encounter with Brecht was from a very academic perspective. The rhetoric major in general, is very cerebral, very heady. And so there was a lot of talking about post-modernism, modernism and deconstruction, around Brecht. So when I read the script, I was actually surprised at how accessible it was. And I talked to Eric about it. He’s like, yeah, that’s, that’s what he does. Because we are talking about society, and we want people to understand what we’re saying. So it shouldn’t be this idealized, philosophical space that only an academic elite can access, it could be something that the people can really grab on to and digest and understand. So I, I appreciated that. And how Eric was also now taking this script, and in his direction, really allowing the actors and what he was doing on stage to comment on itself, acknowledging the fact that this is also a script from the past, that Brecht was writing an imagined China, and what that would mean for a contemporary audience nowadays, and having Asian American actors on stage, I won’t go into too much detail about what Eric does with all that. But it’s really fun, really tongue-in-cheek, and really self-aware. So similarly, for the music, this differs from traditional musical theater in that there’s not some hidden orchestra somewhere providing a musical theater score that the actors just latch on to and sing and do their thing. All of the music is provided by actors playing their own instruments, which has happened more recently and more frequently in musical theater, but is still relatively new, as far as it becoming a common practice. And yeah, that we’re not trying to hide the orchestra, that the music isn’t just coming from somewhere, and we’re pretending like that’s a normal thing. We’re showing the audience exactly who’s playing what. And I really enjoyed this idea that it was being built from the ground up rather than from this, again, idealized base, that the music was just magically appearing. It was really something created by folks on stage.
AC: The way you talk about Brecht reminds me how we talk about Shakespeare, sometimes we end up getting very cerebral and very posh about it, and at the end of the day, he was writing for groundlings, as well as kings and queens. And so realizing that a lot of our classics are rooted in popular theater is really important to remember as you’re approaching work, right? This question is for Natalie, knowing that Brecht never went to China, but also knowing that he had a chance to see Peking opera and that he was very inspired by that moment. How much of your choreography was informed by Chinese opera moving into the space?
NG: Similarly to how I was saying that it was a little bit of a homecoming for me to get to do Brecht, because I feel I’ve been so influenced by it, it was almost a homecoming for Good Person of Szechwan to be directed by Eric and to be referencing Peking opera more directly, than potentially some productions have in the past. My reference points were occasionally more from Chinese classical dance, because I’ve had a little bit more experience and training in Chinese classical dance. But I will point out a wonderful collaborative moment, which is when we knew that we had to bring all of the tables and chairs and props for the factory on stage, Eric had a clear vision of Peking opera style transitions for those objects. And so we talked about the larger idea of that transition being a beautiful movement sequence. And then I worked out some of the nuts and bolts of how the actors would run with tables, and how we’d get all of the little details of our cigarette factories set up so that we could operate the factory immediately after. So that was a very enjoyable, collaborative part of the process. And another example is, a favorite example of mine, is in the rap song, I fell in love with this pipa riff, this little melodic tune at the beginning of the song in our show, it’s on the, on the banjolele. And it was at the beginning of the song when we were first working with costumes and had other things to do. And I said, “Min, can we please put that a little later in the song?” because I wanted to include a traditional hand gesture, the lotus blossom, which is from Chinese classical dance, and it’s a beautiful intricate hand gesture. And I really wanted to have the juxtaposition of the hip hop style and sound, and then reference these traditional movements. So I found the juxtaposition was probably the most interesting thing that we could, sort of, do research and say, okay, we’re going to borrow these specific movements, or we’re going to borrow this grand way of moving. So what you’ll probably see more often is a certain wind up before doing something. And that is often done in Peking Opera. And that is something we do in many points in the show. So while it might not be in a specific song or dance, you’ll see these moments of wind up, or preparing for some sort of a grand gesture. And that is definitely influenced by the Peking Opera.
AC: I’m so excited that you brought up the rap song, the hip hop song, because that was one of my favorite parts. For two reasons. I remember sitting in the design run and just my jaw dropping when these two women start rapping in Mandarin. And it’s also one of the songs that kind of falls back into the traditional musical theater of like moving the plot forward. Whereas a lot of the other songs are a little bit more aside, I would love to talk about your approach, Min, of creating that song, and how many other songs you created for this show, and how you balanced the poetry that’s already inherent in the script with creating new songs and integrating those with the movement and direction.
MK: Yeah, there are about six songs in the script. And first order of business was to meet with Eric and really get a sense of what he was imagining was the action going on, or the tone he was trying to strike. And then I went away by myself and kind of stewed on that, and, and did what I could to come up with like a skeleton because we were asking the actors to play their own instruments. And there was still some question early on in the process of what instruments we had, what I could offer was chords and the melody of some sorts. And in building that, I was just thinking about the banjolele, and how emblematic that is of the entire production, that even the banjolele being a combination of these two culturally specific instruments, and even the keytar that we have on stage being a mixture of a keyboard and a guitar, that this idea of East meets West, or just like cultures meeting up and merging and trying to be conscious of that, as we’re putting this up, the fact that Brecht wrote again, this, this piece that takes place in China. So trying to figure out how that played out in the music as well. And so there are a few songs in the show where I brought in pentatonic scales as the base for the melodies. And sometimes you can hear that it is very distinctly…it could be distinctly Asian, for example, the finale, I think harkens to Communist China, a Communist Chinese anthem of sorts. But there are other songs like the Water Sellers’, where the pentatonic is in there, but it’s not necessarily overtly Asian in its presentation, or sound. The hip hop number is probably the ultimate smorgasbord of cultures in mind, kind of coming together. That Mandarin rap that you were talking about is actually from an existing Chinese hip hop song that Eric became aware of, and was excited to incorporate into that moment, because the lyrics in Mandarin are talking about, “look at me, I’m wearing new fancy clothes.” And he wanted to juxtapose that with the moment where Shen Te decides to put on new clothes. And essentially, wear privilege by becoming a man. And what that does for her and how she can take care of herself, by wearing essentially, the character of Shui Ta. That particular number, I would say was very chicken and egg, I came in with something. But it was very open ended. Because I knew there needs to be costume elements, there needed to be movement elements, there was this rap that Eric wanted to bring in and there was also discussion around what was happening with the character of Shen Te, where was she moving from the beginning of the song to the end of the song. So that particular song was very collaborative. And like I said, pulled from that hip hop song that already existed, pulled from the lyrics that are there. And really also the actors brought a lot, so that is probably an emblematic song for the entire show as well. It was about all of us building this together. You had mentioned the poetry that exists, I would think for the most part, and I don’t know if this is because this is how Brecht originally wrote these lyrics, or it was in the translation or the adaptation that we have. But the majority of the songs were actually pretty straightforward to set to melodies. The hip hop number was not because there were moments in that song that were freeform, freeverse, were not intended to rhyme. So that was another interesting element to try to bring in to rap. Where rhyming is, somewhat key, can be very key to its fabric.
AC: I’m glad you said chicken and egg because I was wondering, which came first in most of your processes, the choreo or the composition?
NG: I would say, because I have a musical theater background, I first always turn to the script, and what is the storytelling that needs to happen during a song? What is the director’s vision of what happens during that song? What is the music saying? What is the music mandating? And how can we find a union of the storytelling, the musicality, and the physicality? And should there be any juxtaposition, or should those things be aligned? So these are some of the questions that I might ask, before I ask myself, What do I want to see? Or what do I want to make on the stage? That said, in this piece, I’d say each thing we worked on was different, because for example, in the factory scene, we really needed to have some semblance of a working cigarette factory. So working out the nuts and bolts of that was something we did before we choreographed the song. That song originally didn’t have a lot of accompaniment. And so I thought, okay, it’s got to be body percussion. So I have a little bit of compositional say, going, what is the rhythm that I want to accentuate and how can I use the body to create that rhythm on stage. In other parts of the show, like we were saying, the Shen Te/Shui Ta rap, I needed to choreograph a costume change. And Eric so beautifully talked about that piece as a journey, not only from female to male, as Min said, she’s stepping into her privilege, it’s also from east to west. It’s also from a certain class and a certain way of being seen in her community, to stepping up in another way. And there’s these stylistic—going from, there’s the elements of pop song, there’s elements of this vulnerable, stripped naked, woman behind the microphone, and then there’s the hip hop star with their hype, men, like pumping them up. And so all of those layers were things to be attended to, in the choreography. One more example, Song of Smoke, which I adore, because it’s like a folk dance, that also has the responsibility of being this raucous family party, and the family, in their rowdy way, setting out to destroy Shen Te’s tobacco shop. So throwing suitcases and boxes, and a slow motion fight that we did in conjunction with Dave Maier, making this big, rowdy party, so I would say that storytelling and musicality, and physicality are all intertwined in the making. And I really enjoyed the collaborative process of that.
MK: Yeah, like I mentioned, I created skeletons. And it really was, what those skeletons would become was up to the entire group. Not, “I’m the composer, I’m wearing my composer hat. And you have to do what I say.” I don’t think that would have worked in this environment. I don’t think it works ever, really. But yeah, I want to bring up the Elephant moment, again, because I’m just realizing—the tobacco factory, Song of the Elephants—that did go from me bringing in a melody to then us discussing, for example, how fast did it go, because one was, are the lyrics too fast, one was is the choreography going to be too fast or too slow, or vice versa. So there was definitely some collaboration with some back and forth on that. And then ultimately, what we ended up with as well was that this is the only song that is fully now scored, electronically through sound design. And basically, we reached the point where we landed on tempos and so I created what I call a dummy track of sounds that I was like, this could sound like this, but I’m not a sound designer so I’m not going to make that final call, handed it to Brendan, our sound designer, and he created this beautiful environmental track that really captures this, you know, oppressive factory environment. And I think that also is very—it just fits that that is the most artificially created sound, because of what the storytelling is doing at the moment talking about these oppressed people being worked hard and driven like slaves. And so yeah, that’s an example of, I couldn’t have told us where we were going to end up. I gave people a skeleton, and it ends up in this really beautiful place that brought all of the elements together. And the same goes for each moment in the show that it was providing the skeleton, but then seeing what the drive was for each thing. And I think we all shared and took turns on taking the lead on that. And I felt like that was very…Brechtian, perhaps.
NG: Min mentioned this, but I want to add on to it, that it was an incredibly collaborative process, not just with, with this creative team, but also with the cast. Not only did we not know the instrumentation coming in, because we needed to figure out what instruments our cast might be able to play in the show. But there were elements of what movement choices actors would make around their characters. People are there are male, female, and non binary actors playing a variety of roles and genders and characters of different social status. And looking at appropriation and how the east and the west view different gestures. So there was a lot of learning. And I just want to give a shout out to the cast for being a big part of that collaborative process.
MK: Yeah, in particular, I need to thank Phil Wong, who was pretty much the Music Captain when I couldn’t be around. And he also—you know, this is a production where it’s definitely hard. You can’t parse it out and say “this was created by this person, and this was created with this person”. It’s not like that. Everything was touched by more than one person. And the actors had a big part to play in that and Phil definitely had a big part to play in some of the musical decisions, because he is often the lead instrument in these songs and so I was letting his musical intuition also guide the way—so yeah, shout out to the cast. Yeah, shout out to Phil and the whole cast really!
AC: Great. Thank you both for meeting with me today.
You can follow Min on Instagram and Twitter @minkahng or his website, minkahng.com. See what Natalie and her theater company are up to at their website mugwumpin.org or @mugwumpin on Twitter and Instagram.
The Good Person of Szechwan is now extended through July 28. Tickets are available at calshakes.org.