Playwright, The Hundred Flowers Project
The central story of The Hundred Flowers Project involves a group of Asian actors making a play about Mao Tse-Tung called The Hundred Flowers Project, and, in a surrealistic twist, the play they are working on morphs into a play about the making of the play itself. Because of this play-within-a-play structure, I’m often met- when I describe the premise to people- with responses like: “Ooo, very meta.” It’s a response tinged with benevolent irony, as if the person is saying: “Good for you, trying something out. You must be aware this play-within-a-play thing’s been done ad nauseam, and I already feel above it and won’t think it’s clever... but good for you!”
For this reason, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable referring to the play as a “meta- theatrical” play, if for no other reason than the term “meta-theater” carries with it said whiff of lazy gimmickry, of making an easy grab for audience engagement. After all, what better way to have an audience feel connected to your play than to introduce a perspective that is outside the play looking in (their perspective)?
I just looked up the definition of “meta” online, and according to the hallowed e-tome Dictionary.com, it is only in the 21st Century lexicon that “meta” is used to mean self-referential and parodic. This usage in turn has origins in the Greek usage which means (among other definitions) “beyond.” I like this way of thinking better. To me, plays with special goals of pushing an audience toward a heightened awareness of their immediate surroundings (like the mechanics of the medium they are immediately experiencing in a theater space) are not engaging in inward-looking navel gazing. Instead, they are laying the groundwork for an audience to think “beyond.”
There’s a long tradition of plays using the subject of theater itself as a means of questioning the boundaries between performance and reality. Recently there’s David Ives’ Venus in Fur and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present... (presented at last year’s BAPF), and all this traces back to Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Then there’s a wide range of plays containing varying degrees of meta-ness for different purposes. Will Eno’s Thom Pain has a strain of the self-referential that has the uncanny effect of pulling us deeper into the psyche of the monologist; and Bertolt Brecht’s alienation theory contends that the artifice of theater should be acknowledged upfront as a starting point from which to examine social issues.
If you think about it, all theater is “meta.” Every play requires the audience to both acknowledge the artifice, then think beyond, even if this is a subconscious process. All theater demands that an audience take in a set of abstractions- these blocks make a living room, these two actors symbolize an entire village- and let real emotions and meaning seep through. By challenging conventional structure, plays that have strains of “meta-ness” challenge the notion that there is only one set way of suspending disbelief. I have found that when a piece of theater manages to transport me to another place after initially laying bare all its tricks and methods, after making me (initially) hyperaware that I am sitting in a theater, the journey usually has a uniquely transcendent kind of magic.
Not only is a meta-theater piece fun and challenging to watch, but it is also fun and challenging to write. I have found that my own struggles and joys in writing The Hundred Flowers Project have already seeped into the piece itself, making this feel like one of the most honest pieces I’ve written. This dichotomy of honesty seeping through artifice is, again, at the root of all theater, making theater itself the grandest metaphor of all. My take on Mao’s reign is that his massive social experiment was akin to a highly choreographed and immersive theatrical production, with real lives with real stakes pushing against this under the surface.
Flowers explores the ways in which people are simultaneously seduced and oppressed by various structures- from structures of government to structures of artmaking to structures of relationships. In writing the piece, I found an exciting freedom in allowing the play to refer to itself, to the architecture of its own medium; it allowed me to tease out a whole new range of complex shades of this humanity-pushing-against-structure dynamic. It’s the idea of taking a perspective from the beyond in order to look further beyond.
At least that’s the meta-goal.
Christopher Chen's play The Hundred Flowers Project will be read as part of the 35th Bay Area Playwrights Festival July 22 & 29 at the Thick House. For ticket info click here
The Hundred Flowers Project is Co-Produced by Crowded Fire Theatre Company