Monday, July 9, 2012

Erasing History: My Moment in the Mind of Mao

By Desdemona Chiang

When Marissa Wolf called a month ago to offer me "The Hundred Flowers Project," I was ecstatic. Chris Chen is a dear friend, and I am very fortunate to have been around the social fringe of his process and thinking on this script for over a year. It is a piece that he has written, workshopped, re-written, re-workshopped, re-re-written, and now (with my involvement), currently being re-re-re-written. It has been previously led by three other directors in various incarnations, each contributing a significant imprint to its past prior to landing in my hands. I knew all this coming into the process, and had no doubt that the play had an elaborate history of its own. I soon found myself inheriting a script that I did not help develop, a schedule of design workshops that were committed to prior to my coming onboard, and a cast of actors hired by another director.

And suddenly, I understood why Chairman Mao had the desire to eradicate China's political history when he came into power.

Of course, I'm not implying that this production is Modern China, and I'm certainly no charismatic dictator (aside from sharing similar Chinese DNA, the Chairman and I have very little in common), but I felt it for a brief moment--this urge to start from a blank slate with unending possibility and promise, wishing that time itself could begin NOW so that anything before now would have never been. No pre-existing conditions. No baggage. No remnants or relics from previous experiences. And don't get me wrong--I love the team of talent I'm with and look forward to the adventures to come, but it got me thinking:

What is behind this impulse to make new? To wipe clean in order to start over?

I think it has to do with how one perceives themselves as a conduit for innovation, and ultimately, revolution. Mao thought that the only way to a invent new and modern China was to undo the past. He wanted to create severe and radical change, and in order to do so, he had to combat and eradicate over two millennia's worth of social thinking, tradition, and culture. He wanted to start from zero. And what revolution hasn't come about by a forcible wiping clean of a previous slate?

Chris and I were talking the other day about what the state of mind must be like for a people who have no cultural past:

1. It is liberating, because you have infinite possibility.
2. It is terrifying, because you have nothing that grounds you.

Unlike Mao, I'm not interested in erasing the past, or undoing what has already been done (in fact, learning about the journey of the script itself has been immensely useful), but I need to figure out what kind of conduit for innovation I am. How can I use the history of this project to create something drastically different and new with my colleagues? Or is the undoing of history inevitable and I simply fail to see that now? Only time will tell.

The ongoing process of "The Hundred Flowers Project" is, in a way, a meta-representation of the very (meta) thing it's creating. I'm part a group of people struggling to making a play about a group of people struggling to making a play about Mao. And, like these people, we are figuring out how to honor the path that this project has travelled, all the while looking forward, searching for innovation, and revolutionizing the present moment.

This is the now. And this is the new now.

1 comment:

Erin Merritt said...

(Erin M. here) I love this post, Desdemona, and it makes me even happier that I'll be around to see part of your process happen in a room near me. I laughed out loud at your impulse to eradicate the past, because I worry that my impulse is too much the opposite. I often discover my strongest impulses in reaction to a piece's history, and I am finding that when I work with a cast and crew someone else hired, I am forced to be more original than I am when I'm working with people I know well. Yes, the work is quicker, and often more fun, when I'm working with people with whom I find a natural resonance, but most of us are hired to work on plays chosen and written by other people, so in some sense we're always charged with bring life to someone else's ideas, and that is more liberating than I had expected. Your post makes me think that the heart of our job (and joy, right?) as directors is to uncover the most potent conversation between that "clean slate" and the "old guard" of our collective past/individual memories.