Thursday, November 14, 2013

Go On Living: A Tale of an Accidental Activist

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, playwright
written by Sophia Naylor, Production Fellow and Production Assistant for Go On Living

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's powerful new work-in-progress Go On Living is centered around the life of poet Liao Yiwu. Yiwu spent four years in prison in China for his poem Massacre, which condemned his government's violent reaction to the Tiananmen Square protests. When the play begins, Yiwu (who is still living in exile in Berlin) isn't wrapped up in politics, but instead with living the way he wants to: whether that is to drink when he wants to drink, to make love to beautiful women, or to write a poem about a national tragedy. As we watch Yiwu's experience in prison, we witness his beautifully reconstructed relationships with his fellow inmates, adapted from his memoir For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet's Journey Through A Chinese Prison. He's not a man intending to be inspirational; he simply can't help but inspire others.

Go On Living was part of the Rough Reading Series, a monthly program of new plays in development. Normally, plays receive 10 hours of rehearsal and then two readings back to back. This November, we were fortunate enough to work with the New Play Practicum at UC Berkeley, and through their support were able to have 20 hours of rehearsal and readings spaced a week apart. (Thank you guys!) This gave Frances more time for rewrites, which she took complete advantage of. Between our reading at Stanford and our reading at Berkeley, Frances completely transformed the play, which was exciting and frightening. But that's what we here at the Playwrights Foundation are all about: giving playwrights the space and support to wreck havoc on their work to create something completely different and new.

It wasn't only frightening for Frances--it was nerve-wracking for the actors too. They would come into each rehearsal and ask, "Who am I playing now?" (Usually we would know.) And bless their huge hearts, they were faster than lightning on their feet--flat out amazing. I loved watching director Mei Ann Teo constantly moving around, gesticulating passionately, even after her back went out. Because of the extra rehearsal time, this was certainly a reading where people weren't bounded by their physical scripts: actress El Beh played her cello while swinging it around the stage with the help of actor-script-holder Ogie Zulueta,* who later read while doing a handstand. Watching them take the text and move with it was something special, and something you don't get to see much in readings. That extra rehearsal time allowed Frances to see her work staged, which is just as important as hearing it at a reading. Following all that rehearsal came the performance, and then it was all over.

After the theatrical fanfare of a well-written show (or in this case, a first act--we're eagerly waiting for more, Frances!), you can go over all the details of the production, but the most important question is, did it move people? One of the most fulfilling moments of this entire experience was hearing a young Chinese woman talk about her experience watching the show. She had grown up in China, but she had never heard of Liao Yiwu, and had only a cursory knowledge of what had happened in Tiananmen Square. As she said, talking about those kinds of things in China was "forbidden." For Frances to be able to listen to reactions like that while still writing her piece must be invaluable for the development of her work. That is the crux of what a Rough Reading can offer a writer; and at the same time this same reading can educate and inspire an entire audience.

*A Member of Actors' Equity Association