Open Rehearsal: The Court Theatre Blog

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June 3, 2014

The True Story that Inspired M. Butterfly

by Kate Vangeloff in 2013/2014 Season, M. Butterfly

Written by Martin So

To celebrate the closing week of M. Butterfly at Court Theatre, I will now present the true story that inspired the creation of David Henry Hwang’s most celebrated work.

The story of M. Butterfly is partially inspired by Bernard Bouriscot, a Frenchman who worked for his country’s embassy in China.  He was 20 years old when he arrived at Beijing in 1964 to be an accountant for the French Embassy. Having sworn off previous relationships with men, he sought to fall in love with a woman during his time in China. However he found the task challenging- it was easy for girls to see that Bouriscot was just a mere clerk with a 10th grade education. Although He had been taking Chinese classes and roaming around the city, Bouriscot was unable to befriend any Chinese locals.

An ID of Bernard Bouriscot


Bouriscot made progress with his quest by Christmas. He managed to get the number of a beautiful blond secretary. She even agreed to accompany him to a Christmas party hosted by one of the high ranking officials in the French embassy. But at the party another person caught Bouriscot’s eyes. He saw a Chinese man in a Mao suit speaking fluent French. He was no taller than a woman. Bouriscot found the man shy and tentative even though he was in the center of the crowd. Later that night Bouriscot introduced himself to the Chinese man. Bouriscot discovered that the man was called Shi Pei Pu, a Peking Opera playwright and Chinese teacher. They soon became good friends. Shi often took Bouriscot around the city to show him shops that only the locals would go to. Shi told him fascinating stories of ancient China. Bouriscot was really glad to have Shi has a companion. He was lonely in Beijing until he met Shi. Eventually, Shi revealed his true identity to Bouriscot.

Shi’s mother gave birth to two daughters but no sons before conceiving Shi. In traditional Chinese families boys are much more valuable than daughters. Madame Shi’s mother in law gave the mother an ultimatum. If Madame Shi did not produce a boy in her next birth, her husband would have to marry a second wife. Madame Su was terrified that she would lose her power in the family. She soon gave birth to Shi Pei Pu, but Pei Pu was a girl! So Pei Pu’s parents decided to lie to the mother in law and raised Pei Pu as a boy. Thus, Shi Pei Pu has lived his entire life in disguise. He couldn’t reveal his true gender because in Mao’s China, men and women were seen as equals. To tell the truth, and thus claim that men are superior to women, would be dangerous. Shi entrusted her secret to Bouriscot nevertheless. Bouriscot swore that he would never reveal Shi’s identity. He told Shi, “You are my best friend. I will tell nobody.” They soon became more than friends, and Boursicot had finally found a woman he loved.

Bouriscot and Shi together in Beijing


Bouriscot received an invitation to join an expedition to the jungles of Brazil. Yearning for an adventure, Bouriscot accepted the invitation. It meant that he would be separated from Shi for the next couple of years. On the eve of Bouriscot departure, Shi told him that she might be pregnant. Bouriscot promised Shi that he would be back to see Shi.

Bouriscot returned to Beijing in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. He immediately went to Shi’s apartment. Although Shi was very happy to see Bouriscot, she told him to leave because being a foreigner in Cultural Revolution is dangerous. By now, the neighborhood would have realized that there is a foreigner around. She also told Bouriscot that she gave birth to his son, but he is not living with Shi because it was unsafe. Suddenly, dozens of government officials rushed into Shi’s apartment. They accused Bouriscot for being a spy. Bouriscot reacted quickly and said, 

“I’m a friend of the Chinese people, and a great admirer of the revolution. I am also a friend of Comrade Shi Pei Pu, whom I met on my first trip to China, when I was working at the French Embassy. He had been teaching me the changes that have taken place in the great Cultural Revolution under great leader Mao.”

The government officials believed Bouriscot and let him go, but not before assigning Bouriscot a new Chinese teacher from the government so they could keep a close eye on him. Kang, the new instructor slowly influenced Bouriscot with Mao’s ideologies. Bouriscot eventually volunteered to spy for the Chinese. Having access to the archive room and the mail room, Bouriscot was able to sneak important documents to the Chinese. Later Bouriscot was able to relocate to Paris with Shi and their son Bertrand. Bouriscot continued spying for the Chinese in Paris. Unfortunately, his relationship with Shi deteriorated at the same time. Shi complained that Bouriscot was not spending enough time with her. Bouriscot felt that Shi could no longer satisfy him in bed so he began having affairs with other women. 

Shi Pei Pu playing a male character in Peking Opera


Eventually the French Government realized what Bouriscot had done. They arrested him on June 30, 1983. Bouriscot was charged with espionage after being questioned for two days. The French police was also instructed to bring Bouriscot’s lover to custody. But when they charged into Shi’s apartment, they discovered Shi in a man’s shirt and trousers. And more importantly, they noticed that Shi had a prominent Adam’s Apple. Medical examination confirmed that Shi is, in fact, a man.

Shi told the court that, “I never told Bernard I was a woman. I only let it be understood that I could be a woman.” Bouriscot refused to believe that Shi was a man until he removed his pants in front of Bouriscot. Shocked and depressed, Bouriscot attempted to commit suicide in prison by cutting his throat with a blunt knife issued to prisoners for meals. He was stopped before he could do any serious harm to himself.

Shi and Bouriscot were sentenced to six years in prison. Shi received a presidential pardon after one year of imprisonment. He stayed in France to give Peking Opera demonstrations and lessons. Bouriscot was released a few months later.

Bouriscot and Shi on Trial


Later Bouriscot recounted his affair with Shi in an interview,
“People ask do I hate Pei Pu. I don’t say he’s a bastard, no. I hate no man, not even the police. I have no regrets for what they call this spying. I am just sorry the story was not the one I was believing. Love is to trust; that is what was the fault of my friend Shi Pei Pu: to lie. It’s better to be cheated than to cheat, there is no dishonor in being cheated.”

Trivia

Gallimard watched M. Butterfly and liked it. Although he thought that the play was not what his story is about. Biographer Wadler did comment that Hwang got it right by making Gallimard falling in love with his fantasy of the perfect Oriental woman. In real life, Wadler remarks that Bouriscot had ‘an uncanning ability to believe what he wanted to believe.’

Shi doesn’t like discussing his private life. When Hwang contact Shi to offer him royalties from M. Butterfly, Shi refused the payment but demanded a solo recital the Carnegie Hall. His request was not granted. Hwang wrote in Shi’s obituary, “Perhaps this comes closest to the truth about Shi Pei Pu: he was, above all, a performer.

Shi Pei Pu died in 2009. When notified of his death, Bouriscot remarked, “He did so many things against me that he had no pity for, I think it is stupid to play another game now and say I am sad. The plate is clean now. I am free.”


Sources

Wadler, Joyce. The True Story of M. Butterfly; The Spy Who Fell in Love With a Shadow. The New York Times. 14 Aug. 1993.

Churnin, Nancy. M. Butterfly>Behind the Truth and Fiction of M. Butterfly. Los Angeles Times. 2 Jan. 1992.

Hwang, David Henry. Fond Farewells: Shi Pei Pu. Time. 16 Dec. 2009.

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May 28, 2014

Performance Styles in M. Butterfly

by Kate Vangeloff in

Written by Martin So

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly incorporates performance styles from the West and the East. The play is a deconstruction of Puccini’s Opera Madame Butterfly, while showcasing Eastern art forms including Peking Opera and Kabuki. To celebrate the opening of Court Theatre’s production, I have collected a few videos of the aforementioned performance styles for your viewing pleasure! 

1. Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Set in early 20th Century Nagasaki, Japan, the opera tells the love story of the American navy soldier Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and his young Japanese bride Cio Cio San.

The Whole World Over: Pinkerton tells his mate Sharpless that he plans to marry a Japanese Woman


The Flower Duet: Pinkerton returns from America to visit Cio Cio San. Overjoyed, she and her maid decorates the room with flowers. 


2. Peking Opera

The stage in Peking Opera is minimal. The set often consists of only a table and two chairs. Symbolic movements and gestures are used to tell complicated stories. For example, four generals and four soldiers represent an army of thousands, while waving a whip with tassels in the air represents riding a horse.
In M. Butterfly, Song is a Dan, a Peking Opera practitioner specializing in female roles. Here is a excerpt of The Legend of the White Snake, a story about an enchanted snake transforming into a woman and falling in love with a man.

 

If you would like to learn more about Peking Opera, I have written a more in-depth article on the M. Butterfly microsite


3. Kabuki

Kabuki is the combination of three Chinese characters: Ka (Song), Bu (Dance), and Ki (Skill or Artisan). This traditional Japanese art form is a spectacle of highly stylized acting, dancing, and music. on the stage. Below is a good introduction video of Kabuki.

 

M Butterfly incorporates Kabuki in by having Koroko dancers. They are stagehands that occasionally play small parts. They dress in all black to show that they are invisible and are not a part of what is happening With this in mind, I present the final video: Matrix Ping Pong, a modernized entertaining performance of Koroko dancing.

 

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May 28, 2014

Performance Styles in M. Butterfly

by Kate Vangeloff in 2013/2014 Season, M. Butterfly

Written by Martin So

David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly incorporates performance styles from the West and the East. The play is a deconstruction of Puccini’s Opera Madame Butterfly, while showcasing Eastern art forms including Peking Opera and Kabuki. To celebrate the opening of Court Theatre’s production, I have collected a few videos of the aforementioned performance styles for your viewing pleasure! 

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Set in early 20th Century Nagasaki, Japan, the opera tells the love story of the American navy soldier Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and his young Japanese bride Cio Cio San.

The Whole World Over: Pinkerton tells his mate Sharpless that he plans to marry a Japanese Woman


The Flower Duet: Pinkerton returns from America to visit Cio Cio San. Overjoyed, she and her maid decorates the room with flowers. 

 

Peking Opera

The stage in Peking Opera is minimal. The set often consists of only a table and two chairs. Symbolic movements and gestures are used to tell complicated stories. For example, four generals and four soldiers represent an army of thousands, while waving a whip with tassels in the air represents riding a horse.

In M. Butterfly, Song is a Dan, a Peking Opera practitioner specializing in female roles. Here is a excerpt of The Legend of the White Snake, a story about an enchanted snake transforming into a woman and falling in love with a man.

 


If you would like to learn more about Peking Opera, I have written a more in-depth article on the M. Butterfly microsite


Kabuki

Kabuki is the combination of three Chinese characters: Ka (Song), Bu (Dance), and Ki (Skill or Artisan). This traditional Japanese art form is a spectacle of highly stylized acting, dancing, and music. on the stage. Below is a good introduction video of Kabuki.

 


M Butterfly incorporates Kabuki in by having Koroko dancers as a part of the cast. They are stagehands that occasionally play small parts. They dress in all black to show that they are invisible and are not a part of what is happening With this in mind, I present the final video: Matrix Ping Pong, a modernized entertaining performance of Koroko dancing.

Stayed tuned. Next week I will blog about the true story that inspired M. Butterfly!

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May 5, 2014

The Butterfly Lovers

by Kate Vangeloff in 2013/2014 Season, M. Butterfly

Written by Martin So

You may be a fan of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. You may be really excited to watch David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. But do you know that there is also a Chinese legend related to butterflies and cross dressing called The Butterfly Lovers?



The Butterfly Lovers is also called the Chinese version of a certain Shakespeare romantic tragedy.


In Eastern Jin dynasty (265-420) only boys went to school. But Zhu Yingtai, a young lady from the noble Zhu family who yearns for education, convinces her father to let her go to school by dressing up as a boy.  Zhu meets fellow male student Liang Shangbuo while travelling in Hangzhou during her studies. They soon become good friends and take an oath of fraternity. They share a room for the next four years and Zhu gradually falls in love with Liang. However, Liang only sees Zhu as a good friend, and is too focused on his studies to realize her true identity. 

Missing his daughter a lot, Zhu’s father sends her a letter to order her to go home. Zhu obliges and Liang walks with her for seventeen miles before turning back. During the journey, Zhu keeps hinting that she is a girl and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. Zhu even tells Liang that she ‘has’ a sister who looks and behaves like her, and she can be his matchmaker. Unfortunately for her, Liang does not get the hints at all, but he promises to visit Zhu at her home.



A Chinese Opera performance of The Butterfly Lovers


Several months later, Liang visits Zhu’s place and finally discovers that Zhu is a girl. He falls in love with her and they promise to spend the rest of their lives together. Sadly, Zhu’s parents have already arranged to have Zhu marry a local government official. Zhu is only a poor scholar and there is no way to change Zhu’s parents’ minds. Zhu and Liang promise each other: If they can’t share a bed when we are alive, they will share the same grave when they die.

Heartbroken, Liang falls ill and passes away. On Zhu’s wedding day, she travels to her fiancée’s home but there is a strange storm preventing the wedding procession from traveling beyond Liang’s grave. Zhu leaves the procession to visit Liang’s grave. She cries and begs to be buried with Liang to fulfill their oath. Suddenly a lightning bolt strikes the grave and creates a huge gap. Zhu jumps into the grave and the gap closes, but not before two beautiful butterflies emerge from the crack of the grave. The butterflies are the spirits of Zhu and Liang. The butterfly lovers circle the grave once and fly away, never to be separated again.

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April 29, 2014

Reimagining The Good Book

by Kate Vangeloff in

Just last week, Court Theatre hosted a script development workshop for Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s new script that will premiere next season, The Good Book. An incredible exploration of how the Bible came to be, The Good Book obviously has a lot of material to cover! Here are some shots of the rehearsal room as the playwrights continue to hone the story and the characters.


Playwright Lisa Peterson addresses the actors.


Playwright Denis O’Hare listens to the script.


A candid moment between the collaborators.


The room prepares for the final reading on Sunday afternoon.


Actors Deanna Dunagan and Alex Weisman portray the characters Miriam and Connor.


Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson stopped by for the reading.


Lisa Peterson give directions for the reading.


Actor Alex Weisman uses his binder clip to represent Connor’s ever-present tape recorder.


The hilarious Lisa Beasley (The Mountaintop) participated as part of the ensemble.


Edits, edits, and more edits!

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