The Golden Dragon
Post-show talk with Roland Schimmelpfennig and former Royal Court Literary Manager Graham Whybrow at the Arcola Theatre
15th September 2011, 9pm
Event part of ‘Side Orders’, a series of events run alongside The Golden Dragon
GW = Graham Whybrow RS = Roland Schimmelpfennig RG = Ramin Gray
GW – Is it strange to see the show in England
RS – Yes. It is FASTER. This production has a different pace.
GW – When you first mounted this production, you directed it yourself. How was it?
RS – I thought it would be easy. But from day one I felt worried. I needed inspiration from everyone in the room.
GW – How did the ideas for the play come into being?
RS – There were two moments which together formed the beginnings the play. The first was a visit from a dramaturg from Sweden. He asked me to write a play, one far away from naturalism. It was to be playful, anti-naturalism. The second was a conversation with a lawyer, who approached me during a time when he was covering illegal immigrants in Germany. He said to me, ‘Why not write a play about it?’.
But it is difficult to write about immigration because of the necessity to write in two different languages. I thought, how can ‘we’ i.e. WHITE WESTERNERS impersonate Asian illegal immigrants. We cannot pretend to be Chinese, and there are no or very few Chinese actors in Germany. Therefore you need the actors just to SAY who they are. ‘I am Chinese’.
This method then becomes linked to all types of otherness: age and sex become twisted. There are fifteen characters in this play, performed by five actors. And Forty-eight scenes. They are short. Episodic.
GW – In this play there is a mix of story-telling and scenes. Have you used this technique before?
RS – Yes, in Arabian Night. That play also is about a strange, surreal voyage. But The Golden Dragon is my most confident use of this technique. I am more confident in referencing the spectator.
GW – What actors are you writing for? Why are you not writing for Chinese actors?
RS – In Germany there is little immigration from China now, all the younger Chinese are second generation rather than first. But also, the play shows the story from the white westerners point of view against the ‘other’. Casting White Western actors is a specific technique to make them play the opposite ‘to create more identification’.
Everyone KNOWS about Sex Slavery. I wanted to tell the story in a different way, not make the audience to see it as old hat.
The play seduces the audience but it is also a trap.
GW – Did you ever get frustrated with your own play?
RS – Yes. But we laughed a lot at it in rehearsal – it was usually because we didn’t know what to do with it. The actors found it particularly difficult to know what to do when they were on stage and just watching. They said ‘I can’t just stay in my character’. This is difficult. The Viennese production actors, and the actors in this British production, developed a form of ‘concentration’. In our rehearsals we called this moment The Gray Zone.
At this point GW opened out the discussion and invited the actors to ask questions.
David Beames – What are the function of the recipies?
RS – The restaurant is like a machine. The repetition, the ongoing process in the wok, the heat. The recipes give a feel of this without having to explain this. It helps give a feel of the work.
Jack Tarlton – Why ‘Short Pause’?
RS – This is another instrument, showing openly a whole method of theatre. Why not include it? It breaks any attempt at psychological / Stanislavskian style.
Annie Firbank – Do you use the ‘short pause’ device in any other plays?
RS – Yes, but not to such an extent as in Dragon.
GW – So why do you want to attack psychological realism?
RS – Because this story needs an artificial approach. It is playful (what I love about theatre), people are just playing. This can be very powerful.
GW – The Western Theatre Tradition (Ibsen, Chekov, Stanislavski) works on the assumption of finding an objective identity. Interestingly, these ideas are all pre-Freudian. But now we write about people who don’t know who they are.
RS – This technique reflects the globalised world. It tears down the fourth wall. It communicates the story, shows the story.
GW – What is the theme of the play?
RS – I could have done a play using the psychological approach, but the permanent switches of identity stop this. The play questions: what would happen if I were someone else? This method of dramaturgh SHOWS the spectator the theme, brings it closer to them.
GW – But most theatre is naturalistic? Why move against this?
At this point Ramin Gray (RG), the director, joins the conversation.
RG – The techniques promotes playfulness. It is a group openly playing a story. It is NOT naturalistic but an act of the imagination. This can be very powerful. When I watch Kathryn play the Chinese boy to me she looks Chinese.
There is also a parallel in this technique of White Westerners playing the ‘other’: it links into the Christian tradition of portraying Christ, who should be a Jewish Middle Eastern person, as a White Male. In The Golden Dragon the Chinese boy make a journey to come and die for our sins, just like Christ. It is working within the meta-Christian tradition. It works in the same paradigm, the boy here is white.
RS – The most basic element of theatre is changing and being someone else. It keeps you alert and makes you think.
RG – The plays is basically five white actors empathising with the other. The audience witness that process. That is morally positive. Theatre has a positive social effect – it teaches good behaviour. Imaginatively transfers ideas, teaching knowledge vicariously.
Questions are opened up to the audience
Audience Member – (To RG) Did you ever think to have a cast which was not all white? Is the casting of this play a political act? Does who we are as an audience affect what is presented on stage? Who is on stage and what identities are we watching?
RG – The text does not specify the colour of the actors. But the actors are never playing a character of the same age / sex / gender as themselves. If I had a Chinese actor, at some point they would be playing themselves. An all white cast emphasises the gap between ‘here and there’. In Plymouth 99% of the audience were white. The audience were literally seeing themselves on stage as actors.
I did audition a Nigerian actress for the role of the Chinese boy etc. But myself and the casting directors felt that this could have been confusing.
Audience Member – Has the text been translated and performed in different countries?
RS – Yes, into English, French, Danish and Spanish. But I have no preference as to my favorite production. The French version had a clean black and white aesthetic, where the text was the most important thing. In the Swedish version in Copenhagen, there were video screens behind the actors, it was very lively. Here again the British version is different still, but nothing is lost.
Audience Member – What do you hope it the ending point of the text?
RS – I don’t mind how it is presented on stage. Every approach has been different. The Viennese production was very ‘high end’ theatre in a smart space, here we are sitting in Hackney.
Audience Member – (Audience member is German like the majority of those at the talk) I didn’t understand the recipes in English. Please could you repeat a few in German?
RS – Of course. (Repeats menus in German to the enjoyment of the audience).
Audience Member – The play feels part amnesty international, part more conservative drama. What should we take away from the play?
RS – I can’t tell. There’s no value you can take home. The play makes you think in an aesthetic way. Playfulness is an essential education. There is no message. The play is a ‘strange mirror’. It is NOT an excuse for the sex trade, I just wanted to show the customer as much as the slave in this story.
It is a dark fairy tale. But I don’t believe in a political message. I believe in dialogue. Theatre is a place to gather and tell a story.
Audience Member – That is a different interpretation to RG. You are at odds!
RG – Yes, but that’s OK!
Audience Member – Is there are danger of re-enforcing a stereotype though?
RS – The play is still scary, and has depth. It does not portray characters as stereotypes.
GW – The British Theatre has a journalistic tradition of portraying contemporary stories. If The Golden Dragon was comissioned here it would be in that style. Literalism is the stock trade of British Theatre. It is still creeping back in now – with site-specific theatre for example, which in some ways is going back to naturalism.