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Creative discourse: Discussing the genesis of the Players’ ‘M. Butterfly’

Published: April 9, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Taking time inbetween the many tasks that needed to be completed in preparation for yesterday’s premiere of the Brandeis Players’ production of “M. Butterfly,” director Aaron Arbiter ’10 and producer Asya Bashina ’12 spoke to The Hoot about the experience of working on the play.

Playwright David Henry Hwang wrote the script of “M. Butterfly,” which is based on the true story of a decades-long love affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer, both male. The play is preoccupied with the themes of sexuality and of the clash between Eastern and Western cultures.

Arbiter and Bashina previously worked together on the Free Play Cooperative’s production of “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.” They answered questions on “M. Butterfly” separately in person and via email.

Arts, etc.: What other productions have you directed/produced? And how have those experiences impacted how you are directing this current production?

Aaron Arbiter: I directed “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” for Free Play back in February. It’s a wonderful two-person script. We had the audience on the Shapiro stage and we closed the curtain to create a little black box theater. D. Chavez’s lights were fabulous, so I’m happy to work with him again. I spent a year studying at the National Theatre Institute and directed a few shows at a theater in CT, including Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Asya Bashina: My first theater production was “Danny in the Deep Blue Sea.” It was a Free Play Theater production, and it was more low-key with a smaller cast. This experience [“M. Butterfly”] has taught me a lot more, and I enjoyed it more. I was more in charge, while “Danny” was more collaborative, and I worked more closely with other people in the production.

Arts, etc.: What interested you about David Hwang’s script? Why put on a Brandeis Players’ Production of it?

A.A.: I’ve always been drawn to texts that are both dark/dramatic, while maintaining their sense of humor. That’s what I love about Hwang’s writing and his characters, they don’t ever seem to lose their sense of humor. So for all of the dramatic components, it’s actually a fairly funny, albeit dark, show.

I’ve been wanting to direct this show for a couple years now—and it was a tough call when I actually made the decision. I knew there was a good chance we would be doing this show without any Asian actors and the issue of yellow-face isn’t one to be taken lightly. Ultimately I felt that the story was good enough to stand on its own regardless of the ethnicity of our cast. I think we have done a good job of being culturally aware without objectifying or stereotyping (beyond what is called for in the script).

A.B.: Aaron was the director of “Danny,” and he asked me if I wanted to get involved. I read the script and everything about it was amazing: the mystery behind the Asian woman, the dialogue, the subtle humor and the fact that it was a much larger production.

Arts, etc.: What are the challenges you have faced so far in putting on “M. Butterfly”?

A.A.: The show makes incredible demands of the performers—they have their hands full moving the show around the stage. Any script written with many short scenes forces you to think carefully about how the show flows from moment to moment and scene to scene.

A.B.: Understanding the whole production process at first was challenging, but I caught on quickly. I spoke to mentors who walked me through the process, and the production staff was easy to work with. It was also difficult getting outside funding, funding apart from the F-board, most [businesses] aren’t looking to advertise.

Arts, etc.: What was your favorite part of the production process in working on M. Butterfly?

A.B.: The poster design and seeing the designers’ interpretation of the whole play. Also seeing the actors performing the play. It’s very different than reading the play, the actors interpret text differently. You feel the agony of the characters, their raw emotions…I liked how the different departments of [“M. Butterfly”] interpreted the play and seeing it coming to life.

Arts, etc.: What did you learn about Eastern culture through working on “M. Butterfly”?

A.B.: What was in the play I mostly knew. I worked with someone who moved to America because of the Cultural Revolution. What I did learn about Eastern culture is the very small differences in romantic relationships and relationships in general, the different approaches they have to them. It was interesting to see the differing comparison between the women in both cultures, what’s acceptable.

Arts, etc.: “M. Butterfly” takes place during China’s Cultural Revolution, did you do separate research on the time period?

A.A.: In thinking about staging a show we tried to establish the “world” of the show. In M. Butterfly much of what happens is in flashback, so what the audience sees is a product of one man’s imagination- so we tried to reflect that particularly in the set. We spent a lot of time looking at opera sets because we felt that the “world” had to be a very grand and theatrical space to match the scale of this man’s delusions. I think Brian Melcher ‘10 has done something incredible with the set

Arts, etc.: What do you want your audience to take away from “M. Butterfly”?

A.B.: My ultimate goal is for audience members to come out and have a reaction, whether they empathize with the characters or disagree with them. It’s a shocking storyline—thought-provoking. I hope they will think about it. Also enjoy the visuals of the show, the acting and the directing is absolutely fantastic.