My life in the theater

My life in the theater

Before the pandemic hit, I darted between Chicago stages to review drama and dance. I love theater, but it’s not in my blood. I’ve never appeared on a stage. My attempts to be a supernumerary at the Lyric went nowhere: most of the roles are for younger volunteers who fit specific costumes, and I missed my big chance to be a shrouded corpse in Orfeo ed Euridice.

But I did direct a play once, to great acclaim. I wasn’t a fan of the play, J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, a grimly didactic political tract in the guise of a whodunit. Admittedly, my view of the play might have something to do with where and when I directed it: Beijing, 1981.

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As a visiting professor at the Wai Jiao Xue Yuan (Foreign Affairs University), I taught American literature to students destined to become diplomats, but my real job was to bring students and faculty up to speed on American slang. Parched from the educational drought of the Cultural Revolution, they stopped by my office for casual conversation and peppered me with questions.

“What are knockers?” they asked after they borrowed a soft porn video from the Canadian embassy. They wanted to know why a John Updike character becomes incoherent after he eats a chopped meat pastry — their too literal translation of hash brownie. As a native speaker, I was in big demand.

No wonder the dean turned to me when he decided the university should stage a play in English. I had never directed a play, but at least I’d be able to decode those pesky idioms. The dean chose An Inspector Calls for its socialist pedigree, just the ticket for Beijing theatergoers in 1981. Priestley’s 1946 play highlights the economic inequalities that persist to this day in many places, including — ouch! — China.

My students learned their lines like pros, even affecting British accents to suit the action, which takes place in a stately English manor in 1912. But costumes presented a challenge. “An Inspector Calls” requires Edwardian evening dress. My male students improvised, unearthing blazers and ties mothballed by ancestors in prerevolutionary China — not the white tie and tails of the classic production, but close enough in their view.

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Dress for the women’s roles was a bigger problem. In An Inspector Calls, the wife and daughter of wealthy industrialist Arthur Birling appear on stage in long, floaty evening gowns. My students, male and female, wore navy cotton trousers and padded jackets. Every day. For all occasions. They owned little else.

My female students were in despair, but they quickly regrouped and came up with a plan based on their presumption that their American professor must have packed evening attire for her year in Beijing. I had not, but I invited them to my dated apartment at the Friendship Hotel to rifle through my wardrobe, which was probably their real goal all along. Only minutes into their hunt, they announced: “You were holding out on us!” (I had taught them that idiom.) From a drawer, they withdrew long, sheer polyester nightgowns.

My wardrobe yielded more. In the title role of the inspector, I cast the student with the most confident English, a woman. She struck gold in my closet, discovering a double-breasted trench coat.

The production was a success, although I struggled to keep a straight face as I reviewed the parade of my lingerie on stage, layered over turtlenecks for modesty’s sake. After the performance, I snapped a photo. When I look at it today, I am reminded of my students’ ingenuity and their eagerness to learn about a culture mostly at odds with their own. For me, that was stage magic.

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