Nobel-prize winning playwright Gao Xingjian’s avant-garde masterpiece The Other Shore will be presented by the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University on April 30, May 7, 8 and 9 at 8:00 p.m. and May 2 at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m in the Berlind Rehearsal Room at McCarter Theatre Center. This innovative play, translated by Gilbert C. F. Fong, follows the human struggle for individual freedom and enlightenment. The production will be directed by Program in Theater senior Kanoa Mulling. Performances are free and open to the public, however advanced reservations are recommended.
One of the most controversial plays in contemporary Chinese drama, The Other Shore follows the journey of one central character, known simply as The Man, who is continually harassed and pressured by the masses to conform. The play’s title refers to the concept of “paramita” or “nirvana,” the land of enlightenment in Buddhism. According to Buddhist beliefs, humans experience an actual visible life full of suffering, but by living according to the virtues of “paramita”—morality, patience, meditation and wisdom—they can cross the “river of life” and experience enlightenment. Thematically, the play comments on collectivism versus individualism–a theme that is considered highly political in Chinese theater. It also addresses the potential fruitlessness of personal struggle for salvation, as the actors cross to the other shore only to find out that nirvana does not exist. The Other Shore is stylistically avant-garde, comprising of seemingly disconnected scenes with no easily discernible plot or character development. The actors in The Other Shore take on multiple roles without ever fully departing from their personas as actors. The purpose of this play is not to reproduce life realistically but rather to provide a hypothetical world that allows the actors to continually reinterpret their roles.
Mulling chose to direct this play as his senior thesis project after reading it in a world drama course taught by R.N. Sandberg, a faculty member in theater and English at Princeton. He notes that the ensemble nature of the piece and the need for a director to truly understand and figure out the play, rather than just staging it, presented an irresistible challenge. “I wanted to do something very different and not as well known,” explains Mulling.
Mulling, an English major from Homewood, Illinois, pursuing certificates in theater and teacher preparation, has been an active member of Princeton’s theater community. He performed in Lewis Center productions of Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, The Magic Rainforest: An Amazon Journey, and Great Expectations, and was the lead in the fall 2014 production of Red Noses. He has also performed with the student theater companies Princeton University Players, Princeton Shakespeare Company and Theatre Intime. He directed a production of King Lear and Sandberg’s adaptation of Frankenstein.
Xingjian originally wrote The Other Shore as a “pure drama” and as an exercise for actors, and he has steadfastly stated his belief that literature should remain independent from political considerations. Nevertheless, in 1986 the Chinese government shut down the intended premiere of The Other Shore at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre and subsequently banned the play in China altogether on the grounds that it was too incendiary. Xingjian consequently left his native land for France in 1987 so that he could write uninhibited by political control and proceeded to travel from there to direct productions of The Other Shore at the Taiwan National College of Art in 1990 and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 1995. The Other Shore was first published in English in 1997, and then re-translated in 1999 by Fong.
Xingjian received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, becoming the first Chinese Nobel Laureate, and has been the recipient of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government (1992), Prix Communauté Française de Belgique (1994), and Prix du Nouvel An chinois (1997).
The all-student cast includes Blake Edwards ’15, Erin Purdie ’15, Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn ’16, Lagan Trieschmann ’16, TJ Smith ’16, Avanthika Srinivasan ’16, Robby Keown ’17, Kyle Berlin ’18, and Miranda Bolef ’18. Wesley Cornwell ’16 is lighting designer and stage manager with Pat Rounds ’15 and Victoria Gruenberg ’16 as assistant stage managers.
An audience talkback discussion will follow the May 2, 8:00 p.m. performance led by playwright and Princeton theater and English faculty member R.N. Sandberg.
After graduation in June, Mulling will work with Princeton Summer Theater, a student-managed summer theater program. He plans to eventually enter the field of education as an English teacher while continuing to act and direct.