Fearful Symmetry

By David Kessler

In this installment: It's a long story.  Meeting the Monkey King.  The 6-day edit.  "It's my own invention" (or, Updating the opera).  Scones for the rigger.  Big Dig interlude.  Tech booth or isolation chamber?  A "perfect" dress rehearsal.  The first show.  (Most of) The second show.  Maybe we could see that video NOW!?  The night is young.  Parking-in the millennium.  How many performance artists does it take to screw in a doorway?  Because Michael loves Beijing Opera.  An ad campaign for Ford.  Fearful symmetry!

New Year's Eve 2000-1 was Boston's 25th annual First Night celebration and I had a backstage pass at one of its biggest stages.  That may sound simple and impressive taken by itself, but the reality was far stranger and more complicated, and culminated in a single 2-day long story that echoed with tangents and coincidences long after.  The full story encompasses several long days and nights, lots of confusion, my own little isolation chamber of a tech booth from which everything was viewed either backwards or vicariously, a curtain that nearly came down mid-show, a monkey in a reindeer herder's hat, a snow and ice percussion section, and a night so fearfully symmetrical that I have no hope of doing it justice in this, the latest of my happily eccentric installments.

I've known Eric for many years, but it's only comparatively recent that we've discovered just how many pursuits and friends we have in common.  It was the combination of martial arts, theatre, masks, swords, and Alice in Wonderland that impelled him to introduce me to his friend Ghaffar.  Ghaffar needed a stagehand for his First Night performance, and Eric needed a way of getting me back into doing backstage theatre so he could convince me to work on all the productions he's planning. That in itself might not have been enough to make the match, but Ghaffar is a performer with the National Beijing Opera Troupe of China, who specializes in performing the Monkey King character.  Over the summer I showed Eric an ape form that I had learned from my martial arts teacher, and helped him out with some stage combat ideas.  The wheels started turning in his head; He and Ghaffar had been talking about a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that would mix Chinese and Western theatrical traditions, so I had to be brought into the affair somehow.

Ghaffar is an interesting character.  Born in Iran, his family moved to England when he was a teenager.  He was studying theatre and working in computer animation in his early 30's when he saw a performance of Beijing Opera and was hooked; he followed those performers like a groupie, and eventually moved to China to learn the art himself.  He is currently the only non-Chinese to be a full member of the national troupe.  On Eric's introduction, he and I exchanged a few emailed letters as December began, and I said I would help him with his New Year's show at the Emerson Majestic Theatre.

Ghaffar's flight from China (with a stopover in California to visit relatives) wouldn't bring him to Boston until December 26th, less than a week before the show, so he started explaining it to me via email: It would follow him through several typical days of training and performing at the opera school in Beijing.  He would demonstrate and talk about the 8 years of rigorous training he underwent to learn how to sing, move, jump and flip, and use weapons all in the highly stylized tradition of Beijing Opera.  He would also demonstrate several scenes including his specialty, the monkey king, as a finale, performed with full costume and makeup, which he would effect on stage.  The whole production would involve lights, sound, video, still photography, and take 90 minutes.  A few days before he arrived he discovered that his performances were to be 45 minutes long.

With an understanding of the show roughly equal to having read the above paragraph, I began discussing how the performance could be abbreviated and rearranged to fit into 45 minutes.  While those discussions took place at night via email to Beijing, I was talking on the phone to the people at First Night Boston by day to see if any extra time could be added onto the performances.  Unfortunately, it could not.  There were 2 jugglers going on before us, our second show was scheduled to end at 11pm (the end of the festival's scheduled night, except for midnight fireworks), and we only had 30 minutes between our 2 shows to change the audience, reset everything, and breathe a little.

Ghaffar arrived the evening of the 26th, as scheduled.  We shook hands for the first time, had some milk and shortbread cookies, sat down, and cut his original 90-minute show to ribbons.  By midnight, I had a much better sense of what he wanted to accomplish, and we had the show down to an hour.  I got home around 1:30am, and went to sleep.  At 6:30am my alarm clock sounded, and I went to my first day of work at my new job.  There was evening, there was morning, one day.

Over the following 5 days we created and re-created his show, until it was a coherent, artistic 45 minutes long.  At least it was on paper - as of Sunday morning the 31st, we still hadn't run through it, start to finish, a single time.

Each evening after work, I went to the Park Plaza, knocked on his door, and spent the rest of the night scribbling on my legal pad, skimming through video tapes, making blocking and script suggestions, and generally doing anything I could that might shorten the performance.  We found an empty ballroom and practiced segments of the show until it was time for me to take the last train home and get a few hours of sleep.  Of course there were also the stops to make between the end of work and the start of these rehearsals to get show supplies, props, and the materials I needed to build a harness for the Flag General character.

Among the rigors of Chinese opera are the costumes.  The Flag General wears 4 flags on his back, held on by ropes that are knotted very tightly and precisely; they have to keep the flags in place despite spins, twists, and kicks that the character must perform.  In true sporting fashion, I timed Ghaffar at tying these ropes around himself (should bondage ever become an Olympic event, my money's on the opera), and however close, he never broke the 3-minute mark.  We didn't have 3 minutes to spare, so I decided to update the flag costume.  Ghaffar was a little dubious - after all the character had been performed in Chinese opera, with this arrangement of ropes, for centuries.  Fortunately, tiredness had so focused my thoughts on saving those 3 minutes that I didn't listen.  After New Year's Ghaffar asked me to total up everything I had spent on the show so he could reimburse me.  I told him he could pay me back for everything except the harness.

My theory was that the flags could be quickly put on with a simple harness of quick release buckles and cinch straps - like putting on a backpack - and kept firmly in place by tightening the living daylights out of it.  The ropes traditionally used would traditionally leave marks behind on the performer's chest and shoulders (this despite a special padded vest worn underneath), so I wasn't worried about how tight it would have to be.  I went to the Wilderness House, a camping and outdoor supply store in Allston, found most of what I would need, and stopped the first free employee I saw to ask about the rest.

Luck was with me that evening, because Rebecca was not only very nice, but she was the person to ask; she used to rig harnesses for another camping and climbing store.  We discussed the project, she found exactly what I needed, and she gave me a discounted price to boot.  That evening I stitched it together on the floor of Ghaffar's hotel room while listening to tapes of his teacher giving a class in Chinese.  He put it on, and it didn't work at all - there was a reason the ropes were tied in the sequence they were and my first attempt had ignored that.  The next day at lunch I sketched its replacement in my memo pad and then it was back to Wilderness House and Rebecca after work.  I was in a hurry, but I had some scones from my friend's bakery with me, so I gave them to her and the staff as thanks, and dashed off to the hotel to begin the night's work.  That was Friday the 29th, and things were so busy over the next 2 days that I didn't finally adjust and sew it together until the afternoon of the 31st, about 3 hours before the first show.  Ghaffar tried it on one more time, twisted a few times, and it held fast!  After the travesty of that afternoon's run through, it was the first real success of the day and I began to wonder if we just might pull it all off.

We had brought our gear over to the theatre a little after 10am.  Ghaffar had briefly seen the stage a day or two before, but hadn't used it at all, so he moved around and ran through a few short pieces of the show while I set up my things and the tech crew focused lights.  I handed out the cue sheets I had prepared on my computer at 3:30 that morning (I looked and felt my best) and asked when we might try a run through.  The answer was not for a few hours, so I took a break to visit the Big Dig tour; the one First Night event I saw outside the Majestic theatre.

I won't dwell too long here on that tour, but it was a lot of fun!  Of course before I reached the ramp of Glory Hole #81 there was the street person who thought that the whole project was an insult to nature, the couple selling a "Big Dig calendar", and the man in the Santa suit waving a Salvation army bell like a town crier, and shouting, "Ho-ho-ho, welcome to the Big Dig!"  I offer this tableau as a gift to any students of semiotics who may be reading this, and move on.  Inside the tunnel that will someday convey so much of Boston's traffic so many miles, I saw different sections in different states of completion.  Walls and ceilings sometimes were bare concrete, sometimes covered with a wire mesh, sometimes with a thick black paper, sometimes with sheet metal or tile.  I once visited an unfinished tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings and stared in amazement at a section with walls in every stage of completion, including some with still visible guidelines marked for painting evenly spaced sentences of hieroglyphs.  Walking through the tunnels reminded me of that scene and I spent some time assembling and peeling back the various layers in my mind.

I spoke with a few of the workers and got some details and good stories, including one engineer who only needed to be asked a brief question to launch into a detailed description of slurry wall construction, and the origin, tonnage per cubic foot, and recycling procedures of various materials.  Bentonite, for example, is made from a clay found in Wyoming.  That's right, several tons of Wyoming were poured and compressed into the walls of the Big Dig to secure its tunnels until more permanent stages of construction could be reached.  That bentonite was then pulled out and recycled for later use, so there's no danger of using up Wyoming too quickly.

On my way back to the theatre I stopped in Chinatown to buy fruit and a teacup for the Monkey King portion of the performance, and some lunch for Ghaffar and myself which we didn't get to for several hours.

There was still some time before the Emerson staff would be ready for us, so I sat down at what would be my station during the show to get the feel of things.  I had a large headset so that I could talk to and call cues for the other 6 people working tech, and I had the video projector which I would be operating.  I was located at the very back of the stage, dead center - possibly the worst place for keeping track of a show; The heavy rear projection screen blocked my view and gave me a reversed view of the videos.  Between it, the rear curtain, the thick headphones, and the humming of the fans on the projector, I couldn't hear a thing and had no idea what was happening on stage, only 20 feet in front of me.

Theatre people are highly superstitious - right up there with gamblers and baseball players - and one constant fear among them is perfect-dress-rehearsal phobia.  There are some directors who quietly arrange for something to go wrong in the dress rehearsal, to allay the demons that might attack were all to go perfectly.  I didn't have to worry about a perfect dress rehearsal because, as I mentioned, it was also the first tech rehearsal and full run through.

All the flaws in my cue sheet opened up like wounds.  I couldn't see or hear what was going on so I called out to the rest of the crew on headsets to ask, "What is he doing now?"  They didn't know enough about the show to answer, so I would ask if he was talking about music, or the sleeves of his costume, or about his teacher - anything to give me a clue to what was happening.  Twice, Ghaffar stepped back stage to wave his arms in the air at me, or ask what was going on with the tech.  That this only happened twice is partly due to the sharp mind and skilled bearing of Nicole on the light board.  She had a view from the stage left wings that I would have killed for, and correctly guessed at much of what I was trying to accomplish.  She called many cues that I should have included on the sheets and, near the end of the run through, I almost completely stopped talking so I could scribble half a page of notes to myself while she took up my slack.

When the agony of this rehearsal was over I ran to First Night's offices in the Park Plaza's Statler Office building to make more cue sheets (did I mention the follow spot operators had no cue sheets?), which they printed out from the floppy disc I thankfully thought to pack that morning.  Back at the Majestic I added notes, spoke to the sound man, practiced rewinding the tapes as I would have to do mid-show, drank some tea, and finally began sewing the harness for the Flag General.  I replaced my headphones with a lighter pair that only covered one ear, and Erin rigged a monitor by my chair that was tuned to Ghaffar's body-microphone; sound entered my world!  At about 6pm I sat down and ate some lunch.

The first show began at 9pm and I think it had a pretty good size audience (based on the sound they made).  We all had a better grasp on the show and it went very smoothly.  About half way through I could tell it was running long, so I warned the crew and made some mental notes on how to tell Ghaffar to shorten it.  Ghaffar's friend Anne was also there to help with his bigger costume changes and she carried herself very steadily amidst the fray backstage.  Steady people are always welcome backstage during a show, and that steadiness was accentuated by contrast the longer Ghaffar sat onstage putting on his monkey king makeup and answering audience questions.  Before that show ended I took her as an ally for making the inevitable cuts that would have to be made to the second show; I had known Ghaffar for all of a week and wasn't sure how he would take to further shortening the show just 10 minutes before going back on stage.

Finally his makeup and talking were done and he began his monkey king performance.  The story was of the monkey king going up to an altar with a feast spread out in devotion to the gods.  Monkey eats, monkey drinks, monkey jumps around enjoying himself.  When he hears the gods coming, he stuffs some fruit into a sack, which he swings around dramatically before droppings it in favor of his quarterstaff, which he spins and fights with.

The first show ended, the curtain closed, and while Ghaffar went downstairs to remove his makeup, we all re-set, re-wound, and re-cued for the second show.  I assured everyone that it would be short enough to get us back on schedule.  Ghaffar took my cuts very matter of factly and I took my place with close to 5 minutes before the curtain went back up.

I was pleased.  I didn't know what was coming.

Halfway through the second show I had a shock.   The crew member who was responsible for seeing the theatre closed up properly for the night seemed to think that our second show was supposed to end at 10:45 rather than at 11.   A short debate took place backstage, while we continued running the show, and I quickly realized a few important things: No this wasn't some sort of sick joke (my first reaction); Yes he honestly thought that his contract with First Night said 10:45, and; Yes he was willing to close the curtain mid show if I pissed him off.

Ghaffar was on stage, in the middle of the second of his 3 scenes as all this unfolded.  I hadn't bargained enough time for him to do the monkey king before the curtain would close, but I thought that ending with that second scene would be dramatic enough for the audience to think that it was, in fact, the intended finale.  He exited, ready to begin monkey king preparations and I told him we were cutting it completely, but that he could take 5 minutes of audience questions to cap the performance.

I'm not sure how, but I told him this without blinking or hesitating, and he accepted it the same way.  He wiped the sweat off his face and walked back on stage.  Nicole brought up some lights, and he started talking.  I began packing up all my gear, notes, and the videotapes, when I was told that everyone now agreed that we were scheduled to end at 11pm after all!  It was too late to go back to the monkey king at that point, so we let Ghaffar keep taking questions.

One audience member asked about the state of Beijing Opera in China today.  Ghaffar noted that the art is slowly dying out because young people are more interested in western music, and few directors are trying to innovate the tradition to attract them.  He noted that he was introducing new scripts with some success, and that he had directed a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with the Chinese National Troupe.  A CNN broadcast about this production was one of the segments we had cut out of the second show and now Ghaffar told the audience that "maybe we could see that video now."  I had all my things neatly packed away and was across the stage when I heard him saying this.  As he was finishing the sentence I made a mad dash for my bag of videos and the projector.  I was out of breath, but I don't think the audience noticed anything wrong.

On any other night that would have been the end of it, but this was New Year's Eve after all!  We devoured the mangoes I had bought as part of the monkey's feast (bought with an eye toward how hungry I knew I would be after the show) and packed up all the costumes.  At 11:30 we walked out the stage door and into the last 30 minutes of the millennium.  Anne, Ghaffar, and I each had a party to go to, but only Anne's was close enough to reach by midnight.  I didn't want to be on the subway when midnight came, so we decided to go to Anne's party in the South End first, and then she would drive us to the others.

Parking in the South End was non-existent.  I had set my watch to the national weather service that morning, so I can accurately say that we drove in circles until about 30 seconds before midnight; The space was the length of the car, plus maybe 3 inches, so Anne worked to fit us in while I counted down from 10 seconds and sang the last verse of Auld Lang Syne.  We left the car parked as well as it needed to be (the police had better things to do that night) and headed for the strangest party I have been to since some friends and I held our "Blue Party" in Allston, many years ago.

Each apartment in the brownstone was owned or rented by an artist of one sort or another, and they had invited all their artistic friends; artists by the doors, on the stairs, by the food, everywhere.  I told one I worked in an office for an educational and corporate institute and he just repeated his question.  This time I told him I was also a Stage Manager and a Calligrapher and he was far more comfortable; this party was NOT about day jobs.

The brownstone itself was a reflection of its tenants.  There were small sections cut out of the floors and replaced with plexiglas, so that a strategically placed eye could see all the way down and all the way up.  The third floor had a ladder made of pieces of antler attached to a tree trunk that went up to a small loft.  The loft was off limits, but some of it came down to meet us when one partygoer tried to climb up the ladder and look around.

I found Anne and Ghaffar talking to Michael, who had studied Beijing Opera in New York for about 2 years.  He missed the art a great deal and was trying to get Ghaffar to give a performance there at the party, when I walked over.  I took Anne's keys and went to get the monkey's staff and some of the uneaten fruit from the show.  When I got back to the brownstone there were 3 guys locked-out on the front stoop.  With both the outer and inner doors shut tightly to the bitter cold, no one inside heard our pounding on the glass.  Fortunately, the monkey staff was narrow enough to slide through the mail slot; I used it to knock on the inside door and we were let in.

Ghaffar and I were rigging up a sack for stealing the fruit (a shopping bag from Structure made longer by tying a plastic bag to its handles), when Anne noted that the cassette of monkey king music was sitting in her car, cued up to exactly the right place, thanks to our abbreviated show at the Majestic.  She got it, and then she and Michael found the owner of the Ford pickup truck parked across the street from the party.  He opened up the truck doors, cranked his stereo volume up all the way, and we were just about ready.

Ghaffar needed my hat for the performance.   He had left his usual monkey hat in California by mistake, and needed a replacement.  Because of the cold, snowy weather I had worn the Sami Reindeer Herder's hat (also known as a "Four Winds Hat") that my father picked up for me on a trip to Lapland a number of years ago.  He had used the hat for the monkey performance at the Majestic theatre - fitted backstage with string and safety pins - and it had flopped firmly about on his head until his final bit of acrobatics.  The video of the show preserves the moment: As Ghaffar launched himself into the air for the final move of the show, my hat flew off his head, arced high, and disappeared upstage, behind the table that was serving as the alter to the gods.  It worked then, and now Ghaffar needed it again - more so, as this would be an outdoor performance.

About 30 of us gathered outside.  We set up the feast in the bed of the truck and roped off the street with some lengths I found in a construction barrel by the curb.  Show time!

If the Ford Truck Company ever wants to target a more artistic audience they should demonstrate that you don't have to be a big, tough tradesman to appreciate solid construction.  Show the trucks being used in odd, creative ways by odd, creative people: While exotic, percussive music booms from the stereo system, show a man dressed in several layers of fleece and a crazy blue felt hat with points and ribbons on it, leap and dance about in an exacting performance.  Have him climb into the bed of the truck to eat and toss about the apples and pears loaded there.  Show the stopped traffic so impressed that they wait patiently to be let through (Driver 1: "What a beautiful performance!"  Driver 2: "Yes, and what a beautiful truck, too!")  Show his costumed and masked audience so rapt that they forget the sub-freezing chill and the sharp wind.  They stomp their feet to the driving rhythm of the drums and cymbals playing on the stereo - accompanying the music with a steady crunching sound in the snow and ice of the street and sidewalk.  Now that's a commercial!

I had left my house at 8am the morning of the 31st and, although I didn't know it at the time, I wouldn't return there until 8pm the next day, weary and ready for some sleep before heading back to work in the morning.  But there in the cold, halfway through this 36-hour marathon, time went away for a while, and we found that the show we had worked so many hours to present at the Emerson Majestic on New Year's Eve had been halted only temporarily. At 1:45 on New Year's Morning 2001, it was complete.

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