It was a July afternoon in Chicago last year, one day after my return from working on a music research project in South Asia, when I received a call from composer and sound designer Andre Pluess. He was calling to ask if I was available to perform and co-arrange music for a new theater production. The play, called The White Snake, was a centuries-old Chinese folk tale and was yet to be written by the Tony Award-winning playwright Mary Zimmerman, who is known for her adaptation of ancient texts. Mr. Pluess and I enjoyed our collaboration on the 2009 and 2010 productions of Arabian Nights, also written by Ms. Zimmerman, and we looked forward to working together on a production from scratch.
THE WHITE SNAKE by Mary Zimmerman at OSF.
Pictured: Amy Kim Waschke, Tanya McBride, Photo by Jenny Graham
Similar to Arabian Nights, he explained that for The White Snake he wanted me on percussion and plucked strings. The play was to be produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF); a renowned theater festival situated in the mountains of Ashland, Oregon. He added that joining us would be fellow co-arrangers Michal Palzewicz (cello) and Tessa Brinckman (flute), two super talented, classically-trained musicians living in Ashland. After Andre described the amazing artistic community, and OSF being one of the largest Shakespeare festivals in the nation…he said, “You might have to move there for six to nine months. Can you do it?” It meant taking time off from teaching and being away from family, but from what I heard of this mecca for theatre it would’ve been foolish to turn down the opportunity.
The White Snake is an ancient Chinese story of sorcery and romance, which has evolved over the years. The basic premise of the story is that a snake comes down from a heavenly mountain and transforms herself into the form of a woman. The Lady White Snake, along with a Green Snake companion, explores the delights of the earthly world and finds love when she meets and marries Xu Xian (shyoo-shian), an endearing, yet unsuspecting, scholar. However, their love is short-lived when a Buddhist monk named Fahai, also skilled in sorcery, disrupts what he believes to be an unholy union between man and “demon” spirit. After numerous attempts to explain to Xu Xian the nature of his wife, Fahai (a crafty meddling monk in some versions, and pious, yet stubborn in others) decides to forcibly take him to the Buddhist monastery for repentance. Upon learning of this, Lady White Snake, bound by love (and child) to Xu Xian, summons the spirits of the sea to battle Fahai and free her husband. Most of the versions tragically end with Lady White Snake either dying or being magically captured by Fahai, but in some adaptations she is released from her spiritual imprisonment. Though there have been many alternate endings for the story, consistent elements have been the marriage between Xu Xian and Lady White Snake, a child born of them, and a magical sea battle against Fahai displaying the extent she would go for love.
In preparing for the music of the play, I had to display to what extent I could multi-task on instruments. At my home, I met with Pluess to discuss the instrumentation of the play and try out instruments in my studio. After we listened to some traditional Chinese music from various provinces, as well as post-Cultural Revolution and modern styles, which blend Western and Eastern elements, it became apparent that I would need to arm myself with a diverse arsenal of instruments. For percussion, I assembled a kit consisting of a zarb (goblet-shaped, wooden Persian hand drum), tar (South Asian frame drum), dawwul (Central Asian bass drum), a floor tom (Made in America!), Chinese cymbals and gongs, some auxiliary percussion (e.g. shaker, tambourine, finger cymbals), and a bell kit. For plucked strings, we agreed that I’d play oud (Mid-Eastern lute), but upon mentioning to Pluess that there was a relative of the oud in China called the pipa, we were bound for Andy’s Music, Chicago’s own ethnic instrument mart. From the first strum, he knew we had to have it along side the oud, and as an instrument in the lute family, I knew that I wanted play it. And so, our tools for the soundscape of the show were set.
Though the play was written with an American audience in mind, careful attention was paid to details conveying its Chinese origin. The music combines Western and traditional Asian motifs while underscoring the story with theatrical sensibilities. Visually, the set is expertly adorned with Asian austerity using bamboo walls, which serve to frame the stunning projected animations of Chinese calligraphy and imagery. Along with costumes that flaunt fashion reminiscent of pre-twentieth century China, the tale vividly comes to life like a 3D storybook. In respecting the philosophies and universal parables from the East, the dialog is also rich with Chinese proverbs and colloquialisms, not to mention secrets of the Chinese drama. Performed by a diverse and dynamic cast, the current incarnation of The White Snake story at OSF offers romance, comedy, sadness, courage, transcendence, and most importantly, a way for anyone to shed their skin and relate to the human condition.
For more information, please visit: http://www.osfashland.org/browse/production.aspx?prod=236
The White Snake at OSF. Pictured: Amy Kim Waschke, Christopher Livingston, Photo by Jenny Graham
I am a professional musician, performer, composer, and educator who enjoys producing projects and teaching about world cultures and the arts. My goal in life is to help people learn about cultures through music and the arts to foster an understanding of global citizenship.