In a small private room of the Shanghai
Shanghai Club restaurant, eight people sit around a
table of half-empty dishes and half-full beer glasses,
watching a small, 12-inch TV precariously balanced atop
an antique serving table. Holding lit cigarettes, their
hands rest on the table, the rising clouds of smoke
creating a distinctly backroom atmosphere. The dark
wood-paneled walls around them are populated with large
posters of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and John Wayne.
This is no karaoke session. Nor are they watching the
latest installation of Princess Huanzhu nor the nightly
The four actors, stage manager, assistant
director, literary translator, and production accountant
are watching a 90-minute videotape of a movie producer
trying to convince his partner to slit his wrists, eat
excrement and castrate himself to demonstrate 'commitment.'
They watch intently. Critically. Not forgiving a single
screwed-up stage direction, misspoken line, or neglected
nuance of character.
They're watching themselves in a rehearsal of the first
Chinese production of American playwright Arthur Kopit's
searing off-Broadway farce, Road to Nirvana.
The group of eight has just finished
dinner and two cases of beer in celebration of surviving
the first 15 days of non-stop rehearsals of a play whose
dialogue and style is more difficult than anything they've
done before. They're back at work, critiquing each others'
performances, searching for solutions to stage direction
problems, rooting out weaknesses. But even after only
two weeks of rehearsals, they obviously enjoy what they
Furthest from the screen, the beautiful, overworked
34 year-old actress playing the title character parks
her head on her arm, venting disapproval of her own
performance. "It needs work," she says, then quickly
parries herself with an optimism that comes from 15
years of acting. "But don't worry, I'll get it!" she
reassures the other actors. "I'll get it before we go
The director and producer agree.
As they should. Because the actress, stage, film and
TV star, Shi Ke (Coco Shi), is one of the finest actresses
of her generation and commands unquestioned respect
on the stage.
They also agree, in part, because she is the director
and the producer. Graduating from the Central Academy
of Drama in 1989, Shi Ke quickly rose to national prominence
in films such as A Killer's Love (Shashouqing) and Rock
'n Roll Youth (Yaogun Qingnian). Numerous starring roles
in TV, including the award-winning Have a Good Time
(Guo Ba Yin), and a reputation for tireless professionalism
brought her further renown. She also soon distinguished
herself as a standout singing talent in the Chinese
musical Sunrise (Richu), where her classically-trained
voice won the multi-talented performer ringing accolades.
But beneath her fame and success runs an odd current
of misfortune-bad timing more than anything-and which
speaks more about her character and talent than any
of the millions of feet of film that bear her image
While still a student at the Central Academy of Drama,
Shi Ke was chosen to play the female lead in a small
film called Red Sorghum, to be directed by a young,
unknown filmmaker named Zhang Yimou.
But for reasons that remain the stuff of legend, at
the last minute the part went inexplicably to her classmate
Gong Li instead. A note from Zhang informed Shi of the
last-minute change in cast. (Explanations abound: casting
couch politics, the cinematographer's visual preference,
and an attractively whimsical tale about a coin toss
remain the most resilient.)
The Red Sorghum role would create China's first international
film icon and a partnership between Gong and Zhang that
would last for half a dozen more internationally-acclaimed
Shi Ke, by all accounts, was the better actress.
Upon graduation, her classmates prepared to stage their
commencement performance, an annual and much-anticipated
performance at the Academy.
Tickets sold out well in advance. The class had already
established itself as one of the finest in more than
several decades. It should have been a bright spectacle.
But the play, set inauspiciously for June 4, never happened.
Shi Ke and fellow classmates were hence sent out into
their careers in a time of turmoil and deprived of an
important rite of passage.
But the incident that would test her mettle as an actress
and a person, brought her in quick succession hard-won
acclaim for her command of stage, then brutal persecution.
In March 1995, after the initial run of China's first
privately-financed and hugely successful play Don't
Bother Me After the Divorce (Lihunle, Jiu Bie Zai Lai
Zhao Wo), a contractual dispute broke out between the
Central Experimental Theater Troupe and the show's independent
producer, Tan Lulu.
According to later statements by Tan, the Troupe got
greedy, making unreasonable demands about revenue-sharing
and copyright ownership. The Troupe then illegally booked
and sold 7,000 tickets for a second run at the Haidian
Theater. When the show's two star actresses, Shi Ke
and Jiangshan, failed to appear, ticket-buyers were
furious. As TV and print news organs quickly focused
on the incident, the two actresses were caught in the
cross-fire, unjustly blamed for an intentional 'no-show'
and vilified by national media frenzy.
The Central Experimental Theater Troupe then waged a
Cultural Revolution-style political campaign against
Shi Ke (including 'big character' posters and criticism
meetings) and eventually expelled her from the Theater,
her work unit at the time. A state-ordered nationwide
media blackout on any news of either actress soon followed.
In other words, Shi Ke's entire world came crashing
down. Although the so-called 'no-show' affair threatened
to end a career that had just begun, Shi Ke steadfastly
endured a year of false accusations in which she chose
not to state her side of the case. Instead she accepted
the lonely ignominy of being nationally famous for reputedly
betraying the art and audiences that she loved above
Last year, in a separate interview with this reporter,
Shi Ke read to me a newspaper article she'd later written,
explaining the affair to her audience. When she approached
the end of the article, there were tears in her eyes,
as she read her own words, "For me, happiness is standing
on a stage."
She returned to the stage in the hit play Women are
Pretty (Nuren Piaoliang) although this production was
once again marred by contractual disputes.
With any luck, Shi Ke's new play will be free of this
kind of trouble: she is producing and directing it herself.
For her directorial debut, Shi Ke chose American playwright
Arthur Kopit's off-Broadway hit Road to Nirvana, a vicious
satire of Hollywood greed and icon-worship, penned in
response to the Broadway production of David Mamet's
Speed-the-Plow, starring Madonna.
"I wanted to find an off-broadway play," Shi explains.
"Too many of the foreign plays performed in China tend
to be old classics, very far from our experience."
While acting in the 1997 film Concerto of Life (Shengming
Ruge) with Broadway actor Wang Luoyong (Miss Saigon),
Shi Ke discussed the idea of bringing contemporary off-Broadway
works to China.
While searching for suitable material, including Steve
Martin's hit comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Shi
Ke encountered a translation of Kopit's play in Shanghai.
Taken by the gutsy satires, compelling style, and finely-wrought
and bitingly funny story, Shi Ke quickly secured rights
to the play as translated by Shanghai playwrights William
Sun and Faye C. Fei. In Kopit's tale, third-rate independent
film producer Al and his partner Lou (short for Louise)
invite Al's ex-buddy Jerry to help them secure the film
rights to the life story of a distinctly Madonna-like
star named 'Nirvana'.
The film is to be entitled Moby Dick. Due to amnesia
related to over-indulgent drug use, Nirvana has forgotten
her own life, and hence copied Melville's classic instead,
replacing Ahab with herself and turning the great white
whale into a 'great white cock.' When Jerry objects
that the ludicrously obvious story-theft won't pass
muster with an audience, Al says, "She doesn't think
her fans have read Moby Dick."
In what turns out to be a hilarious metaphysical scam,
Al and Lou (a former nun turned Hollywood agent-cum-drug
dealer), convince the down-and-out Jerry (whose life
was ruined by Al five years before) to agree to an escalating
series of 'sacrifices' to make the big movie deal happen.
In the end, Jerry eventually gets talked into willfully
sacrificing his manhood to the megastar Nirvana in a
conclusion that is both hilarious and eerily powerful.
"It's very American, very direct, very harsh," says
the first-time director. "For actors, the content and
style of this play is really exciting and has really
gotten into our bones. Chinese playwrights tend be too
implicit and veiled in their use of language. This play,
in its directness, is really groundbreaking for us.
It's like we're tossing a little bomb into the Chinese
One of Road to Nirvana's main satirical components is
Kopit's dead-on lampoon of David Mamet's trademark dialogue
style. The staccato, hyper-naturalistic, expletive-loaded,
and almost improvised feel of Mamet's dialogue not only
sparked a revolution in American theater, but has consistently
given many of the world's finest stage and screen actors
Kopit's Mamet-esque half-spoken, overlapping, constantly
interrupted dialogue posed an obstacle not just for
Shi Ke the director, but also as producer.
"Many of the actors I wanted to cast for this said they
couldn't take it. They just weren't used to this kind
of play. Some even felt that it was too dirty," says
Shi, herself possessing a nearly photographic ability
to memorize dialogue.
"This kind of performance," Shi explains, "is so naturalistic
and unlike the classical theater style we were used
to. Dialogue in Chinese plays is often very logical,
and clear. The dialogue in this is very illogical, in
a very life-like way, and therefore imposes tremendous
challenges for learning the lines, much less getting
the performance right. We often laughed at ourselves
during the early rehearsals; not only were the lines
themselves funny, but our difficulty in nailing them
down was a joke as well!"
For the role of Al, veteran stage and screen actor Liu
Jinshan enthusiastically accepted the part, and was
so supportive and committed to Shi Ke's first project
he put off several roles for the two months it took
Shi Ke to settle casting and scheduling conflicts that
delayed the production's start date.
Liu's die-hard commitment to China's most promising
new director was also strongly reflected in rehearsals.
"There are so many lines," says Liu matter-of-factly,
"and it's not just a matter of memorization, but getting
their nuances just right. Every night, I ponder the
lines while driving, at home, even in the shower. I
ponder, ponder, ponder."
Throughout the first week of intense rehearsals, Central
Academy of Drama graduate Geng Xiaolin (playing Jerry)
echoed Liu's comments, as he punctuated rehearsals with
chain-smoking, lots of rubbing of his forehead, and
repeating the familiar mantra "Too many lines. Too many
The role of Al's lover and con-partner confronted China
Youth Art Theater actress Liu Dan with the opposite
problem. "I have too few lines!" she complains. Although
a key character, Lou's role relies less on her dialogue
than her function, a sort of threatening harsh bad-cop
foil to the back-stabbing, ingratiating good-cop role
of Al that demands an actor's ability to project presence
and meaning on stage without dialogue.
In addition to directing and producing, Shi Ke plays
the title character, Nirvana. Although also a star in
her own right, the parallels between the actress and
the part stop here. Nirvana is a ditzy, power-hungry
media monster who believes she is the reincarnation
of an 18th Dynasty Egyptian ruler. Shi Ke on the other
hand is one of the sweetest people you'll ever meet.
"I'm far and close to her [Nirvana] at the same time,"
"Close because of my experience in this profession;
far, in terms of her fear of others using her, and her
Indeed, the lead actress, director and producer of Road
to Nirvana, shares one more thing in common with the
iconic goddess in her play: power on stage.
It's a kind of power that draws equally from pure ability
and a strong work ethic, as much from strength as a
willingness to be vulnerable, a balance won at a dear
personal cost. Unlike Nirvana, Shi Ke's powerful presence
on stage is one that gives rather than takes from the
audience. As a director, the power translates into what
she gives her actors, and is testified to by her ability
to inspire them to get one of the most difficult contemporary
plays onto its feet in a mere two weeks.
And her power is most obviously from a wellspring that
was there at the beginning of her career. As a three-year-old
girl, the rambunctious little Coco (as her mother called
her) would routinely interrupt the political meetings
that took place in the courtyard outside her house.
Prancing out into the middle of an ongoing meeting the
precocious, wildly energetic girl would break out into
spontaneous song-and-dance routines.
And they couldn't stop her. For one thing, she was doing
her own renditions of Cultural Revolution songs, praising
Mao mostly, that none dared interrupt. More importantly,
she was happy, and in her rightful place, and that,
quite simply, is powerful.
Road to Nirvana opens November
26 at the China Youth Art Theater and has a second run
at China Children's Art Theater, starting December 6.
November 26-December 4, 7:15 pm
China Youth Art Theater, 67 Beibingmasi Hutong,
Jiaodaokou Nanjie, Dongcheng District
December 6-14, 7:15 pm
China Children's Theater, 64 Dong'anmen Dajie,
Tickets and information: 133-0101-0597 or 135-0121-2364