KU to stage Nobel laureate’s ‘The Other Shore’

The theater is an interesting place to experience abstract art. Because a play happens live, the audience expects concrete representations of place through the set, of characterization through costuming and of action through sound and motion.

Gao Xingjian’s “The Other Shore,” which opens Friday at Kansas University’s Inge Theater in Murphy Hall, defies a lot of those expectations.

“It’s a play about discovery and rediscovery,” says Alison Christy, a Detroit doctoral student directing KU Theatre’s production.

If you go

“The Other Shore” opens Friday and runs April 12, 13, 15, 16 and 17 in the Inge Theatre of Murphy Hall on the KU campus. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. except Sunday, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.

“The Other Shore” begins with actors playing a game, but, as Christy notes, they don’t know the rules. They elect to go to this “other shore” in search of enlightenment.

“But it doesn’t exist until they create it,” Christy says. “It challenges ideas of a traditional play.”

Something of a surrealist and an absurdist, Gao’s work is banned in his native China. He was granted French citizenship in 1998 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000.

“He was arrested and re-educated during the Cultural Revolution,” Christy says. “During that time he was forced to destroy all he wrote.”

The echoes of the Cultural Revolution ring throughout “The Other Shore,” and his experiences shaped the play’s basic premise — that things don’t exist until we create them.

“The play creates the physical space for that to happen,” Christy says. “We see the actors creating the set as the play develops. Everything on stage is repurposed. For instance, the script called for there to be rocks on the stage, and they’re useful because they add height and depth. But they had to be movable because the set is constantly changing.”

“The Other Shore” features 11 actors, who take on a variety of roles. Like the set, they too are constantly changing. The abstract nature of the play’s structure inspired Christy to spend a lot of time working with her cast on the themes. To accomplish that, she embraced modern technology.

“I created a Dropbox for them,” she says of the cloud-computing software that allows multiple users to access shared documents. “I did a lot of research, and the actors had access to everything I read and studied. I’d tell them, ‘this may or may not be useful to you,’ but it was there for them to examine.”

She filled the Dropbox with Gao’s writing on his own pieces, biographical information on his life including his persecution and exile from China, other examples of his work, unrelated artwork — particularly that of surrealist painter Salvador Dali — information on Buddhism, which has a heavy influence on the play, and a history of China’s Cultural Revolution and the anti-intellectualism it spawned.

“I tried to create an atmosphere where asking questions was as important as learning lines and blocking,” Christy says.

In that way, she captures the essence of Gao’s work. The power of thought and of language dominates “The Other Shore.” The place the actors seek purports to be a physical location, but it is actually a state of mind.

“I think that’s the inherent contradiction of this play,” Christy says. “It seems to be very language-based, not physical.”

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