The stars of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's compelling one-act drama "The White Snake" are laughing now. They're enjoying great reviews, sold-out performances and requests from fans to extend the run beyond its July 8 close.
But mere weeks before Director Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of an ancient Chinese fable about a Taoist snake changing her shape to live as a woman was to have its world premiere in the Angus Bowmer Theatre in February, the cast was in rehearsal and working without a completed script.
"We knew going in that this is the way Mary works," says Amy Kim Waschke, who plays Madame White Snake through her transformations. "She is a genius."
Zimmerman, who won a 2002 Tony Award for her direction of "Metamorphoses" on Broadway and created a series of new productions for the Metropolitan Opera, was OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch's choice to adapt the epic "White Snake" story. Over centuries, versions have appeared in plays, operas, novels, even a movie. Depending on prevailing moods, Madame White Snake has been portrayed as noble or demonic.
In Zimmerman's action-packed staging, the villainous character is a Buddhist monk intent on separating Madame White Snake from her beloved human husband, Xu Xian (played by Christopher Livingston) and her gal pal Green Snake (Tanya McBride).
Working with her longtime design team to establish the sets, costumes and lights, Zimmerman uses puppets, parasols and sheets of silk to help tell the story.
"My philosophy in show business is that it should always be blossoming," says Zimmerman. "Something new happens and enlists the powers of the audience to understand that the parasols are moving across the stage like snakes."
Long before January, when Zimmerman got into her car to drive from her home outside of Chicago to Ashland, she knew the fable well and its many interpretations, but which of the twists and endings would she use?
"There were lots of directions it could have gone," she says, explaining why she intentionally had no script. "I wasn't sure which way it was tilting."
After spending time with the cast, paying attention to what she saw during rehearsals and writing at night for the actors' voices and nonverbal strengths, "the jigsaw pieces filled in," she recalls during a recent phone interview.
New lines were given to the actors each day, songs were written and narrators were discovered in the ensemble. "Once I hook in, it starts coming through strongly," she says.
The director and her cast say this intuitive approach is surprisingly efficient. There is no wasted time during rehearsals, but "a fun kind of pressure in the room," says Zimmerman. "It's not organic or touchy-feely. It's really fast."
Livingston, who plays the scholar who falls in love with Madame White Snake without being aware of her true identity, says Zimmerman's method was "freeing."
"We trusted Mary," Livingston says during an interview with co-star Waschke in an OSF office. "This whole process happened with a strong sense of ease. We were all in sync during the rehearsal process."
He says that by receiving pages of the script in daily rehearsals, "you could focus on that one aspect of the story instead of trying to think about what is happening in the next act. It was really concentrated and you just added that concentrated work onto the rest of the work and it kept growing."
Waschke says she enjoyed the experience because Zimmerman "is so clear about her vision." Actors don't improvise and it's not collaborative writing, but Zimmerman sees company members as colleagues.
"I get final say, but we are cohorts on this project and I'm just trying to create circumstances to let the story come through," Zimmerman says. She was confident that "White Snake" would succeed.
"Given the cast, circumstances, story and all the givens, the results already existed, we just had to uncover it," she says. "We had to work diligently like archaeologists uncovering a ruin. You don't go at it in a panicked way with a pickax; on the other hand, you can't be lazy or the play arrives on opening night with dirt on it. The uncovering makes the object."
"The White Snake" was different in many ways, however, from any of her previous works. And, yes, there was drama off the stage, particularly in the beginning.
Although Zimmerman has directed Shakespeare and opera around the country, this was the first time she would write or adapt a script away from her Evanston home and her first time working for OSF. Even though she would be working with her longtime design team, she hadn't worked with any of the cast members. And this was the first time she felt that she might not be physically up to rehearsing during the day and writing the script in the wee hours.
"Something scary happened," says Zimmerman, 51, explaining that she had suffered an injury while on a research trip to India and a resulting pinched nerve made it impossible for her to continue her drive to Ashland. Someone was dispatched to drive her the rest of the way.
During this time, she could have been haunted by the question her agent has often asked: "What happens if you get sick? It's not like they can find another director without a script."
"I felt this may be that time," she recalls. "I remember talking to Bill Rauch and saying, 'I don't know, Bill, I might not be able to do it.'" But medical treatments, shorter rehearsal days and the company restored her faith. "It turned into a really profound experience with the cast," she says.
"A couple of weeks in, I started to understand that it was special," she says. "The company was evolving and there was great charm in the snake puppets."
When the company was in the first round of the technical rehearsal — truly edging toward opening night — Zimmerman wrote the last seven minutes of the play. And it surprised her.
"I didn't quite see it coming," she says. "It's very moving to me. In the beginning, I said it's a story about our own longing to be seen at even our basest self and still be loved. But then the ending took another step, beyond the idea of form. It took a spiritual step that I hadn't seen coming."
She pauses, considers all the theater she has created or seen from the audience, then makes a statement about all art: "You never know if any of it will turn out," she says. "Theater is a horse race, anything can happen. Seriously."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.