The Universe Doesn't Cast Leading Roles: Zhu Yi's You Never Touched the Dirt
June 3 – June 13
195 E. 3rd St., Manhattan
Awareness of a changing environment is piercing our consciousness like a bobcat clawing into the earth, but Zhu Yi wants us to dig even deeper.
In her surreal new comedy You Never Touched the Dirt, the wealthy Lis have lived detached from the land that nurtures them while also paying exorbitant prices to enjoy its unspoiled splendor in a private lakeside community somewhere outside Shanghai. Zhu Yi’s play is a bonkers, tilted, and utterly delightful eclogue; naturally, experimental mainstay Ken Rus Schmoll directs this New York premiere that bows at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks starting June 3. As gods and gardeners fight over land, Zhu Yi, a Chinese-American playwright attuned to the global cost of gentrification and capitalism, reminds us of our humanity—shared and comedic—and the cyclical natures of the earth and greed.
Billy McEntee (Rail): Before we dive in, can you discuss how you first got into playwriting?
Zhu Yi: I was an only child often left alone at home to practice piano while my parents went to the movies or malls, so I developed this hobby of making up stories to entertain myself. Not any kind of stories, but the dramatic ones with a lot of characters whose voices came out through my mouth in turns, and their vibrant imaginary presences filled up the empty room. Later when I applied for college, I learned that people have a serious name for that thing I was doing. It’s called playwriting.
Rail: I hear your play is having a near-simultaneous production in China. Is this true? If so, can you discuss how that came to be and what it’s been like working on the same play in two different languages?
Zhu: Yes. The company in China created two productions of the play, which premiered in January and March, one in a traditional theater space for touring shows, the other in an outdoor courtyard space. There were actual trees, flowers, vegetable plots, and a goldfish pond in the courtyard. Actors emerged from the pond as lake-drowned ghosts and stood on the rooftop of a building as a 120-year-old tree. The “tree” had a green skirt the length of a whole building. When each “branch” was cut off, a piece of her skirt was pulled down by actors on the ground. The tree should have a magnificent death in the play, and it was a truly magnificent death.
I wrote the play in English, later translated it to Chinese, edited in Chinese, translated it back to English, edited in English, translated it to Chinese… The content of the two language versions sync, but the titles are different. In English it’s You Never Touched the Dirt, while in Chinese it becomes Outside of the World, which is a phrase borrowed from an ancient Chinese poem.
Rail: On top of all that, the play has already been in Scotland during the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival. It must be very rewarding to see your work staged in multiple countries. How has that been?
Zhu: The play was created and developed at the Royal Court Theater’s International Playwrights Program from 2016 to 2018. The program encouraged and supported us to tell stories about contemporary China. The staged reading of the play was presented by the Royal Court at Edinburgh International Festival as part of “Spirit of ’47,” in celebration of international cultural collaboration in today’s fast-changing world.
It was adorable that the British director Sam Pritchard helped me adjust the English slightly for the British audience; for example, “popsicle” becomes “ice lolly,” and “asshole” becomes “arsehole.” And now since we are doing a production in NYC, all the “assholes” are welcome back.
Rail: I’m curious about the new play development process in China, where you were born. In America, it’s both slow and hurried: you write your play, wait for someone to program it, develop it over various retreats and writer’s groups, and then, wham, you have a production lined up but only a few weeks of rehearsal. How do plays evolve in China?
Zhu: “Both slow and hurried”—that’s so accurate!
In China, I would describe it as “fast and furious”: You write a play, submit to a theater, if someone likes it, they will produce it immediately, and you will get paid well. Things happen so fast. The market is booming. Theatergoers are all young people. It’s totally possible to make a decent living as a theater professional in China. But the downside is, because there isn’t a proper development process, the director and actors often run into obstacles in rehearsals. They realize that they need more time to digest the play or work with the playwright. But the clock is ticking, the theater is booked, the tickets are sold… They just start to rewrite the play in the rehearsal room without the playwright’s consent. And gradually that becomes an industry tradition. It’s easier to erase an obstacle than to face it. And that makes playwrights furious watching their own shows.
Rail: Your play has been seen by audiences of different cultures. Did the reactions vary at all, country to country?
Zhu: I was born and raised in Shanghai, later moved to Nanjing, Oslo, and New York. I traveled a lot to maintain a “bicoastal” (Shanghai and New York) life and career in the past 11 years. This made me interested in themes that are global, but the way I approach them are personal.
Sometimes the reactions from audiences surprise me. The Taiwanese audience recognizes the immigration history of Taiwan in Holy Crab!, which is a play about the American immigration history [told] through the journey of Chinese mitten crabs. A Russian father brought his second-generation immigrant daughter to see A Deal, because he was moved by the conversation between a Chinese Communist father and his America-educated liberal daughter in the play.
Rail: The issues of gentrification in your play seem parallel to a lot of the problems New York has long faced; neighborhoods change as quickly as skyscrapers ascend. China, too, is a very populated nation. Has gentrification long been an issue there, even out of the major cities where your play takes place?
Zhu: When major cities expand into the country, the process usually doesn’t happen evenly. So you would often see hundreds of luxury villas erected in the middle of a rural area like a tiny enclave. The city people who own the villas and the local residents are two disconnected communities, but there is one group traveling between the two worlds every day—the locals who work in those villas. The play looks into that specific arrangement.
In order to gain a solid understanding of the hidden economic forces and conflicts of interests in the story, I spent two years researching land laws, household registration laws, and national endowment insurance policies in China. But the play won’t bore you with analyses.
Rail: I’m wondering what it’s been like to work with Ken Rus Schmoll; he seems like such a congruous fit for your show given its tone and his own historical style.
Zhu: I saw Catch as Catch Can at Page 73 and The Invisible Hand at New York Theatre Workshop before I knew Ken. I was amazed by how sharp, subtle, precise, clean, and explosive those pieces were. So when Clubbed Thumb suggested Ken as the director for this play, I was extremely excited. I pictured the play as a series of snapshots of domestic life, almost like a film, but those brief moments hit heavily. Each scene should feel like a quiet explosion. And I can’t think of anyone who can capture that better than Ken. My favorite thing is listening to Ken explain scenes to the actors. It’s also very calming working with him, because besides his naturally calming personality, he solves problems in a very organized way.
Rail: Your play has made me reflect on my own relationship to the earth. Would you be willing to discuss your connection to our changing planet and how that informed this play?
Zhu: The play reflects my anxiety from listening to my mom complaining about her endless battle with our gardener. My family owns a lake-view villa outside of Shanghai, just like in the play. I listened to her talking about the missing duck, suspicious boats, her fear of the dark at night, my father’s absence… I decided to dive deep into the subject and write a play before I went crazy with her.
I don’t know what my relationship to the earth is. On one hand, I’m another heartless consumer of things coming out or into the earth; on the other, I don’t believe a human’s joy and pain weigh higher than a tree’s or a cow’s. The universe doesn’t cast leading roles. Therefore I see the cruelty and absurdity in how humans center the world around ourselves. It feels both horrible and wonderful.
You Never Touched the Dirt, written by Zhu Yi, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, runs June 3 – June 13 at The Wild Project (195 E. 3rd St., Manhattan), as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks 2019. For tickets and further info: https://www.clubbedthumb.org/productions/2019/.