Shanghai by Linda Alper

by | Oct 5, 2020 | News, Table|Room|Stage

The evolution of Shanghai, my history-based play about a European Jewish teen who survives WW2 as a refugee in Shanghai, China.

Some projects happen swiftly.
Idea, development, execution.
Some take their own sweet time, with detours, distractions and dramas along the way.

This blog is about the evolution of Shanghai, my history-based play about a European Jewish teen who survives WW2 as a refugee in Shanghai, China.

I keep coming back to this story. From the time I began writing, I’ve acted in many productions at Artists Rep and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; co-written a Dickens adaptation for OSF and seen it developed, rehearsed and performed; applied for, planned and completed a years long international project, from Fulbright Pakistan grant to Cultural Affairs Grant to devising a script with Islamabad’s Theater Wallay to bringing 14 Pakistani artists to Portland and Ashland. 

Those projects happened on strict timelines.    

Meanwhile, life happened, too. Weddings. Moves. The progressive illness of a close family member. Travel to Instanbul, Islamabad, Mumbai, Toulouse. 

I lost my mother, two cherished colleague/collaborator/friends. 

I took about 1000 barre classes and put that many miles on my worn out Nikes; cooked, performed, celebrated, dreamed, grieved, worked with fellow artists and buds. 

And now it’s 2020…

I keep coming back to Eva, the young woman who fled to China in the late 1930’s. 

I keep going back to Shanghai.

The idea began almost fifteen years ago … A tiny itch.

I’m in my umpteenth season at OSF, acting in The Diary of Anne Frank — which plays often to student audiences. Most matinees are followed by audience “talkbacks.” I’m shocked by how few of the students are familiar with Anne’s diary. Many have little knowledge of the holocaust. That itch stays with me. Not a pleasant itch. More of a worry. An ache.

My mother’s husband, a Holocaust survivor, had given a book to my daughter — a memoir by a Jewish woman who, like my future heroine, had grown up as a refugee in Shanghai. The writing isn’t artful, but I’m fascinated by this little known piece of history —  20,000 European Jews survived WW2 because of a political quirk, originally stemming from the opium trade. Shanghai was an open port, where entry visas weren’t required — the only refuge left after Kristalnacht. In the colorful, corrupt, international city of Shanghai, the European Jews and local Chinese are thrown together, under Japanese and later German occupation. These two oppressed peoples, collaborate to survive and occasionally thrive.

I travel to mainland China for the first time with two OSF colleagues. We coach Chinese students performing Shakespeare in English. With Joe Graves, an extraordinary American actor and director who teaches at Peking University, I also visit Taiwan. My family joins (my daughter is studying in China by this time, becoming fluent in Mandarin). We also visit Thailand and Japan. I’m hooked. 

I leave the security and artistic community of OSF, after 23 seasons.

I have the incredible good fortune to win a year long Fulbright to Taiwan, the steamy, vibrant democracy, on hour’s flight from Shanghai. In Taipei, I teach Shakespeare in English. It’s my first and only stint as a professor. I’m smitten with my Taiwanese students. Together we produce A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my favorite of the half dozen productions of that play I’ve been part of. I travel to Singapore, Australia. Beijing. Shanghai. I return to Oregon, relocate to Portland, and join Artists Rep as a Resident Artist. I readjust to life in the US and act in more plays.

Artists Rep receives the Creative Heights Grant from The Oregon Community Foundation, for the creation of new works.  One of the commissions is for a play for young adult audiences. Hmmm. I have a secret past. With my husband, I had been a successful young adult novelist — that was my “job/job,” i.e. money job between acting assignments, during the early part of my career. Somehow my writing voice has always had an angsty teen bent (What does that mean!?). Dámaso Rodríguez, Artists Rep’s Artistic Director, generously gives me a commission, and I ask for the “young adult” slot. I’m pretty sure no one else wants it.

I share my Shanghai obsession with Luan Schooler, Artists Rep’s Director of New Works —  thus begins a wonderful collaboration and friendship. Luan is open to my idea, but not enthusiastic. In fact, a fellow playwright, one I admire, advises me to ditch the Shanghai proposal, telling me something like, “there’s nothing new anyone can write about the Holocaust. And no one will produce it.” 

But I don’t care about writing anything “new,” and I never think about the odds of getting produced. I just want to work on what I find important and interesting. That said, I hate facing the blank page, so I wait for a go ahead. 

Meanwhile, Luan has a different, sexy idea! She suggests adapting Wildwood, the adventure/fantasy novel series set in Portland. Now that’s an idea that everyone (in Portland) will want to produce. It’s new! Adaptation is my wheelhouse. Luan spends the next year or so trying to secure the rights. We get strung along. We get strong along some more. I work on other projects. I’m happy to put off facing page one. We never get the rights.

Back to my original idea. Luan finally says go for it — I think it’s time to fulfill the grant, so no more procrastinating. I start on Shanghai — at this point it’s titled, The Only Place Left. I’m terrible at titles. However, I begin the only process I enjoy more than I enjoy procrastinating (in reality, putting off work is agony, but this next step is pure joy). Research! I have intimate time with the public library. Read, read, read. Memoirs, scholarly writings, biographies, historical fiction. I watch oral histories taped by the Oregon Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Museum in DC. These stories are so fascinating, so moving. This event, this story is endlessly fascinating. I could do this forever.

At some point, I have to write, and finally, I do. The plotting isn’t difficult — between my young adult novel experience, all the plays I’ve acted in and the events that really happened, there’s plenty of action. I complete the first draft and we do a quiet, private read in Luan’s office. At this point it’s a cast of only four. Eva, the heroine; Leo, her father; Ben, the love interest and…I have the same actress doubling as Eva’s mother and Pei, Eva’s young Chinese friend. This draft seems half narration from Eva — more YA novel than play. Ben narrates, too. As does Pei (later named Mei).

So much narration. Way too much. Do I even know how to write a play???

Luan is patient. She suggests not having the same actress play the mother and the Chinese girl (duh). Work on the character arcs, so the characters evolve and change more.  Whose story is it? Who should be narrating and when? And the classic: more show, less tell. 

There’s also the question of visual style. The story begins in Germany. In Shanghai, my characters are on a dock, in a shelter, a dance hall, a ghetto, a bridge. I’m using Chinese writing as a metaphor, so that needs to be imaged. The setting has to be transformational, theatrical.  In my head, I’m seeing projections, lace curtains, fur coats — no literal scenic elements other than a park bench. Sound is vital. I’m finding provocative east/west musical hybrids in my research.

Luan suggests a brainstorming session with designers. One of the many perks of being an Artists Rep Resident Artist is the camaraderie with other artists. We ask Sharath Patel (sound) and Megan Wilkerson (scenery), designers I admire, to share an afternoon and advise me. They generously give their time and expertise.

More acting for me, and more travel to Pakistan to work with Theatre Wallay. I add a jaunt to southern India —pure indulgence. 

A week long Shanghai development workshop is planned. 

M. Graham Smith, a San Francisco based director, joins the team. Graham has a National Directors’ Fellowship and has been talking to Damaso about finding a project to match with the grant. Damaso plays yenta (Graham’s joke,) and matches us! Being a company gal, I often work with the same folks over and over, which is a blessing, but can also leave me hungry for people who push back in a new way.

Graham turns out to be a huge gift. He’s so smart, great with actors. He has a lot of experience working on new plays and he really understands how to help a writer.  He’s challenging and nurturing. And fun.    

The cast for the workshop is game. Luan has my back, as always, and more feedback and ideas. She knows when to support and when to push. The play is starting to come to life, breaking out of the young adult genre, becoming more of a mainstream story (at this point, I’m no longer obligated to produce a play for teens). We finish with an intimate studio reading. I have work to do.

And I need a better title. The First/Last Place. The Best/Worst Place. I hate titles.

More acting at Artists Rep. Then I go back to Ashland for six months, cast in Paula Vogel’s Indecent down there. Luan (there’s a theme here, called “best dramaturg ever”) mentions to actor/director/artistic director Michael Mendelson, my beloved “work husband,” that he might consider my play for his Proscenium Live play reading series, produced by Portland Shakespeare Project.    

We do the reading that summer, with some of the same fine actors who’ve previously been involved —  Jason Glick, Claire Rigsby, Josh Weinstein, Foss Curtis, plus Barbie Wu (who helps me with the Chinese writing). I’m in performance down in Ashland, so I miss most Shanghai rehearsals. I fly up for the public reading, then fly back immediately, praying I arrive in Ashland on time. Our OSF production of Indecent, directed by Shana Cooper, is detailed, physically demanding, an interwoven, interdependent ensemble. We love doing it. No one has missed a show or ever wants to. I arrive back in time. Phew.


The best part of the Proscenium Live/Portland Shakes reading, which takes place at PSU, is that Dámaso can attend (he’d been out of town for the workshop reading, working at OSF). Dámaso has great notes. GREAT notes, including adding a new character, so now it’s a cast of six. More rethinking. More research. No procrastinating.  Rewriting.  Still searching for a better title, which finally emerges during a Rosh Hashanah dinner with my OSF castmates at Tony Heald’s. We eat. We drink. We discuss future projects. We laugh a lot. I admit to being title challenged, and Bill DeMeritt, who plays Sholem Ashe, has an idea. Shang Hai. Wait. Hai, or
Chai (pronounced the same) in Hebrew means life. The Hebrew letter is often worn on necklaces — I wore one as a teen. And I remember that Shang in Chinese means “on.”  I probably remember it because I saw it every time I got on the Taipei bus. Thank you, Bill.

Then, I can’t figure out how to get the graphics to appear on my title page, so Christina Crowder, our musical director/accordionist (she has that same role in the subsequent Artists Rep Indecent) helps me with that. Thank you, Christina. It takes a village.

I work on Dámaso’s notes. The play opens up and expands again. Part of this push is to go beyond any young adult limitations, and to expand the story so that it resonates in a bigger, more contemporary way. There’s a new frame. More Chinese characters. A tougher tone. 

I’m getting close. Dámaso and Luan tell me they want to produce the play in the following season!!! Soon after, Risa Brainin, who runs LaunchPad, a terrific play development program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, contacts me out of the blue. She wants to program the play —  a summer reading and for a full “preview production” in early 2021. Dámaso suggests postponing the Artists Rep production til fall 2021, and this will allow us to really work on the play, try out scenic and sound and new rewrites, before the Artists Rep premier!

Then comes mid March, 2020. We close Indecent at Portland State.

Everything shuts down.

Amazingly, LaunchPad keeps going. I write a new piece for Zoom Live Stream with them. I meet the super smart young director who will steer Shanghai in Santa Barbara, Sara Rademacher. Our LaunchPad Shanghai reading will go ahead, but will be virtual. I look forward to hearing the changes in the new draft, and Sara will experiment with visual story telling, not on Zoom, which has so many limitations, but via Skype, which might be more flexible. We rehearse, then live stream the reading and the technical snags are huge. The sound doesn’t synch. The actors have too many technical duties. But the talent, good intentions, smarts and commitment of this group are overwhelming! We’re all experimenting, adjusting, trying to figure out how to keep creative life going without being in the same room. We all know that our future “full production,” now pushed to late Spring in the hopes of being able to gather, will probably also be virtual. Sara proposes continuing to experiment, trying to combine artistic work with developing a new virtual platform that better supports what we do. Why not? Something good, at this point unknown, can come out of it. 

I work with Luan and other writers on a site specific project for the Artists Rep Mercury project, another hopeful creative leap.  With my best friend, Penny Metropulos, I revise an old adaptation of ours for The Acting Company. I get notes from Risa for another rewrite for Shanghai. It’s not a big redo. It’s still that narration that needs tweaking. Damn.

And on we go. And, who knows, Shanghai may be in “new” territory after all. A new virtual type of story telling. And whatever kind of “production” the future holds, it may not have anything to do with what we thought of as “production” in the past.

Still, I think this story is important. As anti semitism rears it’s head again, I want to make sure everyone knows these stories. Maybe one day, this play will have a production in a real theater. With an audience of live humans, gathered together.   

Maybe not. 

Just keep writing.

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