Guan Hanqing’s Snow in Midsummer centers on the idea of social injustice and human suffering particularly the unfair treatment of poor people during the Chinese Golden Era. The play must transcend a great sense of oppression as intended by its playwrights to reflect the dark side of the society they were in, as the main character (Dou E) leaves a horrifying curse as her unjust death served as a living proof of how under-class people like her are taken for granted and are short-lived despite living a virtuous life while the evil ones prevailed.
This issue still continues in the modern world so it is important that the story lives up to its purpose of making the audience reflect on the existence of tyranny in the society and what should be done in order to put an end to it. Every main character’s role should be well emphasized in order to make the message of the story more understandable.
The characters must be very much convincing to the extent that they are almost taking the audience back to Yuan Dynasty.
An article made by Huo Jianyi, Yuan Dynasty Zaju, tells about how Guan Hanqing himself gave up his profession of being a doctor and chose to serve the public by writing plays that exposed the dark side of the society, particularly the indulgence in wine and women as a way of life especially for the Yuan rulers. He and his fellow playwrights used their talents and knowledge in exposing tyranny and through their theatrical creations, spoke on behalf of the suffering masses despite the Yuan rulers forbidding it. The success of this play will be achieved if the same fiery passion is justified by the characters.
Stage Type and Settings
The play is artistic therefore it would be ideal to use a proscenium or picture frame stage. It is not necessary to use a traditional proscenium stage with its common features like a large archway near the stage front or a curtain in order to close it during act or scene breaks. It is enough that the stage is raised several feet enough for the audience to see the view of the play while directly facing it (“Stage:” Wikipedia).
As the Snow in Midsummer is a classic play based on a Han Dynasty folk tale (although popularized in the Yuan Dynasty), the prevailing theme should be based on the said period. The backdrop must contain both unique and artistic images depicting a usual old Chinese scenario like that of a painting. Images of courtyard houses should be used. These residences would represent the different social status that coexisted in that period.
Based on Spiro Kostof’s A History of Architecture, traditional Chinese courtyard houses (such as the siheyuan) is composed of several individual houses around a square, where each house is owned by a different member of the family. Aside from this, more houses can also be constructed for additional family members that need to be accommodated.
There must be a strong sense of tranquility and privacy which should prevail and be maintained despite strong and loud scenes in the play. Garden and water is also a usual feature with these residences. The outermost part of these residences is where strangers are entertained while the innermost one is set apart for intimate friends and family members of the owner.
Since the title of the play contains the word snow, then winter is another requirement for the play, in fact for almost the entirety of the play. This should allow an atmosphere of gloominess to dominate the stage, making the literal coldness of winter almost felt and intensified by the cold hearts of the villains in the play. The snow plays a critical part in this and it should fall dramatically on stage with the proper sad music background going with it.
Last but not the least, there must be flowers included. They should either be illustrated in the backdrop as part of the stage props. Flowers have been a great part of Chinese art just like the dragon and bird illustrations they use in their antique porcelains. As a whole, the entire stage must become a big canvass of living Chinese art.
The director is responsible for bringing out the good quality of the characters’ acting and the stage production. Therefore he must be focused and fully aware of the background of the play so as to properly angle it.
Directions are made up of details being heard and seen by the audience. These should be explained well in the script so as not to confuse the director, the actors or even the designers. The three kinds of stage directions must be considered, namely: (1) scene directions, (2) staging directions, and (3) character stage directions.
In the script, scene directions are indented at a measurement of 3.5 inches from the left side of the margin and 1 inch from the right. This indicates the fundamental place and time of the scene with details of the events on stage as the lights come up or become dim (“How to Format a Stage Play”). Let us take scene one, act one of the play Snow in Midsummer as indicated in the script:
(The period was between 1279-1368 A.D. In a typical Chinese village lives MISTRESS CAI, a widow, who appears on stage with a sign of great anticipation on her face. She paces at the center of the stage in her long, loose gown with wide sleeves and narrow cuffs. Then she faces the audience with the same facial expression.)
Second is the staging directions. This contains the description of a certain scene such as the entrance, exit, and struggles of characters on stage, as well as the changes in lighting effects or musical background.
(The Doctor strangles the widow with the rope.
Enter Old Zhang and his son Donkey. As they rush
forward the Doctor takes to his heels. Old Zhang
revives Mistress Cai.)
It’s an old woman, dad, nearly strangled to death.
Last would be the character stage directions. These are short descriptive lines in parenthetical form sometimes placed under the name of the character. This shows the appropriate body language while delivering a certain line (“How to Format a Stage Play”). This particular direction puts more identity on acting. Here is another example.
MRS. CAI (crying):
Ah, poor child! How am I going to break this to you?
The characters’ makeup for the Snow in Midsummer need not look like that from a Chinese opera although it may be elaborated to reflect its rich culture. It must enhance their acting and facial expression. A kabuki effect is suggested if the production team would like to add a little animation to it and lessening its tragic base.
Dou E and Mistress Cai’s makeup may use thick foundation with a rosy base to show femininity. However the application must be heavier on Mistress Cai to distinguish her age along with some fake wrinkles. The eyebrows must be enhanced with a thick black color while the lips are pouty and deep red.
As for the elder male actors (Doctor Lu, Dou Tianzhang, and Old Chang), a yellow base makeup can be used contrasted with a thick pink blush on. The eyebrows may also be enhanced however for the male antagonist (Donkey Chang), eye brows should be enhanced with an upward effect at both ends. Once again the appearance of wrinkles should distinguish ages.
Basic Pointers for applying stage makeup
According to Kate Hillard on her article Application of Stage Makeup, makeup is often applied on thick layers. Unlike the movies where the camera can focus on the actor’s face, audiences cannot afford to this kind of facility on stage plays. The makeup used for the Snow in Midsummer should be elaborate and bright especially with characters representing the high-class society. There may also be gradual moderation of the makeup for the middle and lower class members but the artist must make sure that it is enough in maximizing the actor’s emotions on stage. Sometimes even the dark layers of makeup disappear on the glaring lights.
A thick, heavy cream foundation should be applied first which be a little bit darker than the skin tone. The placing of foundation should be started on the forehead and blended well up to the hairline after which the remaining of the face is covered together with the ears, eyelids, and neck as if this is the actors’ true complexion. The neck application should also be blended well so as not to create a mask-like appearance. When it comes to male actors, foundation is applied on the entire neck and back sometimes but this can appear messy. Following the general foundation, a lighter color is placed over the shadows under the nose and on the chin.
When the foundation is done, the blush would follow. A rosy color is used for the female actresses but this should be applied on a lesser degree with male actors. It is spread over the cheekbone and about halfway down the cheek mixing it with a down and up motion. A naturally rosy tone is needed for male actors while it should be darker for the females enough to maintain its visibility on stage especially under the hot lights. Blush must also be placed over the nose and forehead where it is very slightly blended.
The most difficult part would be the eye makeup. A very white “highlighter” is first placed along the brow bone (right underneath the eyebrow) and under the eye. The makeup artist should make sure to give the surrounding eye areas a lightened appearance without leaving white smears. Following this, an eye makeup should be placed just above the eyelid, below the brow bone, and also beneath the eye which should be a little darker than skin tone. This should be topped with an even darker color along the eyelid top through a downward blending which can also be used as an eyeliner especially with male actors.
For women, an even darker and rosier tone that gives the appearance of a natural eye shadow should be placed over. It should however be more recognizable on stage and should be placed a little above the eyebrow. A less rosy color is recommended for male actors though not required. Furthermore, a dark brown or similar-colored eye lining is placed. Black color is to be used for dramatic roles that need wild makeup. Lastly, mascara is placed on top of the lashes. In order to avoid or lessen the errors of putting mascaras, it is suggested to make the actor blink after putting the wand on his/her lashes.
Following the eye makeup is the simpler part of putting on the lipstick. A color that is a little darker than the usual lip color is used for male actors and should be matched with a lip liner. Either can go first depending on the actor’s or makeup artist’s preference. The liner should be placed on the outside of the lips and not on the natural line otherwise this will obviously look fake. It can also be applied all over the lips to make it last better and longer. A dark lipstick should be applied enough to be seen from the stage even if it looks like a Halloween makeup up close. It goes otherwise with male actors who should slightly be more natural even on stage.
Last but not the least would be the loose powder. Before it is applied over the face, dip a large brush unto a powder container then shake it to get most of the powder off in order to avoid leaving white smears over the makeup and therefore ruining it. Loose powder is for holding the actor’s make up even when they are sweating.
Costumes are very important. They help audiences identify and understand the actor’s character and social rank as well as his traits and gender. The style and color would greatly suggest the occasion happening on stage. Colorful clothes and elaborate makeup may bring more life to Snow in Midsummer as this pertains to rich Chinese culture.
The main character, Dou E, may use the traditional Ruqun which is used by ordinary women during the Yuan Dynasty. This is made up of an upper jacket and lower skirt. The jacket is made of a red marten or sheepskin garment with loose sleeves and gray collars and cuffs. This is tucked below a maroon skirt with a gray sash accent to maintain its simplicity.
The same type of robe costume may be used by the widow, Mistress Cai as they do not necessarily belong with the Mongolian Aristocrats who wore cur coats and fur caps. Their costumes must reflect their lifestyle and their role enough to bring out the emotion from the audience, however they should not look like paupers but more like average Chinese people however obviously struggling to maintain their dignity. However, after her execution, Dou E’s costume must change to loose, ghostly white robe with its light fabric. The red smear of blood from the execution must appear on the cloth as well.
The male actors may use the Yiseyi or Zhisunfu garments where upper and lower short garments were put together while adding folds to the waistline. Furthermore, big beads were hung on shoulders and the back. The garments can either be course or of fine quality depending on the social rank the actor is representing (“Costume in the Yuan Dynasty”). Donkey Chang and Old Chang may use costumes may use colors that shows a status that is more advantages compared to Dou E and Mistress Cai, however not as luxurious as an upper aristocrat. Donkey Chang’s costume must be provoking and reflective of his selfish being.
Of course the apparent hairdo must not be forgotten. For male actors, it should be the traditional snail-head, seated Buddha feature. As for females actors (Dou E and Mistress Cai), the hair must be long with the upper portion tied and placed with some simple white floral accents. Mrs. Cai’s hair must be all brushed up however with a bulky onion bulb appearance.
This is perhaps the counterpart of camera trick. One of the things that make stage plays breath-taking is the lighting effect. In fact thanks to modern-day stage lighting, audiences now are able to afford richer visibility of the entire play, thus connecting more with the intense emotions of the actors.
A careful outline of Bill William’s Stage Lighting Design shows four important objectives of stage lighting: (1) Visibility, which helps the audience understand the play. It is influenced by contrast, size, color and movement. (2) Naturalism (and Motivation), where a sense of time and place is indicated. (3) Composition, the overall image of the stage. Lighting must reveal actors, objects and scenery depending on their importance. (4) Mood (and Atmosphere), which is the psychological reaction of the audience is influenced by lighting effects that gives the stage a sense of happiness, sadness or even boredom.
Dou E’s execution would be a perfect example where lighting is “highlighted” as this scene indicates a transition from a normal way of life to a cursed one. In this case, the lighting effects must create a great sense of grief , heaviness, and fear among the audience.
A play cannot be a play without the cast. As the front liners of the production, they are mainly responsible for leaving an impression for the play since they are the ones who have direct contact with the audiences. Casts are like the main course of a meal. Prof. Audrey Stanley from the University of California at Santa Cruz presents at least eight points to consider when casting a play: (1) Interpretation of character type and function; (2) Type-casting; (3) Casting against type; (4) Cross-gender casting; (5) Gender- or race-neutral casting. (6) Generational relationships and differences between characters (for instance, how old are Lear’s daughters?); (7) Physical and vocal requirements of different roles; (8) Audience associations and expectations of individual actors.
Dou E’s character must be portrayed by someone who can show her virtuosity but at the same time must have the ability to transform into a vengeful character. Her father, Dou Tianzhang, must be played as someone who is old of course but has enough strength to do some laborious works. Mistress Cai must reflect the same humility as Dou E’s character but of course with a motherly touch. A trace of burden must be shown on her face from life’s realities as well as how youth has been taken from her. Donkey Chang need not be good-looking however appropriately dressed. But his dignified appearance must not conceal his disgusting character.
Based on Simon Dunmore’s Advice on How to Approach Rehearsals for a Play, rehearsing is composed of thought, discussion, and doing. It is an important part of the play where the whole team gets to figure out what will work or not. That is why it is important to discipline oneself especially when it comes to the script. Even before the rehearsals, the actor must read it several times so he/she will get to be familiar with the character that he is playing. He should carry it one hand somewhere at his side and put emotion to the delivery of the line while looking at the script at a side glance. He must be patient and must take his time in memorizing his line. In case of long speeches, they should be delivered with much care and thought as single or short lines for it is usually a case where a certain idea starts and is connected throughout the story of the play.
Stage directions on the other hand, must be read as possible pointers only. If they came from how the play was originally done, take into consideration that the present production might be different with the casts and circumstances being new. Pause and silence is a kind of stage direction that must also be given proper timing and must have appropriate place in the play just like long and short lines. Also in case of abbreviations, the intention of the playwright must be observed so the essence of the communication will not be lost.
Writing down notes either from the director or from oneself will be helpful in remembering how to delivery one’s line properly. Notes need not be long. Directors may not be right all the time with regards to the character role. His long experience in theater acting may not give him enough knowledge or understanding of a certain character the way an actor does. Therefore, a careful and rational discussion must always be made between the two. Set and costume designs are also very important. They affect the way an actor moves about the stage. These objects must work harmoniously with the people of the play and not become a hinder.
Rehearsals do not stop within the rehearsal room. Proper focus can be achieved with proper practicing though it should not necessarily occupy one’s private time.
Rehearsal for Snow in Midsummer
Below is a sample table for the Snow in Midsummer’s rehearsal schedule. It is usually done with six to eight weeks but the production team may change it depending on their needs (Sample Rehearsal Schedule).
The Vision’s Effects on the Audience
The Snow in Midsummer is a play about tragedy and drama. However, the whole production team must keep in mind that as the story is based on real struggles of poor people in the past, it might leave a great sense of grievance to the audience. This is good but only to the extent that it will stimulate their sense of awareness since basically, though the storyline dates back to old times, it is very symbolic of the abuse and tyranny that still exist even in our time. Therefore, there must be a balance by creating a great sense of hope especially during the scenes where a retrial for Dou E’s case was conducted up to the play’s ending. The play must establish to the audience that life goes on and there is hope and justice even in the hardest of situations.
Steve Campsall wrote in Write a Successful Play that plays must create a lasting appeal to the audience. Every words delivered by a stage performer should send out both meaning and feeling. That is why it is important to understand the writer’s intention behind the text he has created.
Common methods such as vivid metaphor, powerful imagery, alliteration, use of rhyme or rhythm, etc, are said to be used often by writers (Write a Successful Play: Effects on the Audience). Behind the scene interactions will help bring one’s natural acting and transcend the same energy and passion. The audience must be convinced with everything, from the stage settings to the acting. Not doing so will be crucial and may create passiveness.
Behind a play’s success could be in anything that is a part of it. From the director’s vision to the actor’s execution, everyone should make sure that everything works harmoniously so that the flow of the play will be well polished on the grand day itself. It is both inspiring and fun to see actors on stage behaving like they are not actors but rather they own the stage and they are the characters that they are playing.
Lastly, behind the inspiring acts, elaborate costumes, and colorful props, the message of the story must be retained. This is one important part that can be shared with the audience. The lesson that they can learn from watching a play can help them personally. Once the audience is touched by a play’s story or vision, he/she can use the message or apply it once he goes back to real life.
“Stage.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 5 February 2008. 9 February 2008.
Kostof, S. 1995. A History of Architecture. The Oxford Press. 8 February 2008.
Jianyi, H. 2003. Yuan Dynasty Zaju. 8 February 2008.
“How to Format a Stage Play.” Script Frenzy Young Writers Program. 2007. 9 February 2008.
Hillard, K. 2002. Application of Stage Make Up. 9 February 2008.
“Costume in the Yuan Dynasty.” ChinaCulture.org. 10 February 2008. 10 February 2008.
Williams, B. 1997-1999. Stage Lighting Design. Objectives of stage lighting. 11 February 2008
Stanley, A. 1995-1996. “Shakespeare Examined through Performance.” 11 February 2008
Dunmore, S. 25 August 1999. Simon Dunmore’s Advice on How to Approach Rehearsals for a Play. 11 February 2008
Campsall, S. 2008. Write a Successful Play: Effects on the Audience. 12 February 2008
Sample Rehearsal Schedule. Tupelo Community Theatre. 13 February 2008.