Pearls in the Wave, a world premiere by Playwright-in-Residence Hongyi Tian, tells the story of Yun, a struggling novelist fed up with her mother’s incessant nagging to get married. When Yun brings home a “fake” boyfriend to assuage her parents, she embarks on a journey haunted by lies of the past and fears of the present.
But this production is much more than a story about a young Chinese woman frustrated by parent pressure. It’s also the result of a weeks-long collaboration between playwright and performers — and a unique opportunity for students to take part in the process of composing for, as well as performing, theatre.
“The play is, as designed, very much a work-in-progress being created by the ensemble, with the playwright as the collaborator-in-chief,” says Professor Peter Pauze, director and chair of the Department of Theatre.
“Most play scripts have already been produced hundreds, thousands, or even millions of times before. Our students are creating brand-new dramatic characters that no one has ever played before, to create a genuinely new work of theatre.”
“The process is inspiring, educational, and just plain lots of fun,” he adds. “Our rehearsals are active, lively, and highly collaborative.”
One reason the collaboration works so well? The playwright is both a sought-after international writer and a member of the Denison Class of 2013.
“Hongyi is someone who was ‘one of them’ not all that many years ago and has since gone on to great success.” says Pauzé.
Tian, a communication major, came to playwriting along a very liberal arts path. On a whim, he took part on the backstage operations of a theatre production. Finding he was drawn to theatre, Tian also discovered he had a natural proclivity for playwriting. Pauzé recalls, “Hongyi worked with both Professor Mark Bryan and me for his last two years here. He had talent.”
After graduation, Tian spent three years in the playwriting MFA program at Columbia University, studying with some of the best playwrights in the world. These included Tony award-winner David Henry Hwang and Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage.
Tian relocated to China and is a founding member of Theatre Above in Shanghai, one of the most prestigious theaters in China. With multiple original scripts produced there and at other top venues internationally, Tian has become the foremost translator of English language plays and theatre texts into Chinese, most recently completing the first-ever translation of Death of a Salesman into Chinese.
Tian returned to Denison under the auspices of the Jonathan R. Reynolds Distinguished Playwright-in-Residence program, which brings a major playwright to campus every two years to write an original play and teach playwrighting.
“When it came time to find our 11th Reynold’s playwright-in-residence, we immediately thought of Hongyi, even though we knew it was a long shot that he’d be able to take four months off from his busy schedule to join us in Granville,” says Pauzé. “Happily, he was so excited about the prospect of returning to Denison—and, in his own words, repaying us just a little for what we gave him—that he made the time.”
“Hongyi wrote Pearls in the Wave knowing and loving Denison, specifically for Denison students to perform. Although the characters populating the fictional world of the play are Chinese, Tian insisted that the roles should be open to any Denison student of any ethnicity, race, or nationality, noting that the family he portrays in this play is not exotic or foreign, but a human family that anyone from any culture on earth can relate to, root for, pity, and understand. Indeed, central to his mission has been to involve as many students as possible in the actual creation of this play.
More about the Jonathan R. Reynolds Distinguished Playwright-in-Residence program
Jonathan Reynolds, a member of the Denison Class of 1965, had successful career as a theatre, film, and television writer. He endowed a number of programs at Denison, including the Jonathan R. Reynolds Distinguished Playwright-in-Residence. Past Playwrights-in-Residence include Arnold Wesker, Lee Blessing, Arthur Kopit, and Denison alumnus Jeffrey Hatcher.