Interview: Shana Bestock on little Seattle Public Theater play taking on big China dissident politics
By Wen Liu May 26, 2016
When we say China watching, we do not usually think theaters, American theaters, not to say a local one like Seattle Public Theater. But that is about to change. Seattle Public Theater is presenting its fans with a new China-themed play, Caught, as the last show of its 2015-2016 Mainstage season. But the play does not just have any China theme, it is political China theme. It is also not just any political theme, but the very sensitive kind, of dissident, art, protest and prison. It was almost as if stumbling upon a quiet yet exciting conspiracy when walking into such an explosive show at the Bathhouse on the tranquil banks of Green Lake. What is going on? Why such a show, at this time? What is behind it? To solve this theatrical mystery on Chinese politics, we have Shana Bestock, Artistic & Education Director of Seattle Public Theater.
WCWD: Seattle Public Theater is putting on a new play, Caught, at the Bathhouse on Green Lake. It is a show that has to do with China, with the poster showing the image a blood red-stained face of a young Chinese male and backdrop images such as the Tiananmen crackdown. Could you tell the readers what the play is about?
Shana Bestock: There’s lots of twists and turns, so I don’t want to give too much away! But the gist of the story is this: An art gallery hosts a retrospective of the work of a legendary Chinese dissident artist who was imprisoned in a Chinese detention center for a single work of art. Recently profiled in The New Yorker, the artist himself is present, and shares with patrons the details of an ordeal that defies belief. A labyrinthine exploration of truth, art, social justice and cultural appropriation, where nothing is as it first appears.
WCWD: The show is very political, which is pretty rare, in terms of normal understanding of U.S.-China, or Washington state-China, relations mostly focused on trade, business, investment, education, etc. Why did your Theater choose this play?
Shana Bestock: I chose the play for several reasons - it spoke to me on a deeply personal level, I'm a huge fan of Chen's work, and it tapped into a number of issues and ideas that resonate with Seattle Public Theater's mission to share smart contemporary theater with diverse audiences. I was also profoundly influenced by Eric Liu’s memoir "A Chinaman's Chance", and wanted to do something to bring this perspective on cultural identity and appropriation to a wider audience. Ultimately, I simply felt the play fit beautifully with both our season and the zeitgeist.
WCWD: This month, May, marks the 50th anniversary of the catastrophic Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 1976. It is a topic many in America have been following while in China it is almost totally ignored or avoided. Did your Theater time the show for this special anniversary?
Shana Bestock: I confess the timing was purely fortuitous - it was the perfect play to close out our season, and the stars simply aligned. The media attention for the 50th anniversary, and the publication of many personal stories, has made the experience of Caught all the more rich and prismatic.
WCWD: Could you tell the readers a little bit about Christopher Chen, the playwright of Caught, and Jon Kretzu, the director? They seem to know a lot about China and Chinese politics.
Shana Bestock: I would hate to speak for either of them, and would rather send you to their websites! Here you can find a great deal about Christopher Chen, this incredibly talented young playwright. I also deeply enjoy reading his interviews in various publications – there’s a terrific dialogue here between him and another Asian American playwright.
Jon spent 20 years as the Artistic Director of Artist’s Rep in Portland, and is now freelancing around the globe. He’s a brilliant, perspicacious, artist – a curious mind, generous soul, and excellent craftsman. I knew this piece was unlike anything he’d ever done before, which was why I was so excited to have him direct.
WCWD: Before Caught, did your Theater have other shows with a Chinese theme or background, and will it plan to have more shows like Caught in the future to helps people in Seattle and Washington understand China?
Shana Bestock: We are committed to multicultural lenses, and will likely do more plays reflective of the Chinese and/or Chinese American experience in the future. Asian American playwrights previously seen on our stage include Julia Cho and A. Rey Pamatmat. Rolin Jones’ The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow and Julie Marie Myatt’s The Happy Ones were previous productions that also featured Asian American characters and themes.
(Caught runs through June 12. Click here for tickets and more info.)
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)