A classic legend that renders a story of love, courage and truth will travel from ancient myths and traditional oral storytelling to an adaptation set for the stage.
This weekend, School of Music, Theatre & Dance Senior Gregory Strasser directs Mary Zimmerman’s “The White Snake” as his senior thesis.
“The White Snake” tells the story of a serpent spirit who transforms into human form as a beautiful woman and travels to the mortal world with her friend Green Snake. Eventually, she falls in love and the play embarks on a journey of romance, exploring our inherent desire as humans to give and receive love. White Snake, played by SMTD junior Shenell McCrary must find the strength to seek something she has never before found — someone who accepts her and loves her fully for who she is.
“It is a timeless romance, because the entire play is about being seen for who you truly are,” Strasser said.
“The White Snake” originally premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and later at the McCarter Theater in Princeton. It is an adaptation of an ancient Chinese legend, but has been reimagined for the American stage. As the story has evolved over time and moved through different places, the characters have changed, but the fundamental theme of the importance of love is woven through every piece of this tale.
“What the playwright has done in this particular adaptation is show that she wants to honor all the different interpretations of ‘The White Snake,’” Strasser said. “Throughout the play, the narrators will pause the action and they’ll say ‘that’s one way the story could have gone, but here’s another way the story could go too.’ ”
The play’s visual landscape forms through the characters’ creations, rather than a complex design for the set, costumes and props.
“We are trying to find as many things to touch into the magic of theatricality, without having to rely on the magic of technicality,” Strasser said. “Everything we are trying to do is generated by the actors.”
How much the cast has managed to create is remarkable.
“Together, the ensemble has built a boat, a cloud, a labyrinth, a thousand-hand goddess, two gigantic snakes; choreographed a battle between the elements; and found a way to physicalize a forest and a storm,” Strasser said.
He explained that these creations have emerged because he has taken a step back and has left the actors with the opportunity to create, the product of this freedom has been incredibly rewarding for Strasser and the cast. Beyond the visual elements of this show, they grapple with complex themes and questions that Zimmerman’s script offers.
“There’s actually one really magical line in the play that I think sums up the author’s intent really well, which is ‘all forking paths lead to the same destination,’” Strasser said. “You can make so many different choices in your life that no matter what, at the end of the day you’re going to reach the destination.”
Strasser’s decision to direct this play for his thesis came from traditions of his childhood, as this Chinese legend was one of his bedtime stories. When he shared this with his mom, who is an immigrant from China, her response sparked Strasser’s analysis of a central question in this piece: who has the power to tell this story?
“She said, ‘You know you have to use Chinese people in it, because it’s a Chinese story.’ I wasn’t totally in agreement with that,” Strasser said. “I understand if you’re going to tell a story from a certain perspective, especially if it has racial identity as a major theme of it, then you better cast it that way. But in this case, racial identity isn’t the theme of this show. The theme of the show is love. And everybody can experience love.”
Strasser’s inclusion of different identities and voices has helped him preserve the fundamental truth of this play: that love is available to all. This story showcases its beauty in many forms. The cast emphasizes that everyone has the right to tell a story and everyone has the right to hear a story. This piece unites all people through these differences.
“The reason I love this play is that it demonstrates the universality of human spirit, which is that we want to be loved and we want to be truthful about how we are loved,” Strasser said. “You don’t need to be Chinese to be that. You don’t need to be anything to be that. That is just a human thing.”
Overall Strasser said his directing experience was both rewarding and exciting, including experimentation with different ideas and perspectives and an honest look into some of the most beautiful and painful aspects of the journey to find love.
“There are so many people who are so afraid of being seen as who they truly are and I think it’s the most courageous thing that you can do to come out and say: ‘Love me and take me as I am,’ ” Strasser said. “And it’s even more courageous for the person to respond and say: ‘I do love you.’ ”