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Interview: Everyman Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi on Serendipity and ‘M. Butterfly’

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There’s a story circulating about Everyman Theatre’s Artistic Director, Vincent Lancisi, and it’s one of the best What I Did on My Summer Vacation yarns around. It involves two continents, 16,000 miles of air travel, and M. Butterfly – the production that opens Everyman’s 2017-18 season tonight at its lovely Bromo Arts and Entertainment District theater.

After closing Noises Off, Everyman’s final show of last season, Lancisi set out on a well-deserved vacation abroad. While traveling, Lancisi’s wife, Robin, was making friendly small talk with their driver / guide and discovered something startlingly unexpected. Their guide through the south of France was the former personal driver of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot, the man whose real-life story inspired the writing of M. Butterfly.

Bruce Randolph Nelson, Bernard Boursicot and Vincent Lancisi. Photo by Kiirstn Pagan / Everyman Theatre.

Through a series of equally remarkable and serendipitous events, Lancisi was back on a plane to France within a month – this time, at the invitation of Bernard Boursicot. And Lancisi was not alone. Also invited to visit Boursicot’s home were a small number of Everyman colleagues, including Bruce Randolph Nelson – the resident company member cast in the role of Rene Gallimard, the character based on Bernard Boursicot himself. (You can read a firsthand account of the experience by Laura Weiss, the Everyman administrative staff member on the trip, here.)

I was able to grab a couple minutes of Lancisi’s time to find out more about M. Butterfly and its auspicious path to the Everyman stage.

Vincent Lancisi. Photo by Kiirstn Pagan / Everyman Theatre.

Patricia: There’s been a fair amount of serendipity going on since you announced this production of M. Butterfly!

Vincent Lancisi: It’s funny — for a story about deception and betrayal, the intervention of fate has certainly been on Everyman’s side! And talk about staying power — David Henry Hwang penned M. Butterfly nearly 30 years ago and it’s a love story that pulls no punches, packing just as much impact today (if not more) than when it was first produced. There’s no question why M. Butterfly won the Tony Award for Best Play. Be prepared to feel stirred, allured, dazzled, and astonished, all in one sitting. It’s a sweeping, grand way to usher in our 2017/18 Season, and perhaps the most epic, expansive production that Everyman has ever staged.

What inspired you to select M. Butterfly to open Everyman Theatre’s 2017-18 Season?

M. Butterfly has long been on our short-list, and when we secured the rights for this season and programmed it as the season opener, we had no idea that Julie Taymor and Clive Owen would be behind a Broadway revival that turned out to be opening within weeks of our production. We hope they know that Everyman is a tough act to follow — ha!

How did your series of fortunate events in France affect you and Bruce as you prepared for this production of M. Butterfly?

We had the unbelievable fortune of meeting Bernard Boursicot personally — the real-life man who inspired the character Rene Gallimard — and it’s important to note how fundamentally that influenced our interpretation of the play. Our appreciation of the material was informed further by having met Bernard and hearing what transpired from his perspective. Through nuanced embellishments, I think we’ve married the detailed intimacy of a keenly observed character study with the visual scale and scope of an operatic epic, resulting in a production of M. Butterfly unlike any seen before.

Chu Shan Zhu. Photo courtesy of Washington Chu Shan Chinese Opera Institute.

How did the extraordinary Chu Shan Zhu become involved in this production of M. Butterfly? In what ways has the production benefitted from his participation?

Being introduced to Chu Shan Zhu was truly a godsend. A renowned Peking Opera playwright and Director of the Washington Chu Shan Chinese Opera Institute, he brought unprecedented expertise to the choreography of M. Butterfly. He also provided additional consulting for cultural accuracy; it’s truth and authenticity in performance that we, as artists, are always digging deeper and deeper for.

Look for the thrilling Cultural Revolution reenactment scene as one prime example of Chu Shan’s fine touch. The conflict of that moment in history is brought front and center through a highly stylized, choreographed scene that employs martial arts, flags, weaponry, and outbursts of light and sound to bring the magnitude of the dangers and politics of that day into the foreground with magnificent effect.

Have there been other collaborators of note on M. Butterfly

So many! Yu-Hsuan Chen, whose acclaimed design for Great Expectations at Everyman Theatre was among last season’s highlights, spearheaded the scenic vision and set design of M. Butterfly, transforming the stage almost instantaneously from Paris prison to French embassy to Chinese opera house (and more), capturing each with blazing color contrasts and grand, cinematic flourishes.

Costume Designer Eric Abele (whom I just worked with on Noises Off) added even further authenticity, integrating vintage kimono fabrics, cultural symbolism, and period fashion detail into each character’s dress. Other collaborators include Jay Herzog (Lighting), Jillian Mathews (Props), Adam Mendelson (Projection), Anne Nesmith (Wigs), Fabian Obispo (Sound and Composition), Steve Satta (Dialects), and Lewis Shaw (Fight Choreography). It takes a full house behind-the-scenes to pull off a production this spectacular!

M. Butterfly plays through October 8, 2017 at Everyman Theatre – 315 West Fayette Street, in Baltimore. For tickets, visit the box office or purchase them online.

NOTE:
This production uses theatrical haze, cigarettes, strobe lights and contains nudity. The running time is approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.

PARKING:
Available across the street at the Atrium Garage. The cost is $11.00 for those attending the theater.

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