Theater In Dialogue
Leaping Between Disciplines and the Lives of Artists with Ran Xia
“Why horses?” This question recurs in Ran Xia’s play, In Blue, and throughout the play it is answered in numerous, enigmatic, fascinating ways. In Blue theatrically explores a number of actual relics: 28 postcards; letters sent before, during, and after World War I; and five painted horses, painted as part of the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc’s masterpiece The Tower of Blue Horses (1913). There is also Yusef, a prince of Thebes. The play appears to span time and death, moving further and further into the realm of the imaginary.
Written and directed by Xia, and featuring Alyssa Simon and Finn Kilgore, In Blue dramatizes the special friendship between Marc and writer Else Lasker-Schüler around World War I. Marc’s art captures the exuberance, creativity, and hope of childhood while also hinting at something a little nightmarish; his paintings seem both simple and filled with emotion. Else Lasker-Schüler’s work consists of poetry, short stories, essays, and plays. She often wrote about love, but also wrote about religion and spirituality. A particular phrase from her poem “An Old Tibetan Rug” stirred me: “Your soul/which loves my own/Is woven with it into an old Tibetan rug.” Delicious. She fled Nazi Germany and spent the remainder of her life in Jerusalem; throughout her life, she irreverently proclaimed herself the “Prince of Thebes”.
Xia is an interdisciplinary artist—she writes, directs, paints, and even plays the piano! Also, she bakes. I spoke with Xia during a break from a rehearsal at which she’d baked a cake for the ensemble. “I like to bring a cake if it’s a long rehearsal,” she said. This generosity of spirit appears to be a feature of Xia’s collaborations and is present in a play that serves as a meditation on the potential of art and friendship to create change.
Xia’s interdisciplinary background was evident throughout my experience with her—from her decision to write a play about the convergence of two creative people working in different mediums, to her musical selection accompanying a brief physical warm-up for actors [Lauryn Hill’s “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” and “Time Is The Enemy” by Quantic were notable], the play’s dynamic staging, and a delightfully old lantern used as a prop. During a brief break, she discussed how she might make a gun prop for the show from cardboard. After watching the run-through, I thought to myself, “Well, why not, horses?” Really, why not?
What follows is curated from our conversation:
Amina Henry (Rail): What would you like people to know before seeing In Blue?
Xia: I'd want people to know that this is not a biographical play. Franz Marc and Else Lasker-Schüler are both real people, real artists, and the play is based on their correspondence, but this is not a play about their lives. It’s about when their lives converged. Somehow it made sense to me.
Rail: What do you feel the show is about?
Xia: I keep telling people, jokingly and not jokingly, that this play is about me because I very much relate to Else Lasker-Schüler’s experience of not having a sense of security when she was being exiled from Germany. I’m on an O-1 visa, and for the most recent one I got in 2017 I waited for 11 months. I wrote the play in 2015, on and off, but the majority of the rewrites happened during those 11 months. I think a lot of my own life and my own insecurity about whether I’m going to get deported went into the play. The play deals with how in current times, if you are a minority, if you are a woman, you don’t necessarily have a strong sense of security in this country. Also, being an artist and a writer, I think it’s difficult to decide what your role is. There is a lack of certainty when you’re navigating through life, but there can also be an allyship amongst other artists.
Rail: What questions are you asking in the play?
Xia: What is the use of art? What is the use of pushing the boundaries of our creativity? Does art have any sort of influence on people’s minds and on society as a whole?
A lot of the times the things we do don’t feel concrete as artists. I was seeing a lot of parallels between now and World War I era Germany when everyone was thinking about nonsense and somehow one group of people thought war might be a good thing.
Rail: What was your inspiration for In Blue?
Xia: Both my parents are visual artists. My father is an oil painter and my mom does illustrations. I grew up doing acrylic paintings and life drawings. Visual art has always been a part of me. I was imitating a lot of Franz Marc’s work in my own work. The Tower of Blue Horses was one of my favorite paintings. It’s a massive painting that was painted in 1913, but it was either destroyed or stolen in1945 when it was included in the degenerate art exhibit that Hitler curated. I thought it was one of the most moving images I've ever encountered.
I found 28 postcards that Franz Marc painted to a Prince Yusef, and from that I discovered Else Lasker-Schüler. The more I uncovered their relationship and their story, the more dominant she became in this world. As a mirror for each other, Franz and Else represent a convergence of style and thought.
The play Dear Elizabeth by Sarah Ruhl was also an inspiration, structurally. [Note: Dear Elizabeth maps the friendship between two poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, as illustrated through hundreds of letters.]
Rail: You’re an interdisciplinary artist—you’re a writer, a director, a visual artist, and a sound designer! Do you think of yourself more one thing than the other, or do you not think that way at all?
Xia: I very rarely think of it that way, but I think I started as a writer first. I consider writing more of a career that I’m trying to pursue and directing more as a technical passion that I enjoy and hope to refine. I enjoy directing my own work. With someone else’s work I try to defend every last bit of it, but with my own work I can be less precious.
Rail: Can you tell me more about your creative process?
Xia: I think storytelling is first. Form needs to follow content. I usually go with an idea and decide what form it needs to be. I’m pretty dramaturgically inclined so I need to read at least 20 books on a subject, especially if I’m writing about something historical. I build a Spotify playlist as soon as I start writing a play so I can write with music that inspires me in the background. I process things musically—I’ve played piano since I was five or six. I hated playing it at first, but now I love it.
Rail: What does collaboration mean to you? You seem like a pretty collaborative artist.
Xia: I hope I am!… The rehearsal process is pretty collaborative. I trust actors more than I trust myself because they don’t have my blind spots when it comes to the script. I trust them more than I trust myself, and I’m asking them to trust me more than they trust themselves. Actors constantly have new interpretations of what I wrote, and when that happens it excites me. Something magical can happen with actors bringing my texts to life. And I am working with some truly brilliant people.
Rail: Are there certain themes that you tend to return to in your work?
Xia: Immigrants. Many of my plays are about people finding roots and foundations. Also, subjects of memory and loss. Memories are important to me. It might be because both of my grandparents on my dad’s side had Alzheimer’s towards the end of their lives, so I think I subconsciously return to that and them in my work.
Rail: How did you come to the theater? Why theater?
Xia: I was a little bit of a performer when I was growing up, and then I got really shy in high school. I went to college for psychology, and I was really involved in school theater. In grad school for Communications and Media Studies, my mentor told me that I could write a play instead of writing a normal thesis so I wrote a play about Lord Byron. I submitted the play to Dixon Place, and they asked me if I wanted to do a staged reading of it. After that, I turned to theater full-time. Theater was always a part of my life growing up, but I just never considered it as a career. But it just really fits. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Rail: What is theater to you?
Xia: It’s a mirror and a window. It’s the mirror of reality, an elevated version, but at the same time I think it needs to open a window and give you hope. It’s an artform that makes me want to be a better person. Nowadays, I only want to see theater that makes me want to be a better person, and I only want to make theater that makes me feel like I’m becoming a better person. Theater should reflect reality and work against viciousness and hold a light.
In Blue, written and directed by Ran Xia, will be presented at The Tank (312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Ave), December 4-15. For tickets and further information: https://thetanknyc.org.