A colorful composite sketch of the set for The Chinese Lady

The Design Inspiration of The Chinese Lady

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If you are in theatre design, you really should consider your job title. Authority. Craftsperson. Expert. Guru. Wizard. And maybe most aptly, jack of all trades.

For, you see, theatre designers aren’t just good with a pencil, sewing machine, lighting instrument or paintbrush. No. They often have to be a researcher, historian, fashion designer, art critic, interior designer…a veritable cinematographer charged with the art of visual storytelling.

In asking for insight into the design of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady, which opens the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2022/23 season, a treasure trove of 1800s Chinese history was provided.

The Chinese Lady recounts the true story of 14-year-old Afong Moy, a young woman from China who was brought to America in 1834 by two salesmen. Believed to have been the first Chinese woman to set foot in the country, she was displayed in cities across the U.S. to drum up interest in Chinese imports.

In order to guide the designers’ creativity, the playwright does provide some direction, though he gives quite a bit of latitude saying:

The Room is a box placed in the center of the larger stage. Outside the box, the stage is unadorned. Inside the box, it is ornate, decorated with various types of Chinoiserie. Watercolor paintings, vases, curtains, silks, furniture, etc. She wears a traditional Chinese gown, and jade or lacquered jewelry in her hair. She begins the scene seated.

This direction sets up what is known as a play within a play. Now, the designers’ work begins.

Costume Sketches for The Chinese Lady by Costume Designer Meghan Anderson Doyle

For costume designer Meghan Anderson Doyle, it’s not enough to know fashion or even more specifically Chinese fashion from the mid-1800s. Instead, newspaper articles, sketches, poetry and correspondence help paint a picture of this heretofore unknown woman. From the ancient practice of foot binding to elaborate hairstyles and fashionable colors, Meghan used period portraits, illustrations and books to inform the costume design.

Scenic Sketches for The Chinese Lady by Scenic Designer Alan E. Muraoka

Similarly, scenic designer Alan E. Muraoka first looked to the script and then to museums, books, and paintings for inspiration. Stage directions and dialogue indicate that Afong Moy was from a well-to-do Chinese family, which helps inform how her home may have appeared and literally sets the stage.

Scenic design alone does not complete the ambiance. Research was done on wallpaper, furniture, and home décor of the period. These details are provided to the construction, prop, and paint teams. Some items may be located in the Theatre Company’s extensive storage warehouse. Others may be purchased, but, as is often the case with many period pieces, items may have to be created by a team of artisans whose expertise is on full display.

The physical items on the stage are not enough to tell a story. Sound and lighting design are critical to setting the mood and furthering the plotline. Take the sound, for instance. Sound Designer André Pluess can use sound effects and music to express a period of time, foreign influences and the response of audiences to Afong Moy’s demonstration of Chinese customs. Lighting Designer Charles MacLeod can give a sense of space, shift the audience’s focus, and evoke emotions ranging from intrigue and curiosity to sadness and joy.

The extent to which the design team researches the period leads to historical accuracy, which is overseen by Director Seema Sueko and authenticated by Dramaturg Katherine Chou. Design sketches are reviewed for accuracy, function and style. Each element contributes to the mood that is demanded by the script and essential to the story’s connection with the audience.

The initial intent is to transport patrons to 1834 as part of the audience watching a traveling novelty show. Then, the crowd will be drawn back to see the play within a play and its tolls on Afong Moy as America itself is put on display.

The Chinese Lady
Sep 9 – Oct 16 • Singleton Theatre