A Story of Love and Friendship
Natsu Onoda Power Discusses The White Snake and Mary Zimmerman
February 8, 2017—Natsu Onoda Power is a creative force who is hard to classify. The Washington, DC-based artist is an author, playwright, adapter, director, designer, illustrator, and professor.
She recently directed Wind Me Up, Maria! A Go-Go Musical at Georgetown University; The T Party (which she also wrote) at Forum Theatre and Company One Theater Boston; A Trip to the Moon (which she wrote and illustrated) at Synetic Theatre; and the Elliot Norton Award-winning Astro Boy and the God of Comics (which she wrote) at Studio Theatre and Company One Theatre.
As an associate professor in Georgetown’s Theater and Performance Studies program, she has staged adaptations of non-dramatic texts, such as War with the Newts by Karel Capek, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault.
She is also the author of God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post World War II Manga.
Taking the Director’s Chair in a Brand New Theater
At Baltimore Center Stage, Natsu is directing The White Snake. As the first production in the re-designed Head Theater, the show marks the grand re-opening of the historic building after a $28 million renovation.
Originating from the ancient Chinese fable and adapted for the stage by Mary Zimmerman, The White Snake tells the story of animal spirits White Snake and Green Snake, who take human form as a beautiful woman and her sly servant. White Snake soon falls passionately in love with a poor pharmacist’s assistant, but their relationship is reviled by a conservative monk and tragedy lurks behind their newfound happiness.
Here, Natsu discusses her approach to directing The White Snake and her relationship with Mary Zimmerman.
What is your vision for the production?
I just want to serve this beautiful play. One thing that’s important is that we don’t make it precious or entirely exotic. We need to relate to this story.
Mary Zimmerman—recipient of a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship, the 2002 Tony Award for Best Director of a Play, and numerous Jeff Awards—is a mentor of yours. What is it like to work with her? What have you learned most?
She knows me better than most people in the world; she has known me since I was 20 years old. She is someone I always turn to if I have any kind of personal, professional, or artistic dilemma. Ironically, I haven’t really worked with her in a professional context. Most of our interactions have been as friends who miraculously share the same values and sentiments about a lot of things, despite our differences in background.
How does your relationship with Mary influence your work on The White Snake?
The story of Mary and myself is like the story of White Snake and Green Snake. Mary is the White Snake to my Greenie, who says to White Snake in the play: “I have hundreds of years before I reach your level.” I admire her and love her, and at the same time she is my best friend. I can tell her everything without ever worrying about her judging me—she knows my deepest and darkest secrets!
The White Snake is based on an ancient Chinese fable—how do you make this story relevant to audiences today?
This, to me, is a story of love, friendship (friendship that may even be greater and more profound than romantic love), and about seeing someone and recognizing not only who they are but who they can be. All these themes are not culturally specific. The power of this story is that it transcends everything that divides us, culturally, historically, politically. It is important to me, however, that we do not simply call the story “universal”— because that sounds like a move to ignore all cultural specificity and differences. It is the opposite: the characters clearly see their differences, and still make the commitment to love the other person, whatever it entails.
I love how this play is structured, and I think it says something important: it is about seeing a story from many different perspectives and accepting them all, even if they are incongruent with each other; it is also about not affixing an “end” to any story, but letting it continue to unfold.
You’re something of a Renaissance Woman—director, writer, designer, instructor—how does your experience writing and designing affect your approach to directing?
I feel so very thankful that the world has allowed me to dabble in it all. I do think my design background (and my lack of experience/confidence in the “acting” department) profoundly informs the way I direct. I am comfortable thinking in terms of “stage pictures”—I give really straightforward, technical, and simple directions, like “say this line twice as fast, emphasize this word at volume 8, and start crossing to stage right on this word and land on this word.” But I am not very good at using the language of “acting.”
Last year, I was having dinner with Mary, and I was talking about some other play I was directing. I expressed my insecurity about directing “acting.” She said: “You know, it’s the difference between being a master violin teacher and being a conductor of an orchestra. You don’t have to teach them how to do it, you just tell them what to do in the context.” That greatly relieved me. I just trust actors to use their craft, access their inner worlds, and bring their characters to life.
You’re based in DC and teach at Georgetown—have you worked in Baltimore before? What are you most looking forward to in working with Baltimore Center Stage?
I have done small workshops, but this is my first time working on a full production in Baltimore. I am looking forward to discovering new communities, new neighborhoods, and new places to eat.
Your production of The White Snake is the introduction to the new Head Theater at Center Stage. How does it feel to be the first director in the space?
I am deeply honored and nervous! It’s been delightful so far to work with our talented design team, and to assemble the wonderful cast.