Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Last week’s post spoke to my participation in a marathon storytelling performance of Monkey: Journey to the West and of the workshops, reading and studying with Diane Wolkstein and colleagues in preparation for our production.

This previous experience made the viewing of Monkey: Journey to the West at Lincoln Center even more enjoyable. Because I was so familiar with the story and the characters, I was able to understand and flesh out parts that may have seemed flat or unclear to others. Just a sentence or two, or a setting or a prop, prompted my memory of the whole episode being portrayed. I was also able to watch with a professional storyteller’s eye. What choices were made with regard to story, episodes, characters, music, movement, colors, costumes and expressions? These were some of the same decisions with which Diane and we grappled.

Here are some of my impressions of the Lincoln Center production Monkey: Journey to the West by the creative team of Chen Shi-Zheng (concept, text and director), Damon Albarn (composer) and Jamie Hewlett (animation and costumes).


The production included animation, circus performers, martial arts battles as well as acting and singing. I loved this form. A live orchestra played in the pit, using some traditional Chinese instruments. The music composed for this production added much to the Chinese feel, and the live music brought the animation to a higher level. Although a colleague of mine hated the opening animation scene, I liked it. Hundreds of years passed by very clearly and led seamlessly to the live entrance of Monkey. I was taken right away with the live, loud drumbeats booming as the stone egg bounced off the mountain peaks. (In the Lincoln Center trailer cymbals are used- drums are much more effective.)

The other animated scene that worked well for me was Monkey’s trip to the Undersea Palace of the Dragon King. Again I felt to length of the journey and the depth of the sea. When the scrim lifted to the live scene on stage, I found I was holding my breath as if I were underwater.

I don’t know much about martial arts, but it certainly added to the battle scenes. One tended to meld into another for me, but that’s the same with the hundreds of battle scenes in the novel.

The circus pieces were colorful and fun to watch and though they may have added some to the mood on stage, I don’t think they added much to the story. But I don’t get to see the circus much and loved watching the rope-swingers, fire throwers, acrobats and contortionists. Again, it certainly added to the Chinese feel of the story.


I was glad to have spent time exploring the characters in depth before attending this production.

Dear Monkey King was delightful, naughty, audacious, irreverent and exciting. Diane would have loved the portrayal and probably would have ‘lifted’ bits of the performance. However, in the novel, Monkey reaches enlightenment only through much internal struggle and many mistakes, as we all d. At the end of this production Dear Monkey King is made Buddha because he was a great protector of the monk. But throughout the journey in the novel, Monkey grows in self-control, understanding and compassion. This aspect of his character was missing in this production.

The Monk, Tripitaka, was beautifully portrayed. The costume was perfect and the monk appeared calm and serene with much bowing and prostrations, but again I was a bit disappointed. I was able to embellish his shock and disbelief that Dear Monkey King would kill for any reason and then banish him, but the anguish is only hinted at and it is unclear how and why Monkey is forgiven and allowed to return as protector. And where was the trembling and crying? The monk is ALWAYS crying in the novel.

PIGSY was wonderful to see. My friend, Rita, will be happy to see Pigsy here. Diane debated for hours with herself and with others about whether to keep this character or gloss over him. She was still wrestling with this choice the last time I spoke with her.

GUAN YIN was the most unsatisfying portrayal of all. Such an ethereal, compassionate and central character in the novel, here she just floats in and out giving directions. I remember workshops where Joy Kelly (fellow storyteller) led us all, Diane included, in the embodiment of Guan Yin. Joy is the most graceful Guan Yin. We all became better Guan Yins because of her.


Here is where choices become even more important. How does one find the essence of an epic novel and craft it into an understandable and entertaining two hour performance?


The opening scenes of the novel are the most well-known part of the story. They stand alone as a complete tale and have been retold in many formats including picture books. Maybe this is why the opening was so easy to follow. As mentioned above, I loved the multi-media approach used in these scenes.


How to choose three episodes out of hundreds, that is the question. Diane Wolkstein was always struggling with this. I was present during many of her performances of this tale and watched her try out one episode or another. The choices portray different inner struggles on the path to enlightenment.

Chen Shi-Zheng chose three episodes in which the heroes confront strong, entrapping women:

·        White Skeleton Woman

·         Spider Woman

·         Princess Iron Fan

 All three episodes incorporated acrobats, circus acts and martial arts battles. Each scene was different and effective; though I’m glad I had some familiarity with the story.


The ending here was much too abrupt. Nothing in the preceding performance led to the bestowing of gifts from Buddha. The scene was beautiful and the characters looked so little in front of Buddha, but the story and episodes were nothing more than that, a string of episodes. In the end, the ‘journey’ was not felt.


I am so glad I saw this production at Lincoln Center. I wish Diane Wolkstein was here so I could discuss everything with her. I think she would have delighted in the playfulness and experimentation. I think she would have taken insights from the choices made. She would have disregarded what didn’t jive with her understanding of Journey.

I have learned much about myself and about storytelling through my work with Dear Monkey King and my work with Diane Wolkstein and fellow storytellers. There are a few episodes I remember friends performing. I’m going to look those up again right now.

Anyone else see the Lincoln Center production? I’d love to hear your reflections.

Julie DT

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Julie! How to find a tellable tale in a long story is a thing I have been struggling with for my whole career. I do think that one way is to pick theme and follow that thread through from beginning to end, as the author of this production seems to have done. The devil, as they say, is in the details and when you have to leave so many of them out, you risk changing or losing the focus of the tale.

    I would love to form a study group to work more on crafting manageable performance pieces out of epic tales. Anyone interested?