A Q&A With "M. Butterfly" Director Desdemona Chiang

Tania Thompson
 | Apr 23, 2019
Desdemona Chiang

Director Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Steve Korn.

David Henry Hwang’s award-winning M. Butterfly came about as the result of a newspaper story that caught the playwright’s attention. The true-life tale that inspired Hwang was about a career French foreign service officer brought to ruin by his 20-year affair with a Beijing Opera diva.

“Though written 30 years ago, few contemporary plays speak so profoundly to America’s current situation in the world as does David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.”

DC Metro Theater Arts

Much as Hwang was drawn to the news story, Desdemona Chiang is drawn in by Hwang’s striking play. She first read the script as an undergraduate and ​then saw the 2017 Broadway revival. This production of M. Butterfly marks her directorial debut at South Coast Repertory and concludes the 2018-19 season on the Segerstrom Stage.

Chiang is based in Ashland, Ore., and Seattle, where she is a founder and co-artistic director of Azeotrope. Her directing credits include Guthrie Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Repertory Theatre, ​Pittsburgh Public Theatre and Baltimore Center Stage. She read M. Butterfly as an undergraduate and saw the 2017 Broadway revival.

In this Q&A, she talks about the play and what it says to her.

What are some key parts of the narrative around this play?
M. Butterfly is a play about the allure of exceptionalism and the lengths a person will go to achieve and preserve it​, as well as issues of gender, cultural stereotypes and the ongoing tensions between East and West.

Tell us about René Gallimard.
He is a man who was unremarkable and inconsequential his entire life, until he met a woman that made him feel like the most important person in the world. Every human is the center of their universe, but here in the West, we are particularly concerned with our own sense of exceptionalism. We tend to say, ‘Bad stuff happens in life, but not to me’ or ‘I know he’s like that with other people, but I’m different.’ That feeling of exceptionalism, of uniqueness, of rare singularity, is very, very hard to let go of. And sometimes, we’d rather persist in a fantasy where we reign in perfection and beauty than to face the fact that the world is messy, where suffering is actually more painful than romantic, and we are merely average. This play shows us how long someone can persist in a fabricated reality in the interest of self-preservation.

Talk a little bit about the setting.
The play itself is set largely in China during the Cultural Revolution, one of the deadliest sociopolitical movements of the 20th century, yet it's setting shields us from the poverty and oppressive uniformity that was pervasive at the time. It takes place in a country populated by one-billion Chinese people, in a culture of collectivism, yet we are centered and protected in largely western-centric spaces—embassy offices, diplomat homes, cocktail parties and, most of all, in Gallimard’s mind. Even Song’s modest apartment is a haven from the dirty and impoverished streets. We—the audience—are mostly immune to the horrors and dangers of what is happening to the native people throughout the country. It serves as a dramatic backdrop for a forbidden romance filled with intrigue, but it never feels like we’re truly in it, at least not in a way that’s endangering or threatening.

Why is this play important to be produced now?
For a while, I kept asking myself why I was directing this play in 2019. I wholeheartedly agree that this play is a kind of love story, but it is also a warning to those who are willfully ignorant to the totality of the world they live in. We’re living in a climate of confirmation bias and polarizing assumptions that are proving more and more dangerous with each passing day. We consume information that supports our world view ​but, at the same time, we reject ideas that contradict our most deeply held beliefs, even when evidence may show otherwise. As society becomes more interconnected, intersectional and, yes, complicated, we cannot afford to persist in self-affirming confirmation bias where we refuse to see the whole picture.

What do you hope the experience will be for audiences?
I hope they will be moved by the arc of the story. This is a play that does ask some hard questions, such as ‘Should I trust everything that I see?’ or ‘Will I benefit from talking with people who don’t see the world the way I do?’ This is a play that is beautiful, invigorating and exciting and I hope that’s also what will move audiences.

Learn more about M. Butterfly and buy tickets.