US ‘Shawshank’ IP adapted to Chinese play to convey art’s spirit free of cultural difference
A true debut
Published: Dec 17, 2023 10:13 PM
Actor Andy Friend (left), who plays Greg Stammas in the play  Photo: Courtesy of Longma Entertainment

Actor Andy Friend (left), who plays Greg Stammas in the play Photo: Courtesy of Longma Entertainment

Featuring performers from foreign countries such as Canada, the US and Russia, the Chinese adaption of the widely celebrated cultural IP - The Shawshank Redemption is in sprinted rehearsals in Beijing and is planned to debut in January 2024 in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing. 

The upcoming Chinese show will likely become the most "unprecedented" adaption of the classic story since all foreign performers are going to deliver the repertoire completely in Chinese. 

At the rehearsal, the line "You are a big shot" has been practiced numerous times by actor Andy Friend as an intro to the hero Andy Dufresne's debut. The line is both iconic and symbolic, thus the painstaking efforts made in producing this short scene as it is rehearsed again and again. 

'You are a big shot' 

"A double-edged sword" is how Zhang Guoli, the play's director, describes his "all westerners" crew arrangement. On the one hand, choosing an all-foreign cast maintains what he calls the "authentic feeling of the Western story." On the other hand, he seeks to bring the story's profound implications on humanity closer to Chinese audiences through their own culture.  

The Chinese version of The Shawshank Redemption follows the story's original narrative given by Stephen King in his 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.

It features several important roles, including the narrator "Red" played by Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who is better known by his Chinese name Da Shan. US actor Friend plays the corrupted warden Greg Stammas along with two other villainous antagonists "Rooster" played by Shawn Patrick Moore and "Hadley" interpreted by actor Matt William Knowles.  

Due to the strict language and performing requirements, the actor who would be playing the hero "Andy" was almost decided upon at the very last minute, to which Australian actor James Clarke joined the cast at the midway, heading to the rehearsal right after landing in China. Clarke effectively had less than two months to perfect his performance. 

"We need him to make the play complete," Knowles told the Global Times. Friend who sat beside him added that Clarke is now "truly a big shot" meant to save the whole game. Friend is better known by his Chinese name An Di. 

Despite all these actors being extremely fluent in Chinese, how deft they are at using the language in their everyday lives have appeared to be less relevant to its applicability in the artistic performance. 

Director Zhang Guoli (left) and actor Shawn Patrick Moore Photo: Courtesy of Longma Entertainment

Director Zhang Guoli (left) and actor Shawn Patrick Moore Photo: Courtesy of Longma Entertainment

In less than 20 minutes of rehearsal, the scene opening with the line "You are a big shot" was halted by the director for at least five times, during which, Zhang paid a great deal of attention to guide actors to find the right tones, emotions and even micro-expressions. 

Such a dedication made actors like Da Shan and Clarke feel challenged, and yet, what they have felt more have been Chinese artists' spirits for always seeking to give the best possible show to audiences. 

While the intense group rehearsal goes on from 1:00 pm to 8:00 pm six days a week, each actor has managed to find their own rehearsal times, especially to gain a deeper understanding of the "complexity of the characters." 

Taking "Hadley" as an example, Knowles told the Global Times that the "virtue and vice" in him isn't overt; the ­villain also has his own fragility. The role is only one character in this whole play meant to reveal life's profundity is always accompanied by setbacks and hopes. The longing for freedom will guide one's path out of his or her predicaments. 

"The spirit of the story is also what we wanted to deliver to Chinese ­audiences," Moore said. 

Knowles added that the spirit of theater is essential to all casts in coordination. 

'A good platform' 

Prior to joining this play, many of these actors were Chinese culture lovers and had lengthy experience living in China. Their deep connections to the country have not only helped their careers, but also provided them with more wisdom to bridge Western and Chinese cultures through art. 

Having first debuted in China as a performer of Xiangsheng (lit: Chinese cross talk) in 1989, Da Shan is one of the foreign faces that are most familiar to Chinese audiences. With his talent in Chinese folk culture, the Canadian star delivers a message about the charm of Chinese culture as it starts to gain popular in Western societies. 

Over the last 30 years, Da Shan has lived in China and joined diverse local cultural shows like Chinese plays and variety shows. Such experiences led him to discover the harmony between Chinese and Western cultures. He told the Global Times that a lot of universal virtues like the "family love" are shared by both and are seen in both contexts, and what is needed the most is to make "people realize the consensus between China and the West," he noted. 

Under the shadow of COVID-­19 in 2020, Da Shan's career in China was paused, yet his love for Chinese classic poetry continues, so he installed a little ­recording studio at home and uploads short videos about Chinese culture online that have attracted many Western audiences. "Since the most difficult time has passed, I'm planning to launch on-site shows featuring Chinese classic poetry. This is not only my job but also my mission too," Da Shan said. 

Similar to Da Shan, Friend, who is a Beijing-born ­American, has appeared in several Chinese blockbusters like The Wandering Earth and The Battle at Lake Changjin. Over the years of gained experience in the Chinese film industry, the veteran actor told the Global Times that he has witnessed more and more Chinese films are starting to consider "Western faces as an important part for its narrative design." 

Compared with Da Shan and An Di, younger Western artists like Moore and Knowles have also been able to find their unique footing to become a musician and stage actor respectively while embracing the Chinese art scene. 

"I cherish my career in China and I think I can find a lot of good platforms here," Knowles emphasized. 

The show is being co-produced by the China Dream Live Entertainment and the Longma Entertainment.