WHEN Stephen Pucci decided to do a degree in Modern Chinese Studies at Leeds University he had no particular career in mind. He had a talent for languages, had travelled extensively and was a great fan of both the practice of martial arts and films about them. China hadn’t yet become the global power it is today; to the 18-year-old, the course simply represented a new challenge and the exciting prospect of a year in China learning to speak Mandarin fluently.
When his ambitions later turned to acting, via amateur dramatic work while a student followed by an acting MA at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, he could barely have imagined that one day an opportunity would arise to marry his burgeoning career as a stage actor with his ability to speak Mandarin, in a role that would catapult him from small parts to a starring role in a Broadway play.
The cast of Chinglish has just celebrated its 100th performance at New York’s Longacre Theatre – quite an achievement for a straight play half spoken in Chinese, when most of the successful shows on Broadway are blockbuster musicals like Mamma Mia! and The Lion King.
“My path to this point has been what I’d call random,” says Stephen, who’s now 29. “As a student I’d acted in a number of productions, but after graduating I went and lived in Shanghai and got an internship followed by a reporting job with Reuters. In 2005, I came back to the UK to further my interest in the arts and media world, training as a reporter with the magazine Sight&Sound.
“I was still acting and performed in one small professional role. I thought about taking acting to another level and training to do it properly. One of the things that propelled me was that my stepfather had a stroke. It made me think carpe diem – seize the day.”
After the MA Stephen’s career followed the usual slow-burn path of gaining varied experience through small parts.
“I had been doing a lot of reading around the Asian American experience and, looking back, I think I was trying to make some sort of link between my experience of China and Mandarin and acting.”
At around the same time, the Pulitzer-nominated Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang (whose M Butterfly won a Tony Award) had written a new play called Chinglish. The play was to open in Chicago before transferring to Broadway, and casting directors on five continents had been alerted to find a white British actor who spoke Mandarin to take one of the three leading roles, that of an ex-pat British teacher/interpreter living in China.
Pucci didn’t about hear it until a friend from Leeds University who was working in China saw an email notice concerning the search. She emailed Stephen, who did a filmed audition in London before being called to Chicago to meet the director.
The play opened on Broadway on October 16, was roundly applauded by the critics and has made it onto the most prestigious lists of Broadway’s top shows, including Time magazine’s top three of the year.
“I’ve found it a real technical challenge,” says Stephen. “Half of the show is in Mandarin with subtitles in English, so the Chinese speakers in the audience respond when you says the lines in Chinese, and the rest laugh a few seconds later when they’ve read the translation. There’s also the question of not just getting the language right but of taking on the body language.
“My character has lived in China a long time and is the guide to the American who wants to start doing business there but is having a fairly calamitous time trying to understand how the country and the people work. I am not always reliable in what I tell him. I have to switch between the two personas and I often switch back and forth between languages within the same scene.
“Many of the Chinese people who’ve come to see the show have been very kind about my work. I did have to brush up my Mandarin and worked very hard at it with the help of a friend. It’s the kind of play that attracts quite a serious audience who are interested in geo-politics, so it is fantastic that it’s done so well.”
Chinglish is due to run until the end of January, and after that it may tour. In the meantime Stephen Pucci’s performance has drawn the interest of agents in the US.
“This has been an amazing, unforgettable experience, but I am also looking forward to being back in London and finding more work there. It’s too soon to talk about Hollywood and all that, but I’m open to anything – and maybe something else will come along that will use my unusual combination of skills.”