Kate Robards is blonde and white, and she is about to play some Chinese people. Should we be worried?
“No!” she says. “It’s not that kind of show. And it’s embarrassing for a whole bunch of other reasons instead.”
In her solo show Mandarin Orange, which premieres at Fringe this month, Kate details the strange and surprising ways that moving to Shanghai — after a childhood in rural Texas — took culture shock to a whole new level. Now she’s back, sharing stories from her journey.
Kate brings a variety of characters to life, including her Southern mother. “She still lives in Orange, Texas, and she’s full of weird country sayings, like: ‘Telling a girl to calm down is like trying to baptize a cat!’ Everything she says is funny.”
Playing her Shanghai friends is, of course, quite different. “I don’t want to just be some white girl doing Chinese people,” she says. “So I try to make fun of myself and my situation along the way. I remember meeting a coworker and complimenting her on her English. She responded that of course her English is good — everyone in the office speaks it fluently. Great. So if I hadn’t made it clear that I was American from my inability to speak Mandarin, I definitely clarified things by being super-impressed by my friend’s English. To her face. Ouch.”
Kate also finds herself among a group of Americans called The Shanghai Dolls. “These are expat women living in Shanghai who have traveled the world but still eat at Western chain restaurants. So, there are several communities inside this larger new world that I’m finding my way through.”
From the outset, it was clear to Kate that comedy is key. “I’m thinking of one scene in particular, which I wrote as a dramatic piece, that I shared with some friends last month. I wrote it as a serious, dramatic scene about a day in Shanghai when nothing went right for me — I get puked on by a stranger in the crosswalk, then I order a coffee with soy and get served coffee with soy sauce — but they thought it was hilarious. Just goes to show that your troubles get a lot funnier once you’re past them.”
It doesn’t hurt that Kate’s spent time developing Mandarin Orange with Obie Award-winning performer Dael Orlandersmith and with actress and comedian Lauren Weedman (HBO’s Looking). “My show is a blend of their two very different styles,” says Kate, who recently did a solo-performance workshop with Orlandersmith through Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco. “Dael is all about creating serious monologues to get at humor in unexpected ways.”
“Lauren, on the other hand, does most of her work through improvisation,” she adds. That friendship dates back to 2011, when Weedman performed her solo show Bust at Studio Theatre, where Kate was working. “I was in awe of her energy. She has an over-the-top ability to find humor in anything.”
From two very different teachers, Kate learned a lesson in authenticity. “I wanted to make sure that the stories I’m telling are in my own voice, and that the characters I play are characters I know well.”
Before long she’d created “a ton of vignettes.” And with hours of scenes, suddenly a 50-minute run time didn’t seem so intimidating. “I created some really fun stuff that I wasn’t able to include in the finished show,” she says. “It’s sad to see some it go, but I wrote a ton of material, so I should have seen that coming.”
So what does it all boil down to?
“The stories that get passed down through families,” she says. “Those stories about our roots that we always carry with us. I put a lot of stock in those. And I’m really interested in how they influence us throughout life. So I hope that audiences get thinking about how their own roots have influenced them.”
Mandarin Orange is onstage at Caos on F, 923 F Street NW, Washington, DC
Performances are: July 19 at 4pm, July 20 at 9:30pm, July 22 at 8pm
July 24 at 6pm and July 26 at 10pm
Details and tickets or call 866-811-4111.
Follow Kate on Twitter — and share with her your own stories of home — at @katerobards.
— written by Hunter Styles, who shares the experience of world travel with Kate.