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Broadway veteran fascinated by Chinese chariot

By RENA LI in Los Angeles | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-04-18 09:41

Don Frantz brings China's south-pointing chariot to the theater. CHINA DAILY

For the past 40 years, Don Frantz, a seasoned veteran who has worked for the Walt Disney Co, has been captivated by a project about the Chinese south-pointing chariot.

The chariot was an ancient two-wheeled vehicle that carried a movable pointer to indicate the south, regardless of its orientation.

Frantz's fascination traces back to his visit to China as a dancer, which sparked an intense interest in the tale of the chariot.

Despite the chariot being considered a legend, Frantz's passion for the story has endured.

"In 1980, I was a dancer in the Mark Wilson Magic Show that toured Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing.… I heard a story of the south-pointing chariot and fell in love," Frantz said in an interview with China Daily.

Throughout history, many Chinese texts have mentioned the chariot, which is widely regarded as one of the most complex geared mechanisms of the ancient Chinese civilization.

Frantz presented research findings on the chariot, dating back to as early as the 27th century BC. British engineer George Lanchester proposed in the first half of the 20th century that these chariots employed differential gears.

Frantz then built models along the Lanchester path in the 1980s.

Frantz and his team searched the world over for clues before ultimately deciding to dramatize the tale of the chariot for the theatrical stage, named Wayfinding.

Wayfinding draws inspiration from Frantz's own experiences as he tries to solve the mystery of the chariot.

In the play, a young man seeking direction in his life becomes obsessed with the legend of "mankind's first compass". Casting calls were recently held for a two-day rehearsal and reading for the story, which has been adapted for the stage.

Frantz said the play explores not only man's quest but also the goals of a US-born Chinese who wants to discover her heritage and a spiritual master who is trying to reclaim his place in history.

"We are all looking for direction in our life that will give us purpose and fulfillment. We all could use a compass to keep us on course," he said.

However, unlike in 1980, relations between the United States and China are strained. "No one knows what the future will be as we seem to have lost our direction. We need to reach out to each other to understand each other and celebrate our ancient civilization," Frantz said.

As the owner of Town Square Productions, a New York-based company specializing in theatrical management and creative development, Frantz's interests encompass Broadway, off-Broadway and touring productions.

Since 2007, Frantz has divided his time between New York and Beijing. Currently, he serves as the executive producer of the Broadway and China musical Sound of the Silk Road for the Shaanxi Tourism Group in Xi'an.

Drawing from his experience as a former associate producer on The Lion King on Broadway, Frantz said the profound impact of cross-cultural collaboration is "immeasurable". He believes such collaborations enrich not only the theater landscape but also extend to fashion, music and dance.

Original musicals

"My last 16 years in China teaching the musical art form by showcasing US companies, producing localized Mandarin productions and creating wholly original Chinese musicals is motivated by the potential for greater understanding," he said.

Frantz has had a 12-year career directing and consulting on musicals and events celebrating Mongolian culture and life. As an artist-in-residence in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Frantz wrote and directed Golden Huyang, an annual outdoor musical, in the Alashan forest.

"Every show, our Chinese collaborators created something that would not be done in the USA," he said. "My Golden Huyang in Alashan was the most dramatic, as I worked with a local song and dance troupe that never did a musical, but we made it work."

Frantz noted that Chinese social media and performance mechanisms have had a significant impact on his approach to storytelling and production. He is used to managing his show production through WeChat.

"As much as I am asked to share the 'Broadway' methods of creation, production and promotion — China is different, and the methods are specific to its own context," he said. "While I would like to adapt some systems to America, the unions and order of management prevent it. The engagement of actors on a nonexclusive basis can have financial benefits, but not done in the US."

Frantz served as the chief director and co-writer for the original Chinese production Kunlun Mountain, which debuted at Tianqiao Theater in 2012 and toured both the US and China. He also maintains his role as a production consultant for the commercial staging of Into the Woods, which premiered in Beijing in 2014.

"Any show that is translated into Mandarin is a study in cultural understanding and acceptance," he said. "Similarly, when we produce shows addressing America's challenges like racial prejudice or the drug epidemic, it fosters a deeper understanding of the American experience for everyone."

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