University Theatre takes on traditional Chinese tale in ‘The White Snake’

Posted February 24, 2016

The UW-River Falls University Theatre’s latest production, “The White Snake,” is adapted from one of China’s oldest tales of the same name, according to the director, theatre Professor Robin Murray.

The play, Murray said, is about a white snake that wants to be human and magically becomes so, but due to those who want to crush her happiness she will need to undergo a journey to keep her humanity and save those whom she loves.

The story might sound simple, but it is being treated with respect and hard work by the actors. Murray said they have been rehearsing every night for over two hours since the new semester began. And it shows in the Blanche Davis Theatre: sets are built all around the stage, actors practice through the whole performance, and critiques are given to all.

Emma Johnson, a freshman, is cast in the role of the White Snake. She said she found the story to be something different to try out, given its cultural origins and magical side. Tonally it will also be different from her previous roles.

“This is the first role I feel I’ve really played where I’m the very serious character,” she said after rehearsal. “I usually play very comedic roles, so it’s been a very nice experience to act like a really serious person going through issues.”

“The White Snake” has not just been open to UW-River Falls students, as high school junior Emily Leonard is cast as narrator, a white stag and background roles. By using Wisconsin’s Youth Options program, she was to enroll at UWRF to take a class her school did not have. This will be her first theater role at UWRF.

“It’s really nice learning with all these different people,” Leonard said.

The actors are only one side of “The White Snake” to explore. Any play requires crew members to contribute to the look, sound and feel of a production. One such person is Joshua Gustafson, who not only plays the villain of the story but has been doing the sound design for the production, which means that he has had to utilize a wide array of Eastern instruments to bring out the cultural background of “The White Snake.”

“Some of the difficulties that come with this is that given that this is a traditional Chinese tale, there is a lot of traditional music that must be put in,” he said.

“We got a lot of good instruments and I’ve found a lot of good music for the show,” Gustafson added. “But that’s the biggest challenge, finding instruments that are authentic for the timeline of the performance itself.”

Gustafson said that he has done sound design for theater productions that involved East Asian culture before, but the challenge is still something he has to take on.

Stage manager for “The White Snake” is Tiffany Schwichtenberg. Everything that the director wants done, she handles, and runs all calls during the show, making sure the director’s vision is coming out fully. It’s a lot to handle given this is her first time doing stage management.

“I’m learning a lot of things,” Schwichtenberg said. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved in management for the stage… I’m expanding on being organized and being punctual, and making sure things get done.”

“The White Snake” is scheduled to open Feb. 25 and continues Feb. 26-27 and March 3-5. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. in the Blanche Davis Theatre, located in the Kleinpell Fine Arts Buildling. Tickets are $10 for adults; $8 for senior citizens aged 60 and older; and $5 for UWRF students and children aged 12 and younger. For further information about its current season, visit the University Theatre’s website at