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Nate Braga explores gender illusion in Court Theatre's 'M. Butterfly'

Actor and Columbia College grad Nate Braga talks about the challenges of playing a Chinese opera diva in Court Theatre's 'M. Butterfly'

  • Nate Parga in M. Butterfly
Nate Parga in M. Butterfly
May 06, 2014|By Julia Borcherts @Julia Borcherts

Spring is traditionally a time for transformation, but actor Nate Braga takes that concept a step further than most. The 30-year-old Rochester, Minn. native—who spent six years in Chicago acting and earning a musical theater degree from Columbia College before moving to New York in 2008—floats like a butterfly but stings like a bee in "M. Butterfly," David Henry Hwang's Tony Award-winning postmodern drama inspired by the Puccini opera, "Madama Butterfly." In the show, a French civil servant falls in love with a beautiful Chinese opera diva, not realizing that she is a man—and has a hidden agenda to boot. Braga plays the diva, Song Liling, and the role requires extensive physical transformations such as movement and voice direction in addition to elaborate costumes, makeup and wigs. To assist with this, director Charles Newell hired the play's original Broadway choreographer and Peking Opera specialist, Jamie Guan, to choreograph the Court Theatre production. We called Braga to find out more about the challenges—and surprises—of playing this role and the transformative power of a good pair of heels.

"M. Butterfly"
Go:
7:30 p.m. Thursday through June 8 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Tickets: $35-$65. 773-753-4472; courttheatre.org

How he landed the role: "I did the whole audition process online, which I've never done before. They gave me three different scenes to read from and I submitted them to Charlie [Newell], the director. He gave me some notes and then I re-recorded myself doing the scenes. And then we had a two-hour Skype interview. Charlie told me by the end of the interview, 'Yeah, you've pretty much got the role.' I was like, 'This is crazy!' It's a 21st Century audition, I guess."

On mastering the movement: "We did have this awesome opportunity with our choreographer, Jamie Guan. We did a weeklong workshop with him in February for all the movement and just learning about the culture and the art form. It's such a fantastic art form and so precise. He kept on telling us that it takes years and years and people work a lifetime to learn these roles. And I kept on telling him, 'I have a month.'"

Why Braga's a natural fit: "I think one of the reasons my name was thrown into the mix [during the casting search] is that I was a competitive gymnast growing up, so the movement comes a lot more naturally to me—even though the Peking Opera is totally different. Jamie always makes this reference that the Western teaching and style is like coffee and the Eastern is like tea. [Laughs.] A lot of the movement in Western style—we go in counts of eight. But in the Eastern style, there's no counting, [you follow] along with percussive sounds. We have to re-teach ourselves how to listen to music and go with the sounds, so it's definitely been a learning process."

More difficult than mastering the movement: "There's so many different layers to the character of Song and so many different ways you can play it. David Henry Hwang, the playwright, just came on Sunday. He watched a run-through and it was fun to talk to him and hear what he had to say about the role and the challenge of it. How do I play him as a genuine person and not just a person trying to manipulate this other man for the power of it, but also making him human and making him vulnerable at the same time? You're juggling all these different balls and it's a challenge. I love it and I hate it."

What he's learned: "We've been working on the manipulative [aspect] and his quest for power, which is so different from my personal life. I'm a big lover and I love working with people and collaborating. And definitely in this process, we are doing that, too. But as a character, it's just so opposite of what I try to bring in my own life. So it's been interesting seeing what kind of power he has, as a woman, actually."

The wardrobe helps: "It's insane all the different transformations I'm making in the show. Basically, if I'm offstage, I'm going to be furiously changing my whole costume from the wig down—everything. We haven't worked with the actual costume pieces yet but even in rehearsal, we have a rehearsal skirt or rehearsal heels. It just transforms how your whole body moves and how you present yourself. And it helps with portraying the character, too. Women have so much power over men! [Laughs.] That's what I'm finding. And it's really interesting being aware of that. It's amazing what a little heel will do for ya."

How the role has affected his workouts: "I don't get to lift weights anymore. I was in one of my costume fittings and they were like, 'Oh, your shoulders.' [Laughs.] I was like, 'Oh, no!' So I'm now doing a lot of cardio and abs and legs. No upper body."

When he's not listening to opera: "I wore out my Pandora and [it] reverted to playing the same music over and over again. [Laughs.] So I've discovered this new app, Songza, which I'm really into right now. It has categories like, 'Waking Up with Energy' or 'Going on a Run' or 'Getting Ready to Go Out.' [Laughs.] It's got funny genres and I just really enjoy it, because it's brought a lot more spontaneity into my daily routine. And I grew up playing and still do play classical violin. And actually have played it in a lot of shows—when directors find out that I play the violin they like to add it in. So I do listen to a lot of classical, too—usually at night when I'm just trying to relax."

Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor. redeye@tribune.com | @redeyechicago

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