Choice or Coincidence
Portrait of a DC Theatermaker
People have asked me how I chose my directing “style,” and I never know how to answer. How do you even make such a choice? Is there ever a choice to be made? How do you decide one day that you hate broccoli, or that you are deathly allergic to celery root? How do you fall in love?
I suppose, once you find yourself in love, or realize that you hate broccoli, you would make a number of small choices to handle the situation. I did make a series of decisions that led me to doing the work that I do today, but then again, I am not sure if they were choices as much as just coincidences and happenings.
I grew up reading comics in Japan and went to college to study theatre at Northwestern. In graduate school I thought of putting these two things together. In 2002, I started a theatre company called Live Action Cartoonists (LAC) with three friends in Chicago. The idea was to do exactly what the company name said: draw on stage. Large and small. With video projection. With live-feed camera. With extra-thick markers. Or charcoal. Or Paint.
We called ourselves a theatre company, but we weren’t interested in “acting” or “plays”—none of us knew very much about these things, and other people seemed to do it much better anyway. Our group of four consisted of a projection designer, a cartoonist, a composer, and myself as the writer/director/designer/prop-maker. With LAC, I kept finding “fun things to do on stage that aren’t acting,” beyond drawing and painting. Our first production featured chemistry experiments and explosions. In another production, we made plywood cartoon cutouts of our cast members, and destroyed them onstage with jig saws (we had to make a new set of cutouts for every show). Things often failed: in the same production, we had a live printmaking scene, captured in close-up and projected. One night, the projector broke down and everything went to black for the whole scene, except for a tiny desklamp. A critic who came that night described the scene in a phrase “Rembrandt-like stillness.” Indeed, it was very dark and still that night.
I did make a series of decisions that led me to doing the work that I do today, but then again, I am not sure if they were choices as much as just coincidences and happenings.
The four original members of Live Action Cartoonists live in four different cities now. The cartoonist became a pediatrician, and the projections designer found a successful career working for a production company in LA. I am still making performances. It’s partly because I have no other marketable skills or interests. It’s also because I’ve been very, very fortunate.
DC has been a comfortable home for me and my work. I was pleasantly surprised by how positively Astro Boy and the God of Comics was received. People have characterized my work as "unusual for DC," but if this is true, DC seems to welcome the idea of the "unusual." I am grateful for that.
I have been making work steadily here. As an Assistant Professor at Georgetown, my job includes directing/designing plays on campus, and I have had the most delightful experiences working with students. If my work has grown or evolved since coming to DC, I owe a lot of it to them.
My classes can be divided into two categories: one is the "let me share this knowledge with you" sort, and the other is the "here's some interesting material I would like to explore with you" sort. I often teach the latter in conjunction with whatever projects I am working on. For example, when I was doing an adaptation of Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization, I taught a course called “Performing Madness.” Not many people have the luxury of having weekly discussions on the material for your next play with a group of brilliant students. This has definitely transformed the way in which I work. My projects are no longer little obsessions in my head, they have become more like powerful forces that infuse my life at every turn.
People always ask, “So what’s next?” I could say something like “Well, I am designing show X at theatre Y, then directing show Z…” But less concretely, I enjoy the series of random thoughts and questions that this question inspires. Will I adapt Discipline and Punish? Should I go and take a month-long workshop in butoh? Could I make a giant paper airplane that actually flies (I failed at this during Astro Boy and the God of Comics)? How would I do claymation on stage? I should come up with a better training method for on-stage drawing. I must find refillable markers that don’t drip. Will I someday learn how to use “acting” better?
But perhaps most importantly, the question is “Is there a next?” I hope I can always say yes.