“In the era of Obama, when there are a number of African American writers and a big body of Latino theatre writers, being an Asian woman is kind of like being invisible,” says Chiori Miyagawa. “I think we need to enter the discussion, and the theatre industry or the United States of America needs to recognize our place in the culture.”
Miyagawa, who was born in Japan and immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, is certainly doing her part to make that happen. She teaches playwriting at Bard College and has created a large body of work that includes Jamaica Avenue, I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Thousand Years Waiting.
Her most recent play, This Lingering Life, is inspired by plot elements from nine Noh plays and explores the human condition via the journeys of 28 characters who cross time and space as they search for answers to life’s biggest questions. The work premiered this past June at Theatre of Yugen in San Francisco and is now being presented in New York City by Cake Productions. I recently met up with the playwright at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue), where the show performs September 12-October 4.
DAN BACALZO: I understand the New York version of the play is different than the production by Theatre of Yugen?
CHIORI MIYAGAWA: The entire show had to be 80 minutes for this venue, and it was almost two hours in San Francisco. That version was very different. They had a big house, an actual tree on stage, and it was a company of actors who were trained in Noh technique. That was a surprise for me.
DB: Because you didn’t originally intend for it to be performed in Noh style?
CM: And it wasn’t. But they fusioned it, so that some moments were very stylized. Not in a Noh way, but using Noh technique. That took longer, of course. And there was a live sound designer who performed with them. This New York production is actually closer to what the play had sounded like to me throughout readings and workshops, because I don’t have access to anybody who is trained in Noh theatre here, and that wasn’t what I was doing. But the San Francisco version was very eye opening. It was outside of my imagination. I’m really fortunate to have, coincidentally, these two versions back to back.
DB: Obviously the two productions weren’t collaborating. However, I think there’s one actor in common with both productions?
CM: Cake Productions, in New York, are all actors. There are four who come pre-cast, because they choose plays they want to perform. And I really like that. The fact they wanted to perform my play was reason enough to say, “sure.” I wasn’t very involved in the casting process, but I had met the director, Cat Miller. She’s really smart, and we seem to understand each other on a fundamental theatrical level. I trusted her, and also I couldn’t really create these characters and moments again back to back. The other production was funded by MAP funds, so the same cast stayed together for two years. During that time, one of them moved to New York, and he had actually gone back to San Francisco to do the production. And so when one of the New York actors dropped out a week into rehearsal, I knew he was here, and was planning to come to the show. We also specifically wanted an Asian actor—not because he’s playing Asian roles, but we have tried very hard to have a multiracial cast, and I think we’ve succeeded to a degree. And this actor knew the text really well, but had not played these particular roles before. So, that was a perfect combination.
DB: He could divorce himself from what he did before, and enter into a new process?
DB: Can you tell me about what sparked your initial interest in this project?
CM: It began a long time ago. I teach at Bard College, and through the Freeman Foundation, they gave me a grant to go to Japan and see classical theatre. The intention was to develop a course to teach. But with theatre like Noh, people train and study for decades. There was no way I could develop a course in three months. Coincidentally at that time, I was invited by a group of eccentric Americans who have a theatre called Theatre Nohgaku, in Tokyo. They are fluent in Japanese and perform Noh plays. They were thinking about cultivating a group of American playwrights to write new Noh plays – no new Noh plays have been written since the 15th century. These plays would be in English but follow the form of the established art. It was kind of ironic that I was invited as an American playwright to go to Japan to study Noh from this group of Americans who are very well versed in Noh. Everything I learned, I learned from them. But I failed to produce a product—this must have been in 2004. Noh theatre is such an established institution and I didn’t really see the point of keeping the form and putting new content in it. But other playwrights went on to do that, most productively Erik Ehn and Greg Giovanni.
DB: So how did that experience lead to This Lingering Life?
CM: I had been thinking about it for years. In 2007, I applied for the Radcliffe Advanced Study Fellowship at Harvard. I wasn’t 100% sure if this was really what I wanted to do, but at the time I knew it would make a really good proposal. (laughs) I got the fellowship, and that’s when I started writing.
DB: The proposal was to do what, exactly?
CM: To adapt—I think at the time maybe six Noh plays. I took the texts and updated them, made up new characters, put them in different locations, and messed with them. I did several workshops, and I showed it to Erik Ehn who said to send it to Theatre of Yugen. And I thought, yes, but that’s not what they do. They perform in a traditional style, vocally. And he told me to send it to them anyway. I did, and artistic director Jubilith Moore was very excited by it. As an artist, I think she was ready to break away from trying to master and imitate a traditional Asian art form and use more of an Ariane Mnouchkine model of being inspired by it, but spin it to make it your own. I think that is what ultimately happened. She applied for MAP funds and over two years we got together maybe five times, rehearsed sections of the play, and examined—which I did not expect at all—my versions alongside the original. By that time, I had forgotten the traditional versions. Because when a playwright adapts something, increasingly you step away. So after it’s become a play I don’t necessarily remember what I used.
DB: And you’ve also brought in other influences. I noticed when reading your script that you use a Noh story about a father who rejects his son. In the original, the reason for that is undisclosed. But you have a kind of Phaedra-Hippolytus thing going on.
CM: I do! Yes, I made that up.
DB: So there are additional cultural references you’ve brought in. Other parts of This Lingering Life have themes that seem to refer not only to the Japanese plays but are also recognizable tropes that you find in a lot of Western literature.
CM: Yeah, I was thinking about the story of the boy and girl who drowned. For some reason, I always thought about Lorca and Blood Wedding even though it’s very different. But with this idea of passion and parents who are each other’s enemies, people will say, “Oh, it’s Romeo and Juliet.” But I wasn’t thinking that; I was thinking Lorca. I wanted to work with archetypes because Noh plays are all about archetypes. Those are the eternal humans that writers go back to examine over and over. Any contemporary office drama or romantic comedy comes from some archetype that we have been thinking about for centuries.
DB: Something else in your play that is eternal is the idea of reincarnation and karma. Is that part of traditional Noh?
CM: The first category of Noh, the deity play, is probably more related to the native religion, Shinto. But the warrior, woman, ghost, miscellaneous, and demon plays—they’re very much influenced by Buddhism. Not so much reincarnation, but karma. There are a lot of spirits who can’t be released because of worldly attachments like jealousy, anger, or hatred.
DB: Ghosts seem to appear in a lot of your works.
CM: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I don’t know if I have many plays that don’t have dead people in them. As a writer, I think of the line between life and death as very tenuous. Not as a conscious human being; I know if somebody dies, somebody’s dead. But I feel I have a license from a playwright’s point of view to explore parts of reality that are not visible to us, and I don’t have the responsibility of a scientist to back it up with math. Why am I so compelled to have dead characters? I think it’s because theatre is a magical place and the mainstream trend is very much interpreting reality as we can see it. So plays can take place in a living room or in Iraq. But those are real places that writers are fictionalizing, which isn’t as interesting to me as fictionalizing the fictional concept. I feel like I can get farther towards some kind of a truth about humanity by doing that rather than recreating the Gulf War on stage or writing family drama. We all have family drama, and television and movies do those things much better. When you have people and a stage, that limitation can be magic. Maybe that’s why I insist theatre be theatre and not imitation of life.
DB: There is a very heightened sense of theatricality in your scripts, and also a non-linear sensibility. In this particular play, you have an ancient Japanese soldier meeting a man in a business suit, and they both fought in the same battle.
CM: I’m really interested in collapsing time. The example you gave is a perfect moment where in my mind these people existed at the same time a century apart but occupy the same space and are able to interact. I think history repeats in different ways, and I do believe collectively we’re getting better at being human. But it’s not a linear process. What we experience isn’t linear. It’s not linear now between us, and it won’t be later. It feels artificial to write something that is completely chronological and makes sense, because my brain doesn’t really work that way, and it’s not interesting to me.
This Lingering Life is being presented by Cake Productions at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue), September 12 to October 4. For tickets and more information, visit http://thislingeringlife.weebly.com.