As I read to my child every night, I’ve been picking through my books looking for good material; We’re rather partial to poetry and I think that it’s also a good way to learn a language. Anyway, I’ve thus been picking through some of my dustier shelves, and I recently pulled out Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land.
I remember thinking it was an excellent book as a boy of 14, but that I couldn’t bring myself to read it many times again (like many children, I reread the same books over and over). I still have the exact same copy; it followed me across the Pacific.
I had to know if my memory served me well. Unlike The Neverending Story, which I still read somewhat regularly, I had not ever considered Brother in the Land from an adult’s point of view.
My memory had not, in its essence, failed me. This is a startlingly powerful book for the same reason the great fairy tales are: it’s startlingly honest, real and raw; I completely believe that it is told by a teenage boy.
I could see why I couldn’t read it over and over at 14: the brutality of the post-nuclear Britain depicted is quite raw. At nearly 40, I have the same reaction, but this time because of the complete and utter humanity of it all.
If you can get your hands on a copy, read it. Followers of this column have probably figured out I’m a huge fan of the public library. Support your local library! Unfortunately, I can’t find this book in the HCL or RCL systems…
Otherwise, let me know and I’ll lend you mine. I don’t think I’ll be reading it anytime soon.
p.s. it must have been post-apocalyptic fever! I also read Z is for Zachariah and watched the film for English class that year.
Article by Rick Shiomi
Rick Shiomi is one of those people who always just seemed to be there. I worked with him when I was first starting out, learning how to design lights for small one-acts and play readings at Mixed Blood and the Playwrights’ Center. Over the years, he was the common thread to many good friends and colleagues: he gave me work, introduced me to people, and pushed me to test my limits. I know he’s had a similar effect on many others in town, and his work has blazed trails for many people. But I didn’t know where it all began for him in this town. So I asked.
I first came to the Twin Cities for a visit in 1990 to talk about a touring production of my play Rosie’s Café. I had written several plays by then, and had had some success with my first play Yellow Fever which had won awards in San Francisco, gotten rave reviews in the New York Times and New Yorker magazine, and been produced Off Broadway.
But my theater work and career had been developed in cities where there were significant Asian American populations and Asian American theater was starting to become established.
For this first trip to the Midwest, I gave a short talk at Mixed Blood Theatre for about four people, including the host Jack Reuler and I thought, “No wonder Philip left”. That was my friend Philip Gotanda, a prominent Asian American playwright who had gotten a McKnight Playwriting Residency in the late 1980’s and had come to the Twin Cities for a workshop; only to leave after a few days, because there were no Asian American actors there to read his play. I thought, “I’m glad I’m not stuck here.” Of course, I should have known that the theater gods were having a good time with me.
Then the fates played another game by having me attend the American Theater for Higher Education conference in Chicago where I spoke to some academics about my career as an Asian American playwright. I didn’t want to do it but my friend and colleague Eric Hayashi twisted my arm by saying it was important for Asian American theater artists to get on the radar of these academics. After I spoke, I met Martha Johnson and she invited me to speak at Augsburg College in Minneapolis where she taught in the theater department. I took her up on her offer and eventually ended up visiting several times and directing Rosie’s Café at Augsburg with an all white cast. I would never have done so in a professional production, but for the purposes of education I accepted the project.
While I was visiting the Twin Cities for this work, I was approached by Dong-il Lee, a graduate student in theater at the University of Minnesota. I had met him at the conference in Chicago as well and he asked me if I was interested in starting an Asian American theater company in Minnesota. I wasn’t sure this was possible but being an optimist, I told him I’d help him as long as he could find someone to be the managing director, since I knew running a theater company took considerable organizational time and ability. Dong-il found Diane Espaldon at the first Asian American Renaissance Conference in 1992 and she agreed to be our managing director. So Dong-il, Martha Johnson, Diane, Andrew Kim (a recent graduate of Carleton College) and I were the founding members of Theater Mu.
Dong-il became the artistic director, and we gathered students and recent graduates from the various universities and colleges, along with some members of the Asian American community, to do some initial workshops. What we discovered early on was a group of Korean adoptees among our early workshop participants and their lives offered powerful new stories and perspectives on international adoption. This material led to the first production of Mu called Mask Dance which I wrote and directed but also several other plays about this subject have been written over the past twenty years or so, including The Walleye Kid and Walleye Kid The Musical, Four Destinies by Katie Hae Leo, Middle Brother by Eric Sharp and How to Be A Korean Woman by Sun Mee Chomet. (Dong-il left to teach at college on the east coast in 1993 and is presently back in Korea and I became the artistic director)
The first ten years of Theater Mu were spent laying the foundations for the company, finding and attracting the artists and supporters who would become the core members of the company. Gradually, wonderful artists like Kurt Kwan, Sun Mee Chomet, Eric Sharp, Randy Reyes, Sara Ochs and Sherwin Resurreccion began to become regulars with the company performing in such memorable productions as our version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Circle Around The Island by Marcus Quiniones, Cowboy Versus Samurai by Michael Golamco, Ching Chong Chinaman by Lauren Yee, and Yellow Face by David Hwang.
And in the past ten years we have had a tremendously successful venture into musicals, starting with our collaboration with Park Square Theatre on Pacific Overtures in 2004 and our own original musical Walleye Kid, The Musical, through the classics like Flower Drum Song (David Hwang revision), Little Shop of Horrors, Into The Woods, A Little Night Music and of course our own re-imagining of The Mikado in collaboration with Skylark Opera. I’ll never forget how this all began in auditions for Pacific Overtures with me hoping that maybe four or five of the performers would be Asian American. But they seemed to come out of the woodwork and by the end we cast the show with an all-Asian American cast. Some of the new performers for us were Sara Ochs (currently in the Latte Da production of Sweeny Todd), Laurine Price (now living in LA) Sherwin Resurreccion (recently in Debutante’s Ball at the History Theatre) and Arnold Felizardo who raised the hair on the back of my neck when he sang Four Black Dragons in callbacks. And when I asked Sara why she hadn’t auditioned for Mu before she said because we didn’t do musicals.
Another significant development for Mu was the founding of Mu Daiko in 1997. I had learned and performed taiko (Japanese style drumming) on the west coast in the 1980’s playing with such groups as Katari Taiko in Vancouver and the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, under Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka. By the 1990’s I had given up playing (or so I thought) but at the urging of some Mu actors, taught a taiko workshop. By 1997, it was hard enough developing the theater company so I thought it would be distracting to start a taiko group as well. After some early performances, I thought that would be the end of it but Martha Johnson (by then my wife and a core artistic group member of Mu) told me there was gold in this taiko and so we continued the development of Mu Daiko. Of course she was right and Mu Daiko grew like a snowball rolling downhill. In fact it grew so fast and large that we had to change our master brand name from Theater Mu to Mu Performing Arts with Theater Mu and Mu Daiko as sub-master names. And once again it was key artists like Iris Shiraishi and Jennifer Weir who made that growth in skill and numbers possible. They both took on leadership roles as featured players, composers and artistic directors for Mu Daiko.
So by 2013 Mu Performing Arts had become a relatively established Asian American performance company based in the Twin Cities, in this place where I once thought that would be impossible, not even imaginable, in 1990. But the theater gods knew better than I did and I have been rewarded with awards as the Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision in 2007, the Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012 and the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award in 2015.
So in 2013 I left Mu in the hands of the next generation of Asian American artists led by the new artistic director, Randy Reyes, and have moved on to new adventures for myself. I am now the co-artistic director of a new company, Full Circle Theater Company, whose mission is focused on issues of diversity and social justice and our debut production will be Theater: A Sacred Passage performed at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul in November of this year. Working with James Williams (JayyDubb), Lara Trujillo, Stephanie Lein Walseth, and of course, Martha Johnson, I feel blessed again to be working in this rich theater community that has changed so much in the past twenty years.
Article by Andrea Gross, costume designer
Local Costume Designer Andrea Gross is back this month (and look for her in December as well) with more thoughts on this thing we call theatre. This month, she builds on her previous essay, and talks about collaboration, communication, creativity and planning. In other words,, how to make a good design and a good show.
One of the unfortunate unwritten rules (probably of all design disciplines) is that the element requiring the most resources –physical, financial, intellectual— is the one mostly likely to be cut from the production.
Everyone who has been around for a while has a tale to tell; for instance, custom fit hands for the Wolf in Into the Woods, built from scratch with matching fur, latex palms and claws growing out of the nail bed cut before tech because the actor would not be able to manage the blocking and choreography while wearing them. But how can it be avoided?
Here are some reflections on my process, with that in mind:
Careful analysis of and consideration for resources is an important starting point to my work as a costume designer. Please note:, I make no claims about being consistently successful at this…yet. But it remains the way I approach a job or a season in an attempt to hold fast to my integrity and produce work I’m proud of.
I try to be really clear with myself: if you produce that technically challenging element entirely from scratch, what other element will be sacrificed? If we rent an element (and adjust our expectations as to what we can get) what other resources does that free up?
As good as I may be at having this conversation with myself, I find what matters more is how I talk to others –particularly the director—about it. I try to avoid an ultimatum (ie.: you can have this, but only at the expense of these other things) because in my experience this quashes creativity and collaboration. Instead I try to come up with more than one solution and enumerate any problems with (or consequences of) these solutions. In essence, I’m trying to create multiple-choice answers, always remaining open to the fact that there are more potential solutions than I can come up with.
Throughout the research phase of a design process, regularly checking in with the whole production team about developing ideas and priorities keeps everyone informed. More importantly opens the conversation to other potential solutions. While the experience of too many cooks in the kitchen can be frustrating, as a professional I have based my career on collaboration and I thrive on the surprise solution. Besides, I prefer the story where another designer comes up with the idea and it works perfectly over the story where another designer offers what should have been the solution after the fact when my own solution is less successful.
I try to accomplish this with internal deadlines on a calendar: I need a certain amount of time to marinate in a challenge, to share it with others, and to attempt a couple of solutions. Having time to send prototypes or ideas into rehearsal for feedback is key. Space to look at the whole picture (an argument for the archaic and usually academic dress parade) is also important.
But a date to pull the plug on an idea so that you can move forward with the rest of the project is maybe most important and most elusive.
An example of this was my work with Walking Shadow Theatre Company on after the quake, in which the character Frog appears mysteriously in the life of storyteller. He is described in the text as not a man in a frog suit, but rather a frog the size of a man. During several conversations with the director and production manager, we talked and thought about ways that this could be accomplished. The idea of an inflatable cravat rose to the top of the pile, and I began a research and development phase where I tried to figure out how a small, palmed hand pump could run up the sleeve of a suit jacket to inflate a whoopee cushion rigged behind a piece of neckwear on demand when Frog finished his sentences with a “ribbit.” Because the actor transformed into Frog on stage, it became clear that adding webbed-finger-gloves, neckwear, and possibly retrieving a pump out of the suit sleeve would be cumbersome, time-consuming, and ultimately detrimental to the storytelling. Eventually, we determined that the best solution was to get out of the actor’s way and let him accomplish the transformation with a change of glasses, the addition of green gloves, and a green wool hat. It was ultimately far more magical than any mechanical device would have been.