Kabuki Theatre and Oiwa #theatre

I am a theatre junkie. Kabuki is at least as old as Shakespeare.  It’s one of THE drama traditions I heard about as soon as I decided theatre was my life. Going to a kabuki play was on my must-do list while I was in Tokyo, but it was also felt, for me, like going to a cathedral and I hadn’t been to confession.

The Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginzu, Tokyo, the largest in Japan.

The Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginzu, Tokyo, the largest in Japan.

Billboard for the show outside the theatre. Of course no photos were allowed during the show.

Billboard for the show outside the theatre. Of course no photos were allowed during the show.

It was utterly amazing. It was actually four short pieces I saw, which — with intervals when you could get full meals and beer to have at your seat! — was three and half hours long. The style of acting and the men playing women (I’ll need to post about that separately—because) took some getting used to, because it’s so utterly different from any show I’ve ever seen before, and that’s part of the reason it was enthralling.

One of MANY screens hiding the stage over the performance.

One of MANY screens hiding the stage over the performance.

Everything I felt seeing my first kabuki was wrapped up in what I’d felt earlier that day while trying to track down Oiwa…the main character in one of Japan’s creepiest ghost stories, most famous kabuki plays (I didn’t see that one, sadly), and many of the country’s successful horror films.

There are a few different versions of Oiwa’s story: here’s one of the shortest, yet best and scariest. Horror and/or Japanese film fans will recognise her likeness from the Ringu series.

I have presumed to put her into one of my stories…the short film I started work on in France over the summer, and the related feature-length screenplay I just drafted. They both concern domestic violence, culture clashes, racism, sexism, revenge, and guilt.

Theatre people are, put mildly, superstitious. We call it “The Scottish Play” or “McBoo”. We leave a “ghost light” on in the middle of the stage when the theatre is otherwise empty and dark. And in Japan, whenever an actor onstage, or an actress on film, takes the role of Oiwa, they go to her shrine in Tokyo and ask Oiwa’s permission to play her.

And that’s what I did too.

The shrine in Yotsuya, Tokyo.

The shrine in Yotsuya, Tokyo.

The trope of the Maiden Ghost, based on Oiwa, has appeared in so many incarnations now that she’s thrown the first pitch in a baseball game. Which sounds silly, but I find it actually shows that Japan takes her as seriously as kabuki; she is embedded in Japanese culture — everyone knows her, and everyone, in a strange way, loves her. She embodies something genuinely wrong — vengeance — but it’s something everyone understands and has, at some point, wanted against someone else. I’m frightened by and enthralled by her.

I hope it’s not cultural appropriation — Gore Verbinski’s remade Ringu, quite well, I thought. Yes, I went to visit Tokyo to see the city, yes I met up with an old friend who’s been in Japan 14 years. However…I also went to Tokyo specifically to visit Oiwa’s shrine and ask “is this okay?” I hope it is.

A closer look at one grave.

A closer look at one grave.

Cemetery behind the shrine.

Cemetery behind the shrine.

Photos from FRANCE: Cannes

Part of the reason I applied for my current artists’ residency was its location: the French Riviera is among those almost mythical places you read about. Where the gargantuan artists and authors worked, where water, sky, and wine blend together. And, it’s 5 minutes from Cannes.

Cannes is very polished compared to Nice and Antibes, and normally I don’t like that. But it works here – the beaches, trees, ancient buildings and colour of the water aren’t overcome by the opulent hotels, fancy cars and designer shops. Everything goes together. The city isn’t remotely shy about playing up its glamorous image – the Palme D’Or symbol is on the roads, there are banners and murals of movie stars everywhere. They’re saying: “Of course movies happen here, of course the world’s most prestigious film festival is here.  Because it’s beautiful!”

Today, I’m out of love with #playwriting. It’s like a bad day in a long term #relationship.

I realised something this morning, on a sunny day in the south of France. It’s a bit of a whinge. But it’s also a bit scary for me, and makes me sad.

I just sent off an application for a playwriting venture. One should keep track of how many competitions, initiatives, etc, one enters…but I’ve given up. Yes, everyone gets rejected, and I admit, tracking the number of things I entered and got rejected for became too much.

My FB and Twitter feeds have recently been filled with invitations to the Fringe shows of friends, as well as previews and reviews. I posted that I was a bit sad I didn’t have a show this year. That’s true…but not quite accurate. I’m also relieved I’m not doing a stage production, and THAT feeling makes me sad. I used to live for the insanity of putting on a show. Even when things went wrong, the result was a show I was proud of. I got the festival’s Artist Badge. I got reviews — good ones — and I could say “Yep, that’s me.” Audiences have told me how much they liked what I did.

Last year, I got my first ever 5-star review for It Started with an Allergy. I leveraged that, I promoted that show every hour of every day, and my houses still never got very big. The spectators who came loved it — there just weren’t very many of them. There’s a prestigious award given to theatre productions every year in Edmonton, and I really, REALLY hoped I might get nominated for Allergy. I didn’t. It’s occurred to me since that I don’t remember if I, or my director, invited the jury to the show! How can I not remember that? But I was also writing, producing, acting, flyering, doing the show. And I just…don’t… recall. That’s bad.

I submitted this play to yet another contest, out of resignation. I couldn’t muster anything to say in my cover letter: “yes, my play’s really good, these other industry people have said so, here’s my amazing CV of other amazing plays which nonetheless didn’t take off, PLEASE GIVE THIS TO ME.”

I wonder if that’s why I’m doing pre-production on a short film. Because it feels like I’ve done everything I possibly can in theatre, and I’m tapped. I’m on the French Riviera, on a writer’s retreat (which I paid for, didn’t get paid for, again). And still, today, I’m discouraged.

Why I love theatre technicians.

Having sent out what I believe to be a pretty kick-butt play, I’m now at the hard part: waiting. Waiting to see if anyone else with any pull to put the play onstage thinks it’s remotely as good as I think it is.

I used to wonder if writing is what I should be doing, if maybe I just really was not that good. For a while now, I’ve had a different problem: knowing that my writing is good, and still not having got one professional-level — PACT, Equity, etc — production, nor enough of a hit from one of my self-produced shows to keep working on theatre regularly.

Here is where technicians have been my saving grace.

Theatre techs — lighting, sound, set-building, the ones who do everything — are all utterly professional. They are there to make your show the absolute best it can be in the time given, and will bend over backwards, given the equipment and time they have, to give your show what it needs. And given that they work in theatre…they put up with a lot of crap.

Here’s the wonderful Henry Rollins on backstage crews. Maybe this is the reason technicians tend to be detached — I’ve never worked with one who didn’t love their work, but also maintained a very professional yet clear distance from whatever show they were working on.

And here’s the thing of which I am envious: technicians have skills. I was acquainted with a guy in Edinburgh, who produced a show at his own site-specific venue the same year we did Take a Bite.  We made a bit of money.  This fellow ended the Fringe £6,000 in debt.  The understanding among everyone involved in the show was that they were working on spec: if they show made money, they would get paid. But the producer made a terrible mistake: he assumed this included their technician. In the middle of their tech rehearsal, the tech walked out for another venue, because that’s when the producer made it clear he had no intention of paying the tech anything until and unless the show recouped its costs. He had to find and hire a new tech with one day’s notice before the start of the Edinburgh Fringe.

The technicians don’t have to like your show. They will get paid, whether your show is good or not. They will work their butts off for your show because that’s their job and they take pride in their job, but they don’t need to be invested in any show.

How do I know I’m good? Because the techs have not been able to stop themselves from saying my show is good.  When I doubt, I remember that, and grin.

Photos from China: Guangzhou, part 2 – Chen Clan Ancestral Hall

Among the stories history students have heard about China is how anyone wanting to work for the Emperor’s government had to take killer exams. This is one of the places where that happened. In the late 19th century all the families with the surname Chen in the Liwan district, around Guangzhou, gave money to build a place for all clan members to stay in the city when studying for their exams. The resulting building, also called the Chen Clan Academy and Folk Arts Museum, is stunning. Every surface is carved wood, brick, stone, or wrought iron. This kind of thing is my Disneyland.

Every clan had one of these “lineage halls.” This is one of the few left.

I must be a writer, because I can’t stop…

…even when I try.

I haven’t posted a thing about writing, theatrical or otherwise, in months, for several reasons. The biggest, of course, is that I’m currently in southern China, teaching English. Having never been to Asia, or taught anyone under university age, those took priority, by default.

My internal jury about whether this was the best thing for me to do is still out. I am glad, however, I shook up my life, because I needed to dwell on something other than writing/theatre/drama at all for a while. Any regular followers of mine may have noticed I said basically nothing about doing my long-gestating show It Started With an Allergy at the Edmonton Fringe last summer. And I’m flummoxed to say I’m still not ready to write about it. You always hope that any show you work on will provide great experiences, memories, and fodder for further work…for now, in short, that show provided me none of that.

Over the last year or so, I had (I thought) accepted that theatre would never be my bread-and-butter, and to take a new approach. I genuinely felt ready, at last, to dive back into academia and do a PhD in drama. Imagine my dismay when, after two years of trying, I wasn’t accepted to any of the programs I wanted. Rejection is not something I’m willing to take right now, so all of my well-meaning well-wishers, offering me other possible literary programs to apply for, didn’t hear back from me.

So I spent a miserable few weeks this past fall wondering, at 41 years old, where the heck my life is going next. And bugger if the answer didn’t, I swear, just ARRIVE.

I was asleep. And woke up at 3 am thinking “Oh…that’s, that’s an idea, I have one two three complete scenes in my head, that’s a whole story beginning to end, it can wait till I get up. And have to eat breakfast. And then teach all day.” Nope. I had my laptop beside me, and, without putting my glasses on, banged out one page of the most utter nonsense one could see. It made just enough sense that in the morning, I could retype it as an outline, in actual sentences. And the following weekend, I wrote the whole play out, except for the last scene, all in one go.

It’s good. It’s REALLY good, I don’t say this often. It’s so good, I felt so good writing it, that I’m still twitchy. The last time I remotely felt this way was on finishing Take a Bite. I polished up this new play, formatted it, and I’ve made a list of places to send it.

That’s what happens to me. Whenever the doubt surfaces — am I actually a writer anyway? — it eventually appears again. I know I’m a writer because even when I try to stop, it won’t go away.