The Man Who Conquered Kurosawa's Throne of Blood 

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100 years after the birth of one cinema's greatest directors, BAM is celebrating Akira Kurosawa's work not only with a repertory series of some of his masterpieces, but also with the New York premiere of a new stage adaptation of his film Throne of Blood. As part of this year's Next Wave Festival, BAM presents New York-based stage director Ping Chong's adaptation of Kurosawa's story of feudal Japan, which is itself an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Commissioned in part by and premiered earlier this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chong's reimagining of Throne of Blood runs at BAM from November 10-13. Interested in the process behind adapting such an important film for the stage as well as some of the director's other projects, I interviewed Chong by email as he wrapped up a production of one of his other recent works at The People's Theater in Xi'an, China.

The L: What led you to this production? Had you been hoping to work with Kurosawa's Throne of Blood for some time, or was this the result of a commission or collaboration?
Ping Chong: All of the above. I first thought of adapting Throne of Blood to the stage when I saw it, when it first came out, but the scale of the project was daunting and I put it to the back of my mind. About three years ago, Bill Rauch, Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Artistic Director, asked me if I would be interested in directing a Shakespeare play. It was an intriguing, even bold, suggestion. I have never directed a Shakespeare play. I read many, but my mind kept coming back to Throne of Blood, so I suggested it as an alternative and he was very enthusiastic about the idea. Ultimately, Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned me to adapt the film and stage it as part of its 75th season. We introduced Bill to Joe Mellilo of BAM, who signed on as a co-commissioner. This is my 4th production in the Next Wave Festival (The Games, Angels of Swedenborg, Chinoiserie, and now Throne of Blood), and it is a thrill to be back at BAM.

The design and aesthetic experience is central to all of Kurosawa's films. What has your relationship with your designers been like in this show? How much did you let Kurosawa's aesthetic choices influence the look of your stage adaptation?

I have tried to honor Kurosawa's vision while adjusting the text and design elements to the stage. Kurosawa references the Noh Theatre in several places in the film, so that was a natural place to connect the film to the play. The production team on Throne of Blood is a combination of designers with whom I have worked many times, like costume designer Stefani Mar, lighting designer Darren McCroom, and projection designer Maya Ciarrocchi. Oregon Shakespeare Festival designers Christopher Acebo, who designed the scenery, and Todd Barton, who wrote the music and created the sound (which is always a big element in my work), are first time designers with me.

Kurosawa's film Throne of Blood is an adaptation of Shakespeare's stage play Macbeth, set in 16th century feudal Japan. You are now adapting that adaptation, bringing it from the screen to the stage. What elements were you interested in preserving on the stage from Kurosawa's film?
Throne of Blood has an epic scale but it also focuses on the relationship between Washiru and Lady Asaji. We use projections, sound and choreographic movement to evoke the epic aspects and allow the text and the wonderful Oregon Shakespeare Festival ensemble to capture the characters.

What kinds of commentary do you think Throne of Blood offers contemporary American audiences?
As you point out, Kurosawa set Throne of Blood in 16th century Japan. That was the time of the Samurai wars and it was a bloody, brutal era. But while the action is set then, I think the brutality of the 20th century was very much on his mind when he made the film, as it is on mine.
Throne of Blood by Ping Chong at BAM

At a time when Broadway houses are getting a lot of flack for bringing popular films to the stage, primarily because they are seen to be commercially rather than artistically driven in their choices, what do you see as the artistic value of adapting for the stage what is widely considered an important film by one of the best directors in history?
Well, I am no expert on Broadway but it seems to me the appeal of film adaptations uptown is mostly name recognition and marketing. I made Throne of Blood for the stage because I saw the intrinsic theatricality of the film and felt it would be beautiful on stage. It is that simple. Throne of Blood is also a chance for me to acknowledge a great artist whose work inspired me. I saw a wonderful exhibition of Kurosawa's paintings when I was in Tokyo last month. He started painting late in his career when his film Kagemusha was on hold and he feared it would never be made. Luckily, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola stepped in and helped find the funds for him to realize the work. But even after Throne of Blood and Ran he had trouble getting his work done. I can relate to that.

Kurosawa's work is heavily influenced by his experiences with and interest in Western films and foreign literature. So much so that many of his early films were censored by Japanese authorities for being too "British-American." Though the contemporary US is in many way different from early 20th century Japan, our country often seems to have a pretty fraught relationship with the intersection of cultures, particularly surrounding religious differences and immigration. This often seems like an odd reality given the pride so many Americans take in the country's past. What is your reaction to that tension within the American identity?
The history of America is indeed a history of immigration but once the immigrants assimilate they want to pull up the welcome mat. This is why I began my Undesirable Elements series of community-based oral history works. I have made over 40 of these works in communities large and small since 1992, each exploring what it means to be an outsider. It has been a very rewarding experience.

Tell me a bit more about the Undesirable Elements Project.

Well, as I said, I created Undesirable Elements in 1992, partly in response to my sense of a rising xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment at that time, though sadly we seem to be re-visiting that sentiment today. The goal of the project has always been to bring forward voices that aren't traditionally heard in the mainstream media or seen on stage, to ask what it means to be "from here," wherever that here may be.

Originally the series focused on issues of cultural difference, but it has evolved quite a bit over the last few years. Now we are making pieces on themes that transcend culture and geography, such as disability issues, or people who have experienced sexual violence. We have started working in the schools, too.

What makes it unique relative to other "interview-based" projects is that you are always seeing the real person on stage, telling his or her own story. So, it is always incredibly hopeful because you know that no matter what difficult experience that person may be describing, they are sitting right there in front of you, so you know they made it. Undesirable Elements is always about finding the human being behind the stereotype.

Artists of your stature tend to make their living on an international circuit, presenting their work at a slew of arts festivals and venues happening around the globe. Is that true of you? If so, how does this carpetbagger lifestyle influence the work you do and the conversations you're trying to have through your work with audiences?

It comes with the job. As I write I am in Xi'an China where my puppet show Cathay: Three Tales of China opens on October 28th. It has been an amazing, crazy experience, satisfying in its own way, but frankly I am looking forward to being home.

(photo credits: Ping Chong and Jenny Graham)

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