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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
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)