The Writer Who Went to Hiroshima Mon Amour

05/13/2009 4:00 AM |

Playwright Chiori Miyagawa’s latest work, I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour opens at the Ohio Theater (66 Wooster St) today, continuing through May 30. In it, she addresses love, loss, mourning, healing, ghosts, bombs and the Alain Resnais film the title refers to. Here, Miyagawa discusses the play, her favorite New York theater companies, Toni Morrison, Hair and an unpleasant visit to New Jersey.

The L: What projects are you currently working on?

Chiori Miyagawa: I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour, my play produced by Voice & Vision and Crossing Jamaica Avenue, which runs through the end of the month at Ohio Theatre in Soho. It’s about war and memory, and I think it’s going to be a beautiful production. Jean Wagner, Artistic Director of V&V is directing, and we have a great cast and a great team of designers including a composer and a projection designer. We are interested in presenting irreconcilable contradictions between suffering and human beauty with this production. This is part of a larger event called the Hiroshima Project, which includes a reading series called “Voices from Hiroshima”, plays by Japanese playwrights about the atomic bombings in English translations, and a screening of Steven Okazaki’s documentary film, White Light/Black Rain.

What long-term ideas and projects do you hope to develop in the months and years ahead?

I’m trying to survive the month of May, hoping (and working hard) for a successful run of I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour, and then I’m going back to Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University for the last month of my year-long fellowship there. I’m going to have a very quiet month of writing. I’m going to treasure every minute in June in Cambridge before I come back to NYC. I’m going to finish my new play, Restless Souls and Haunted Spirits: Crazy Woman, Warrior, Quasi-Madman, Ghost, Another Crazy Woman, Demon, Warrior from the Other Side, and Unfortunate Man. After that, I will think about the months and years ahead.

What’s the best show you’ve seen recently? What did you like about it?

I enjoyed Caridad Svich’s La Casa de los Espiritus (The House of the Spirits), an adaptation of Isabella Allende’s novel, directed by Jose Zavas, at Spanish Repertory. I’ve always loved Caridad’s poetic language in English, but what was even more wonderful was that this production is in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, so I listened to the translation (also written by Caridad) on the ear set, yet I could still feel how Spanish so naturally enhanced this particular storytelling. There are beautiful songs in the play and a wonderful puppet dog, which is not a realistic representation, yet is such an endearing presence. When I saw the show in previews, I suggested to Caridad that they should have the dog in the curtain call to take a bow, which I think they decided to do. So I feel like I contributed something tiny to the show. It’s playing in rep through August, so people can still see it!

What show are you most looking forward to (other than your own)? Why are you excited about it?

Hair on Broadway, directed by Diane Paulus. I seldom go to Broadway because so little there appeals to me and also the tickets are expensive. But I’ve followed early work by Diane and I love all the songs in the show, so I can’t wait. Also, Lloyd Suh’s American Hawangap, which plays until June 7. It’s produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company, which always does excellent work, and I’m also looking forward to Daniella Topol’s direction of Night Sky by Susan Yankowitz, which will run at Baruch Performing Arts Center from May 22-June 21. I’ve seen some wonderful work by Daniella. I hear this is a play about an astronomer who gets aphasia, which interests me as well. I’m interested in things that deviate from the norm in all kinds of ways. I’m not interested in stories about couples who cheat on each other with their best friends. I’m interested in unusual things or eternal human topics or memories significant enough to be preserved.

What has been your most positive experience working in the arts in New York City?

New York City has been really good to me. There is no way to say what has been the best experience. Right now, I really appreciate the great benefits afforded to me as a resident playwright of New Dramatists. I’m also part of a program called Play Ground at Lark Play Development Center – it’s a monthly group meeting with playwrights, actors and directors to work on projects – and having a wonderful time developing my new play which I mentioned earlier. There are other positive experiences that have to do with the generosity of certain theaters. For example, we (Voice & Vision and Crossing Jamaica Avenue) have been rehearsing our current project, I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour, at donated rehearsal studios at New York Theatre Workshop and Women’s Project. Japan Society has done so much to help promote our project on our behalf. I feel honored and moved by the support of the theater community.

What has been your worst experience working in the arts in New York City?

This was not in NYC, but not so long ago, I was asked to do a reading somewhere in NJ. I took the PATH train for two hours to get there. The audience of 75+-year-olds packed the house. There was a post reading discussion in which these people said whatever that came to mind – “the first half was really boring”, “I didn’t get that character.” And to make things worse, there was a moderator from the theater saying things like “So you want that character to go away?” I sat there and smiled. After it was over, the Artistic Director kept asking me “So, was this helpful?” This was a play titled Leaf, and Cynthia Nixon had liked it, and there was a reading at New York Theatre Workshop with her playing the lead and Dennis O’Hare playing her lover. I’m not saying that this off-Broadway reading was better because the roles were played by stars, but because Cynthia’s interpretation of the character was so complex and moving. After hearing the play read by Cynthia and Denis, I felt that it was enough; Leaf had its incarnation. So I didn’t know what to say to this Assistant Director in New Jersey. And to top it all off, the theater reimbursed the director and actors for the train fare, but told me that I was to pay my own way. Why are the playwrights the last people to get paid in theater? I now don’t say yes to things at unknown places before doing some background checking.

What’s your favorite New York City venue to work in? What do you like about it?

This is premature, but I’m going to say the Ohio Theatre where our show is currently playing. This is my first time at the Ohio, a very established and respected downtown experimental venue, and I hope it’s not going to be the last. It’s a unique and gorgeous space in funky and transformative ways. So many notable artists have gone through the venue or stayed there for many years; I don’t want my play to be one of the last to happen there. The building was sold in the winter, and the Artistic Director has been struggling to keep it open since. It will remain open for its annual Ice Factory festival in the summer, but its future after that seems uncertain. The Ohio should stay open, and I hope artists and funders will rally to this cause. For this reason, I’m going to say the Ohio is my favorite.

What’s your favorite New York City venue to see a show in? What do you like about it?

It’s not really about a particular venue, but the artists that attract me to shows. I’ve seen interesting shows at Vineyard Theatre, Women’s Project, New York Theatre Workshop, HERE Arts Center, and many other places. Some of my favorite companies are not venues – I follow the works of New Georges, National Asian American Theater Company, Ma-Yi Theater and other companies wherever they’re putting up shows around the city. Recently I saw Eisa Davis’ Angela’s Mixetape at the Ohio, directed by Liesl Tommy and produced by New Georges, and I heard it will move – so I will see it again at another venue. Last year, I saw Linda Chapman and Kate Ryan’s Beebo Brinker Chronicles at NYTW’s Fourth Street Theater, and then it moved to a commercial venue. So again, it’s not the venue, but artists that I follow.

If, for whatever reason, you could no longer work in theater, what would you do?

I have no idea. It’s not that I have to die doing theater, but I don’t think I’m qualified to do anything else. I often think about moving to a warmer climate someday, where there is no theater, and just be in love with my visual artist husband for the rest of our lives, but it’s not clear to me what we would do for a living in this scenario. I would like to continue writing, but I don’t think I write the kind of things that turn into money.

If you had an opportunity to work in any other sector of the arts, what would it be? Why?

In my fantasy, I could be a novelist. I spent a lot of time alone writing this past season, and it was a dream come true. I can’t duplicate this though. With my Radcliffe Advanced Studies Fellowship, I have a salary, a beautiful office, two Harvard undergrad research assistants, a library runner, an intellectual community of fellows, and free lunch three times a week. I don’t think this is the average life of a novelist.

What’s the best show in another sector of the arts that you’ve seen recently?

So in that sector of fiction, I love Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. I heard her read a chapter from it at an event called “Witness” sponsored by the Humanities Center at Harvard University. It was in the Memorial Church on campus. I was 15 feet away from her and Yo Yo Ma, who also played in the same evening. It wasn’t a show; it was an event celebrating human rights. I felt very fortunate to be there.

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg