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    Alex Torra's Japan Diary: BEPPU

    Posted by pigiron, Wednesday, September 19, 2012 - 6:13pm

    Beppu. An unexpected delight.

    After a week of traveling through Tokyo and Kumamoto, being overwhelmed by Japanese food, culture, daily behavior, and, equally, Sakaguchi, his new government, zero yen houses, and Toshiki's new found community in Kumamoto, we arrived in Beppu to begin work on our play in earnest.

    After our experiences in both Tokyo and Kumamoto, it felt like we peaked. Inspired, moved, excited by everything we had seen and done, it felt right just to pack our things and leave Japan with all of our memories intact.

    Beppu, however, did not disappoint.

    Beppu feels like a fading resort town, famous for its onsen culture - onsen is the Japanese word for hot springs, but often refers to the baths that contain the hot water from these hot springs. Underneath this quaint resort town lies hot water that reveals itself with stacks of steam rising into the air - and these clouds of steam are everywhere, filling out the landscape of a town nestled into a mountain and overlooking the sea.James Sugg, post-onsen.











    The architecture and feeling of this small city reminds me of Miami in the late ‘80s, before South Beach was South Beach, before the models and clubs and record producers populated the sidewalk cafes and filled the streets with European convertibles.

    Beppu feels like a town forgotten, somehow. However, during our nine days there, Beppu began to reveal its beauty and its remarkable culture.

    First and foremost, the onsens. It's a really big deal there. There are countless onsen baths throughout the city, and in fact, there is something called a Spa passport, or Spaport - if you bathe at something like 60 different onsen, you can be called a MASTER of onsens.

    These baths and hot springs define this city. Their city mascot is a rascally, horned devil, with red skin, steam plumes for hair, little horns, and he is often depicted in a bath of his own. Restaurants use the natural steam that rises from the earth to cook food - whole foods like green onions and eggs and even chicken and bacon - which need no seasoning at all to be enjoyed.Dito steaming up some food.











    But what's special about Beppu, in my opinion is an arts organization called the Beppu Project

    Started in the mid ‘00s, the Beppu Project is interested in using the arts to invigorate and enliven a city - by being enmeshed with the city. Their largest event takes place every three years, a Triennial that brings artists from all over the world to perform and display their work throughout Beppu. However, the Beppu Project has year-round programming, as well as permanent installations of artists works .These events take place in spaces that are fully integrated into the shopping areas and tourist sections of town. They have converted spaces throughout the city and named these spaces ‘Platforms'. A number of these platforms are street-level, former store-fronts, and are separated from the street simply by a wall of windows. That means that when art is being made in one of these spaces, art which includes craft-making, basket-weaving, and for us, theater rehearsals, passers-by can look directly onto the activities. People stop and watch, or just glance in on what the artists are doing. The effect is subtle and exciting -the Beppu Project strives to make art and art-making a part of the Beppu citizen's daily life.Beppu Project installation.












    The Beppu Project provided us with one of these Platforms, which was part of a shopping and restaurant arcade in the city's center, and it became our artistic home for our nine days there.

    It's the place where Zero Cost House began to come into focus.

    This process for this particular piece is strange for Pig Iron (it seems like every process we embark on is strange - from an exploration of neuroscience to a reimagining of Shakespeare), and this one is both thrilling and confounding.

    The play is about the playwright, Toshiki Okada. Toshiki himself is a character in the piece, and thematically, the play tackles the complexities of his particular choice to uproot his life in Tokyo and move to a new city, for his family, for his children. The piece includes scenes inspired by his relationship with Kyohei Sakaguchi, and centers in on Thoreau's Walden as a text that has been present in Toshiki's life for many years (and which has a new relevance for him in the wake of 3/11).

    Not only is it new for Pig Iron to be making an autobiography, especially with the main character in the rehearsal room with us, but it's new for us to be creating a piece that is so playwright-focused. The work of this process is about investigating, feeling, and understanding the inner workings of another artist's world and conception. So often, the ensemble creates movement and character through a series of improvisations and exercises. We generate material, which is then edited and ordered, put together to be presented as a complete world for an audience on stage. The fabric of most of our pieces is defined by the very performer/creators you see on stage. For the first time (or maybe the second, after Mr. Shakespeare), we are taking the lead from an outside artist, and Toshiki is providing all the things we would usually create on our own - the tone, structure, characters and language. Undoubtedly, we will begin to provide our own voices to the project, but this first step is about wrapping ourselves is the beautifully stark and complex world of this playwright.Rehearsal looks like this sometimes.









    For this piece in particular, this autobiography, our development time has been geared towards seeing how the things and people we encountered in Tokyo and Kumamoto get refracted through Toshiki's lens, and how he is grappling with the very issues and ideas that have so suddenly and intensely occupied his daily life. And, for those who are familiar with his work, Toshiki has his own subtle, elusive style. One might call him a contemporary Samuel Beckett. Nothing happens and yet so much does. Our rehearsal time is defined by an encounter with a complicated, new style and content that is deeply personal and real.

    Our time outside of rehearsal in Beppu is magical - dinners and hangouts with the staff of the Beppu Project, the best little ramen shop you could imagine, shopping at stores that offer one-of-a-kind crafts and jewelry, and our own little bar - the Speakeasy, where volunteer fireman Futoshi mixes us some mean drinks.

    Our departure from Beppu is filled with tremendous sadness. We've gotten used to our ex-pat theater existence. Without trying, we've built a small community together, and lived on a little island of creative adventure. A return home feels impossible and heavy.Beppu, with steam vents scattered across the city










    We set out on the longest day of travel I could ever image. Nearly 36 hours in transition - Beppu, Tokyo, LAX, Philadelphia.

    The jet-lag is insane.

    Re-acclimating to Philadelphia has been strange, though comforting. It's good to have Mexican food again (thank you, El Jarocho).

    The company is back in rehearsal in the U.S. and occupying the studios of Pig Iron's School for Advanced Performance Training.

    We're excited to see what happens next with the show. Time will only tell. Its territory that remains exciting but elusive.

    And thanks for reading. With a deep bow, arrigato gozaimas.

    Click here for part 1: TOKYO

    Click here for part 2: KUMAMOTO

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  • Alex Torra's Japan Diary: KUMAMOTO

    Posted by pigiron, Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - 4:04pm
    Before anything, I want to introduce you to KUMAMON. Every Japanese city, it seems, has a mascot, and for the fair city of Kumamoto, it's the cuddly and adorable Kumamon bear. In a recent national content, Kumamon won #1 mascot in Japan. Pig Iron is smitten. As you can imagine, there is Kumamon swag all over our latest destination, and in fact, we'll be bringing it plenty of it back to America with us.


    Our experience in Kumamoto is as varied and complex as our experience in Tokyo. We're in a totally new place - and this time, our hotel is squarely placed in an area of excellent restaurants and the Japanese version of the red-light district: love hotels, soapy massages, and host/hostess bars (which, we believe, are also called “snack” bars). The trees in Kumamoto are filled with cicadas, and their buzzing fills the streets both day and night.Dito at ZERO CENTER










    On the first full day in Kumamoto, our itinerary is packed. Our first stop is at Sakaguchi's Zero Center. We are traveling with Toshiki Okada, and his two children, whom we've never met - Hibiki and Fumiko - the most amazing two little kids. We've also been joined by Maiko Matsushima, our Costume Designer, her husband David, and their one-year-old daughter Saffie. At the Zero Center, Sakaguchi greets us bare-chested and perched in a second-floor window - he looks like a hippy, Japanese Che Guevarra. The Center is tucked away at the end of an alley, an old, wooden house, with remarkable, Burning Man-esque metal sculptures strewn across the front lawn. The place is smaller than I imagined. We meet Sakaguchi's friends/assistants. One of them brings out a hi-def film camera and documents the entirety of our visit.Sakaguchi greets us at Zero Center












    We meet Sakaguchi's daughter, Au, and our experience in Kumamoto seems subtly defined by the presence of children. The word Au means “deep blue” in Japanese, and this sweet girl draws and plays while Sakaguchi tells us about his Zero Center - and we are reminded that she, in a playful attempt to join her father's new government, has been named the Minister of Mascots.

    We are swept upstairs to Sakaguchi's office, where, for 2 hours, Sakaguchi talks non-stop. In retrospect, there is very little I remember from his lecture - the heat and the sitting on the floor kept me from ever quite locking into Sakaguchi's words. What comes into focus more than anything is a sense of the world that he's built around him and the man that exists beneath the identity of ” The Prime Minister of the New Government.” Sakaguchi talks about his art inspirations, which include cubism and the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture publication from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. An original copy of the WEC sits on the coffee table in his office, alongside the original versions of his Sakaguchi's publications, and it outlines its Purpose in the its first couple of pages:

    We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory - as via government, big business, formal education, church - has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing - power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.

    The more he speaks, the more we begin to get a sense of one of Sakaguchi's prime motivators, a hunger for something he calls “this cool feeling” - referring to how a piece of art or music or an intellectual idea has an effect on him. We also get a glimpse at his depressive nature. Toshiki had mentioned that Sakaguchi has disappeared at times, and Sakaguchi himself spoke to moments in his life when he gets depressed and spends hours at the library immersed in art books - searching out for buoys to keep him emotionally afloat. He talks about how his wife is crucial to his emotional health. A man who functions at such a high-energy, with what seems like an inexhaustible motor, does crash out sometimes - and to hear him, in his hyperactive state, describe the moments when depression comes along is revealing and, well, humanizing.Kyohei and Alex peruse the Whole Earth Catalogue








    We leave the Zero Center, some of us exhausted and overheated. However, the day continues in a remarkable way: a visit to Kumamoto's tourist gem, the city's castle, a buffet lunch of remarkable Japanese foods, a tour of a local warehouse that contains a super-cool loft performance space, and finally, a sake-drenched sushi dinner where we are served horsemeat sashimi. Yes, I said it … horsemeat. A Kumamoto delicacy, once you actually get it in your mouth, it isn't too intimidating at all.

    Our dinner is followed by an outing to a local music venue and club, where Sakaguchi himself performs (here's a link to some of his music: http://www.myspace.com/kyoheisakaguchi), which is then followed by loud, sweaty conversations in half-understood English with other club-goers, and then ice cream outside a convenience mart. The evening ends with a hard collapse into our cozy hotel beds.


    Day Two brings the most affecting moment of our trip.

    We are invited to Toshiki's home to have dinner with his family and with some of their friends, all of who once lived in more northern parts of Japan but have recently evacuated to Kumamoto to escape the potential for radiation poisoning. Toshiki had spoken to us about how his family, over a year ago, decided to leave Tokyo and resettle here in Kumamoto. He had also mentioned that he was interested in including this story, and the difficult choices it entailed, in Zero Cost House. This was an opportunity to get a better sense of his experience.

    At this dinner, there are no men - only women and their children. In this modest home, nestled amidst other larger homes, dinner becomes more than just dinner. We hear the stories of this small community of evacuees, and all the while, their children run around, scream for their mothers' attention, play video games, and lie about on tatami mats.Dinner in Kumamoto











    The stories of these evacuees are overwhelming. Many of them speak to the fears of radiation, a fear that is difficult for many us Americans to comprehend. In the months following 3/11, though there had been public announcements by the Japanese government and media pronouncing Tokyo and its surrounding areas safe, many were concerned that there may be radiation quietly existing in the city. In an act of self-protection, regular citizens ordered incredibly expensive Geiger counters on the internet, and used them to test the level of radiation in their homes and work places. One woman said that she used a Geiger counter in her basement, and the amount measured was 4 times beyond a safe level.

    Radiation is strange. It can't be smelled or felt or seen - it is a quiet poison, and its effects take years to appear. There is no actual knowing if you and your loved ones are being affected by it. These families, however, were pushed to make a decision about whether to trust the media and government, or to trust their own concerns and the data from a machine that belongs to science labs and sci-fi films.

    These evacuees were presented with the same questions that have been traveling with us since Tokyo, since first meeting Sakaguchi and encountering the zero yen lifestyle - how do you choose to live your daily life? How do you decide what is true and factual for you? What information do you trust and use to make decisions, and, in the case of our hosts - when it comes to the livelihood and health of your children, how do you protect and provide for them?

    One woman, Ichikoji, spoke about her life as an actress in Tokyo. A warm, energetic woman, Ichikoji has a child, and, much like Toshiki, picked up and left the life she had in Tokyo. The fear of long-term radiation exposure forced a nearly impossible choice. She gave up her career as a theater artist for the sake of living in a place that felt safe for her and her child and to create a life of her own making.

    When Ichikoji arrived in Kumamoto, she had enough funds to sustain herself for a month, she told us. But how would she make a living, how would she care for her son? One day, she found herself visiting a local farm, of which there are three or four in the Kumamoto area. Strangely compelled by this place, she asked if she could work there. Now, Ichikoji was a city girl, through and through. She had no experience growing and maintaining crops, but something felt right to her. She took to it quickly, and, as she reports, that this former actress is quite good at it. This organic farm inspired her to begin a vegetarian, macrobiotic lifestyle, in which she cooks for herself and her son daily (and, on this incredible evening, Ichikoji not only served as story-teller, but as chef, making us a phenomenally tasty macrobiotic dinner).

    This story of a sudden shift in one's life isn't inspirational just for the swiftness of change. What moves many of us is a statement she made - “I like myself more as a farmer than I like myself as an actress.” So many of us on this trip have defined our lives by our artistry. We've dedicated every ounce of our time and energy, for so many years, to building careers and communities that center around an artistic pursuit. And its assumed that we are pursuing the thing that makes us happiest. There is something surprising in encountering someone who may have felt and thought the way many of us have, and is suddenly presented with a whole new way of looking and feeling about it. This forced reprioritization helped her find a happiness that so many of us still seek.

    After we heard Ichikoji's story, we listened to the accounts of each of the women's experiences. Each of them had hard-shifted their lives. Not only had they moved, but they began to question every aspect of the world around them - where are their clothes from and fabricated, what's really in the foods that they are eating, what materials are used in the construction of their homes. This examination has led many of them to a new lifestyle - one that is less impactful on the environment, filled with organic foods which are locally grown, and the development of a mindset that wants to be deeply informed about their world. It also has led them to create a community that shares in the collecting and dissemination of information and supports the taking on of challenges that are rooted in the creation of a new, self-determined lifestyle. There are undoubtedly reverberations with the words of Sakaguchi and, even, Thoreau.

    After an evening of stories and incredible food, our minds and hearts and bellies were filled. We returned home to our hotel and prepared for our departure, in the morning, to the resort town of Beppu - the final leg of this remarkable journey. Dan and James and the Kumamoto Mountains














    Click here for Part 3: BEPPU

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  • Alex Torra's Japan Tour Diary: TOKYO

    Posted by pigiron, Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 7:28pm

    Holy moly. Japan.

    It's hard to describe this trip, which is part tourism, part research process, part play making. The company has arrived in Tokyo, all nine of us in tow, with a confounded and excited energy about us, iphones and cameras out taking pictures, delighted by a place that has a simultaneous strangeness and familiarity. There is something amazing about this place - the mistranslated English on products and advertisements; the light shirt/dark pant uniform of the Japanese “salarymen” who walk in droves through underground stations; the ubiquitous vending machine which offers C.C. Lemon drink and Santory coffee canisters; and the cleaniness and order - people wait in a line to load into subway cars, jaywalking is frowned upon, and politeness is the name of the game.

    And every corner of this place seems overstuffed with people.Subway Map











    Tokyo is a monster of a city and, at times, totally daunting. Though it's easy enough to get around if you're not a Japanese speaker, there are still so many signs and labels and food items and subway stops that don't necessarily have an English translation provided. What's ume and shochu, and why won't restaurants allow us to leave a tip? There's a lot of bowing. And basic phrases seem complicated to grasp. But we are energized.

    Our days in Tokyo have a dual existence. In the mornings and in the evenings, we exist as ravenous tourists. Early morning at the famed fish-market, dinner and drinks in the Shinjuku area (whose underground walkways are a city unto themselves), dusky shopping in a neighborhood called Shimokitazawa. A climb up to the top of the Tokyo Tower. A visit to a manga café. And Muji. Oh, Muji! This store, whose products are exquisitely streamlined in their design, has never seen such hungry and brand-smitten American tourists.

    In the afternoons, though, we are taken on tours by a man named Kyohei Sakaguchi.Kyohei Sakaguchi, in one of the "zero yen houses."











    A charismatic 30-something philosopher-artist-rapscallion. Sakaguchi is the first stop on the research portion of our journey.

    A little background on Mr. Sakaguchi. When playwright Toshiki Okada spoke with us in the early days of development for Zero Cost House, and shared with us what he wanted to bring to the collaboration, he spoke of a man named Kyohei Sakaguchi. A conceptual artist/architect, Sakaguchi earned some fame a few years back by studying something called “zero yen houses.” Throughout Tokyo, there are individuals who most of us would categorize as homeless, but who Sakaguchi might call “opters-out”. Many of them have small home structures that are built from the detritus of urban society - their houses are made of discarded wooden palettes and carpeting and blue construction tarps. A small bit of electricity runs through these incredibly tiny handmade homes from old car batteries, and the inhabitants have an income not made from welfare or begging, but from a daily collecting and recycling of aluminum cans or from selling horseracing tips to local newspapers. These individuals temporarily stake claim to small bits of city land or build their homes in wooded areas off to the city's edges. These built-from-scrap homes, as opposed to being centered in downtrodden areas, pepper the city and are an unassuming compliment to Tokyo's landscape.Zero Yen Houses near the river in Tokyo











    In this leg of our trip, Sakaguchi has taken us to see these zero yen houses and to meet the people who have constructed and live in them. The encounter with these “homeless” is different than many of my personal experiences in America. Homelessness in America, it seems, is often associated with panhandling, placards that claim one will work for food, with uncleaniness, even filth, and, at times, with mental illness and societal ostracizing. To me, there is a sense of victimhood. These zero yen houses and their inhabitants feel different somehow. There is a funny sense of independence and a polite determination. This is not a life that has happened to them, it seems chosen, at least according to Sakaguchi's narrative. This is an existence that is lived by its own rules without breaking anyone else's.

    And some of the homes are incredibly mobile. Some of these house builders have created structures that can pack up, move, and be rebuilt in a new location within 24 hours. It is a living space that is nearly as mobile as the human body.

    Kyohei Sakaguchi has spent many years looking and studying these houses and their inhabitants. Some of these individuals he calls his “masters”. What he's learned from them is that there is a choice to be made, not only about how we live in this world, but how we perceive it. With broken English and hyper-charm, Sakaguchi speaks to our large group of Americans about how a space does not have one identity, but whatever identity the viewer or occupant wishes to place on it. A city underpass can serve as just as passageway or an architectural detail for some, and yet, for others, it can be perceived as a sleeping space or living room. He uses the language of Photoshop. How we perceive and behave in the world can be broken down into layers. There is a layer that contains the received and assumed definitions of the world, about what certain spaces are supposed to be. And then there are layers that we can personally define and place on top of the existing definitions. These layers not only question what a space is used for or who it belongs to, they can contain more charged ideas: how we think about the use and role of money in our daily lives, how we choose to interact with other individuals, and even how governmental laws play into our behavior. Many of us function within a first, culturally accepted layer, but we can be empowered to create and apply our own layers to the picture of the world around us.Tokyo Tower, with Zero Yen Houses dotting the riverline.











    As he guided us through this perceptual shift, Sakaguchi began to tell us about a new development in his work that branches out from his thinking about layers and zero yen houses. On March 11, 2011 Japan experienced a devastating tsunami and, subsequently, a nuclear disaster in Fukushima. As I understand it, the days and weeks following 3/11 were incredibly confusing and, in places, terrifying - blackouts, the closing down of major transportation lines, and, over time, the question about the edibility of food and liquids. It was unclear to many how much radiation was reaching down from the Fukushima area and into the more southwestern parts of Japan, including Tokyo. Could the food that lives on the shelves of supermarkets have been exposed to radiation? We had been told stories about the conflicting and odd information citizens received from the Japanese government - some milk could be consumed by adults but may be dangerous for young children. Products in the supermarkets were clearly labeled to indicate where they were grown and made, so that individuals could know where their food was coming from, and so avoiding products from the Fukushima area. Subsequently, the Japanese government, in response, encouraged citizens to purchase produce from the Fukushima area in order to support the area's farmers, but there was no sure-fire way of knowing the food's level of irradiation.

    In the months that followed 3/11, Sakaguchi, in his hometown of Kumamoto, on the Western most island of Japanese archipelago, Kyushu, had created something called the Zero Center - a place for those who chose to “evacute” the parts of Japan that may be affected by radiation. Zero Center did and continues to serve as a kind of resource center, a stopping point, and the headquarters of something completely unexpected - Kyohei Sakaguchi's “new government”, of which he has named himself Prime Minister. This was the next step in Sakaguchi's work.

    It's hard to describe what this “new government” is exactly. In our time with Sakaguchi, he speaks about ministers and about how things are and will be in his new government; however, there doesn't seem to be any actual infrastructure or system of governance. In the conversations we had with him, it seems like Sakaguchi isn't really interested in creating something that will necessarily replace the existing government or running ministries or creating a new way of enacting laws.

    His new government seems more like something to believe in, a conceptual home for his ideas, many of which focus in on how we might distinguish ourselves from the societal order that surrounds us. Much like in Thoreau's Walden (which is also source material for Zero Cost House), this new government seems to proselytize the idea of the self-determined life - you are capable of defining the ways in which you perceive and interact with the world. The current ideas of society and government are received notions, and much like his zero yen masters, you can choose to live a life defined by your own rules.











    It's a new version of an old idea, and though there is a revolutionary tone to Sakaguchi's words, it seems like his “new government” is a conceptual movement whose aggression isn't violent but pernicious.

    And all the while, Prime Minister Sakaguchi remains mischievous and cool. The experience of meeting and speaking with him is a conflicting, multi-directional one. The man reads as a hip jester-genius. At some point someone asked him if he was a Don Quixote, and he responded, “No, man, I'm Sancho Panza”. However, Sakaguchi has a truly appealing charisma - one of intelligence and confidence, a kind of earthy, art-cool vibe. The man can talk for hours on end - about art, about politics, about a basic understanding of how we choose to live our lives and the values by which we chose to live them. And though there are times when I'm not sure if I should trust this guy, it feels so easy to get swept up in his fascinating and mind-rattling conceptions.

    Our experience with Sakaguchi stands in stark relief to our experiences as tourists.  Seeing the houses and spaces of the zero yen lifestyle, meeting people who have voluntarily chosen to live on the outskirts of society's requirements, who live as modern day Thoreau's, puts a lot of our own behaviors and ways of living into question. It shakes some of us.

    And when we finish our tours with Sakaguchi, we return to our touristic adventures. We return to our eating and buying, our picture taking and our posing, all the while trying to appreciate and absorb the very culture Sakaguchi is subtly undermining.Alex, Mary and James with the mascot of the Tokyo Tower.



















    Click here for part 2: KUMAMOTO

  • Remembering Hiroshi Iwasaki

    Posted by pigiron, Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 8:47pm

    A little more than a year ago, Philadelphia and Pig Iron lost a great friend and a great artist. 

    Hiroshi Iwasaki was something else.  He was tireless.  He was formidable.   He was possessed of a unique sensibility when it came to form and color.  And he had a wicked, wicked sense of humor. 

    Hiroshi worked on five Pig Iron creations.  He first collaborated with us on a small series of Shakespeare experiments called NEWBORN THINGS in 1999 - he was a collector of unusual objects, in his house and at the prop storage out at Bryn Mawr College, where he worked for many years.  I remember him coming into rehearsal for a day, and then somehow, in a couple of days, creating a landscape of trunks, ropes, and a clawfoot bathtub for our mash-up of Ellis Island stories and the Tempest. 

    We worked together again at the Arden when they commissioned our first children's play, THE SNOW QUEEN.  That's when I met Hiroshi the fierce artist with that biting sense of humor;  at one point he said to me: “If you change this design, then you are the Snow Queen!”  That's not something you hear every day.  

    We were lucky to keep working Hiroshi over the next few years: he designed a melted Eiffel Tower, its spire bent to accommodate the ceiling, and a stage decorated with wallpaper cherubs for THE LUCIA JOYCE CABARET.  Together with co-designer Quinn Bauriedel, he assembled a unique “hidden” set for our 2006 remount of MISSION TO MERCURY, pulling architectural elements from the Mandell Theater into the design so it seemed to be just an abandoned theater, with a few tricks up its sleeve.  And he saved the day when we suddenly needed a set designer for our collaboration with Joe Chaikin, SHUT EYE.  He created the iconic ladder that Geoff Sobelle and Sarah Sanford danced and spun on, the part of the show that everyone remembered for years to come. 

    That really was Hiroshi's specialty: saving the day.  I think he was happiest when he was up against it, making masterpieces on a shoestring.  He certainly had the talent and the wherewithal to spend his career at large theaters, and he had his share of costume and set designs presented in Philadelphia and beyond.  But you could tell he just didn't care that much about the trappings of an “approved” career - he was that artist who genuinely didn't give a damn if the press or the public thought a project was worthy of a high profile.  He kept making masterpieces on a shoestring with his longtime collaborator Mark Lord at Big House Plays & Spectacles; with Headlong Dance Theater; and, luckily for us, with Pig Iron.

    There were several unforgettable sets he created that stay with me — both because of the performances that they were married to and because sometimes Hiroshi's sets come with their own story.  I remember his transformation of an abandoned theater into a shadowy hotel for Big House's RIDE ACROSS LAKE CONSTANCE - one of those difficult plays that stretch the audience's patience and imagination, but handled with such confidence and artistry that you had to succumb to it one way or another.   Heavy rains that September were flooding the performance space, but that wasn't going to stop Hiroshi: he built a functioning dyke in the theater, somehow, on the concrete floor.   You had to shake your head in disbelief.

    But he made it look easy; you had to get up close to see the incredible level of detail.  My favorite Hiroshi story is about exactly that.  Back in the 90s, a lot of companies were using the unfinished basement called “Smoke,” a long corridor of crumbling cement walls, stenciled with red numbers for some long-forgotten purpose.  Big House used it to incredible effect for their seminal production of ENDGAME with Maggie Siff and Pierce Bunting.  When Pig Iron took up residence a year later, imagine our surprise to find, after working in the basement for a few weeks, that when you leaned against one of these concrete walls, it gave a little bit, and had a hollow sound when you tapped it.

    We leaned in close and saw that this wall was not a wall like the others.  It was a fake.  The ENDGAME team had required another concrete wall for their site-specific production, so Hiroshi made one out of drywall, and textured it, and painted it - you had to get as close as two feet away to see how he did it.  I used to play a game with friends who came to visit when we were rehearsing or after performances: “Do you see anything different about one of these walls?  No?  Look closer.  OK, look closer.  No?  One of these walls is fake.  Can you guess which one?  No, huh?  Knock with your hands.  How about that, huh?  Hiroshi Iwasaki, man!  Hiroshi Iwasaki did that!”

    That wall stayed up for years and years, long after ENDGAME closed.  I imagine that half of the theater companies in there didn't even realize it was there; the other half made the same discovery as we did, breathed out in admiration, and saw no reason to take down this remnant of some lost production, this remarkable detail toiled over lovingly by some tremendous and unknown talent who didn't sign his name and was happy for some of his finest work to remain invisible. 

    This remembrance is long overdue, of course.  We have missed Hiroshi for more than a year; he and his partner John were regulars at the Pig Iron benefit cabaret, from back in the days when it was at the Ethical Society, arriving early to sit up front.  It isn't the same without him. 

    Dan Rothenberg

    February, 2012

    Below are some images of Hiroshi's designs for Pig Iron (click to enlarge):

    THE SNOW QUEEN (1999)

    The Snow Queen








    SHUT EYE (2001)

    Shut Eye 






    Lucia Joyce Cabaret 







    Mission to Mercury

    Mission to Mercury


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