Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors

Director Shorts: Sonoko Kawahara

Sonoko Kawahara - photo credit Kumiko Hart

Sonoko Kawahara
photo credit Kumiko Hart

Next up in the “Director Shorts” series is the fascinating Sonoko Kawahara. Originally from Tokyo, Sonoko develops original pieces that integrate text, music, movement and visual elements. These works have been presented at NYC venues such as DTW, HERE, Performance Space 122, Women’s Project, Music Theater Group, New York Theatre Workshop and currently at La MaMa. You can read more about her here.

In between the longer, in-depth interviews with NYC’s Indie Directors, I’ve decided to include some “shorts.” Some lighter, shorter interviews to whet your appetite! Here’s the gist: I ask a few questions via email, they reply, then I send follow up questions. Then they get to ask me a question!

D I R E C T O R   S H O R T S

Sonoko Kawahara

Hello Sonoko, and thank you so much for speaking with me. Your current production, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! sounds fascinating and I can’t wait to share it and you with my readers! Let’s get straight to the questions, shall we?

CP: Was there any one incident or point in your life that convinced you that directing was what you wanted to do?

SK: I had a horrible experience working with an unprofessional director in Japan which made me lose my job. I then went to Peru and finally, LA where I met an inspiring director, Anne Bogart. Meeting her changed my life. Meeting her changed my life.

CP: I, too, have been inspired by Anne Bogart. I envy you the chance to have worked with her! Tell me about an incident while directing that taught you a big lesson, in either a positive or negative fashion.

SK: During the process, if I start to please others whether consciously or unconsciously, I find myself at the losing end. A director is a choice maker and if your choice is based on winning somebody’s favor, people will not believe in you. I learned that sometimes directing can be a lonely task, but you have to believe in your intuition, remembering what is truly important. I feel that being a director; you have to be ready to not be liked all the time, and you have to believe that your choices are going be the best for all.

CP: Those are wonderful words for a director to hear, and re-hear, throughout our careers. What do you do to keep your artistic batteries charged?

SK: When I meet and talk with inspiring artists, it charges my artistic batteries. They help me grow.

CP: Do you have “dream” production that you want to do? Or a dream venue?

SK: BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) is definitely my dream venue. I had several Deadly She Wolf Assassin at Armageddon rehearsals at BAM’s studios. When I first came to New York, I commuted there to see many shows. It is such an inspiring theater and a great school for me. I also love an open-air theater, like the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Connecting with nature is where we started theater in human history. If I could put The Cuchulain Cycle play with live music, at an-open air theater, it would be my dream project.

CP: I have to agree. Some of the best theatre I’ve seen has been at BAM. Please make that dream project happen! If you could do another job in the theatre besides directing, what would it be?

SK: I admire performers and I used to be an actress too. I would be interested in acting again. But I believe designing the stages would be an inspiring job as well.

Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon (LaMama)

Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon (LaMama)

CP: You obviously have a connection with the Asian culture – how do you feel those connections enhance your productions of Western plays? (As a person of Celtic heritage who was born in Japan, I would have LOVED to have seen your CUCHULAIN CYCLE – I can imagine such connections between these two nations of storytellers!)

SK: Thank you for mentioning this. Yeats was inspired by the Japanese traditional art form (Noh) to create two of these cycle plays. I became interested in what drew him to it. However, when I started reading Yeats’ plays, I was more attracted to its level of humanity than the culture. As a theater director, even as a Japanese immigrant, it is never my intention to spread or showcase Asian culture. If the audience were to notice any Asian elements integrated in my work, it is unintentional and a mere result of a natural creative process. When I approach Western plays, I only hold on to what is interesting and important to me, as a human being and not as a Japanese woman.  Among my points of view, there are certainly elements from the Japanese culture that I grew up with. Culture is definitely an element that makes you who you are but I believe that to define us as a person, our personality should come before our culture. I guess I do not avoid my Asian-ness but do not make this as a sales point when I access Western plays. I just try to feel what I feel.

CP: Using culture as a touchstone, but not as a driving force – sounds like a good line to walk. You have participated in several directing programs (Lincoln Center, Mabou Mines, etc) – how was that experience for you? Would you encourage other directors to do them?

SK: Yes, these directing programs definitely helped me a lot.  My involvement in these programs helped me embrace a new life style, a new culture and new community. When I first began my directing career here, I felt like a baby just learning how to walk. I was very surprised when I was accepted to these programs because I did not have any credits and I was a terrible English speaker. I cannot mention enough how much I appreciate these opportunities given to me. At the same time, in my opinion, participating in directing programs, in and of itself, will not make one a good director. In the end, as an artist and a director, you have to make choices, and you have to do it alone. I learned to balance my ability to be open and socialize with others and the times I needed to be alone and overcome the feeling of loneliness.

CP: The description of your latest project, Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!, indicates lots of different influences (sword-fighting, martial arts, comic books, Noh, anime) – have you had to do anything special, beyond the typical work of a director, to bring them all together into one coherent mix?

SK: I kept looking for things that surprised me and shared them with my collaborators. For example, I watched a lot of YouTube video clips, some of which are from reality shows like “America’s Got Talent”, “American Idol”, “SYTYCD” etc. Many undiscovered talents surfaced in these shows unexpectedly. I also watch magic shows, documentaries and the history channel which gave me huge emotional impacts on me. These shows impress and surprise me. One of the main elements of Deadly She Wolf… is the martial arts choreography, which is made up of a series of moment-to-moment responses and reactions. You never know what will happen next. Each moment has to be thrilling, exciting and spectacular. It is the same when Fred’s band performs live Jazz (Fred Ho). In Jazz, no single performance is the same. In this show, the musicians, performers and designers seek to grab these moments of surprises. The spectacle of this show comes from the artists on stage and not from budgeted technologies. The characters’ dramatic emotional shifts have to come as a surprise each time during the performance and this should be tangible to the audience. I want to make a show where the audience feels the characters’ emotions as though they had been struck on their chest. So, I thought taking in any moments of surprises into my body was important for me to direct this piece.

Have you ever, or would you ever want, to expand your directing into other mediums, such as film, tv, webisodes, opera…?

SK: Films attract me because you and your product will last forever. Theater, on the other hand, is not recorded and will not be seen by anyone in the future. However, in theater, there is a time limit and I feel that I have to make choices. If I know that I can take the same scenes over and over again and re-do them, I will not know when to stop and that will make me a very bad decision maker. It will definitely be interesting to see what I would do if I had to make a film. Opera is another medium I was always interested in. Deadly She-Wolf… certainly has qualities of opera. Fred’s music and text is very informative and listening to the music helped me find a way to direct.

CP: In a general sense, what are the traits that you most admire in actors?

SK: Their fearless courage to be open in front of others

CP: And now you get to ask me a question!

SK: What makes you keep working as a theater director?

CP: Ah, wonderful question. I think I ask myself this question at least once a week. The answer lies in the web of connectivity that lies between the story and the audience, and my place on that web. I love helping that story through the web from the playwright to me, to the designers, to the actors and then to an audience. I get to be a part of each one of those “nodes” of connectivity, and I simply adore it. I love being a storyteller, and theatre lets me do that!

Thank you so much for your time, Sonoko. I hear that Deadly She-Wolf is selling out quickly. Best wishes on your run!

Cat Parker is a theatrical director in New York City, and the Artistic Director of Articulate Theatre Company. Her work can currently be seen here.

DRAGON, produced by Articulate Theatre Company

DRAGON, produced by Articulate Theatre Company

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