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Interview: Tetsuro Shigematsu Developing His 1 HOUR PHOTO

As part of their Virtual 55th Anniversary Season, East West Players will be streaming Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (vAct)’s 1 HOUR PHOTO beginning June 12, 2021

Interview: Tetsuro Shigematsu Developing His 1 HOUR PHOTO

As part of their Virtual 55th Anniversary Season, East West Players will be streaming Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (vAct)'s 1 HOUR PHOTO beginning June 12, 2021. Written and performed by writer/performer/storyteller Tetsuro Shigematsu, 1 HOUR PHOTO is directed by Richard Wolfe and will available online through June 20,2021.

The ever busy Tetsuro managed to find some time to reply to a few of my queries.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Tetsuro!

1 HOUR PHOTO had its world premiere at The Cultch in Vancouver in October 2017. Have you made any changes from your live onstage premiere to the version that you just filmed?

It's about 10 minutes shorter. The original stage version included the storyline of my father, who was dying during the season I met Mas (Yamomoto). I think I was experiencing some emotional transference, losing my own dad, and then subconsciously seeking another father figure because I didn't yet feel ready to be fatherless in this world. But in the end, we decided Mas' story was so epic, it was more than enough for our show.

What sparked the creation of 1 HOUR PHOTO back in 2017?
When I first started my conversations with Mas Yamomoto, my initial interest was his ownership of several Japan Camera stores, which were part of a chain of 1-hour photo development labs. At the time, the theatrical version of Ins Choi's Kim's Convenience was sending tremors across the Canadian theatre landscape. Long before it became a beloved TV show streamed all over the world, it started off as a Fringe show in Toronto, and its tremors reverberated all the way to the Pacific coast. Something unprecedented was happening. As an Asian Canadian theatre artist I was inspired. I thought, perhaps I could also write a play about an Asian Canadian family business. And for me, a neighborhood photo developer was a kind of proto-internet, a node where everyone within a community processed their memories. And the Yamamotos were privy to them all. Births, weddings, graduations, love, sex, and the precious banalities of everydayness. Long before the advent of YouTube, to me this was the first living archive. But when I first sat down to talk to Mas, an older man and a younger man sitting across from each other at a kitchen table, the 20th century unfurled. Here was someone who grew up the son of a fisherman, was incarcerated all with the rest of the Japanese Canadian community, and then worked on the Distant Early Warning Line in arctic at the height of the Cold War. I quickly realized I was dealing with a much more epic life story, and it demanded a bigger canvas.

What inspired you to use miniatures?
Interview: Tetsuro Shigematsu Developing His 1 HOUR PHOTO Using toys as a form of puppetry was something we first experimented with in my other solo work, EMPIRE OF THE SON. I'm a bit of a frustrated filmmaker, so anytime I get to incorporate movie cameras into my work, I'm game. But we also felt that the use of miniatures was consistent to the world of 1 HOUR PHOTO. This is a show about photography, and phonograph records. What could be more analogue? In order to express the sheer scale of what happened with the Japanese Canadian incarceration after Pearl Harbor, the sheer number of people displaced, the sheer number of makeshift cabins hastily built, the sheer number of suitcases, we wanted to give our audiences a sense of infinitude, but we didn't want to rely on CGI to do that. So we do things like placing a miniature bunkbed in a box of two way mirrors, and the audience not only gets to see how it's done, but be enchanted by the old school magic of it all.

What were the Canadian COVID precautions that you had to take in filming 1 HOUR PHOTO?
We didn't permit ourselves any audience members in the theatre where we shot. This was a big challenge for me. Most professional actors moonlight in TV and film, but I only do theatre. So to be dropped into this massive filmmaking apparatus was quite alienating. No one on the film crew was listening to the story I was telling. They were too busy doing their jobs, pulling focus, monitoring levels. So I asked my producer Donna Yamamoto, who is also the daughter of Mas, the man of the hour, if I could have at least one person sitting in the balcony who hasn't heard the story before. Otherwise, it just felt like a rehearsal. It didn't feel like theatre. Donna said, "Why don't you imagine someone sitting in the balcony? It's called acting. Maybe you should try it sometime." But Donna being the kind person she is, volunteered to step out of the theatre, to allow one of my friends who hadn't seen the show to sit in the balcony. For me, it made all the difference.

You studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg in 1994 and Butoh dance with the founding master Kazu Ohno for two years in Yokohama, Japan. What is the one lesson you learned from each that you adhere to to this day?
Allen once told me that when he performs in public, he chooses one person in the audience to focus on. Of course, that doesn't mean he stares at them the whole time, but what I took that to mean is that he has an objective with this person. He has designs on them so to speak. And that power, that focus, that desire to move this person from one state of being to another is something that everyone in the room can feel.
Kazuo Ohno was like an angel. And by angel I don't mean angelic, someone all goodness and light, with a storybook halo and beatific smile. By angelic, I mean an emissary from an all-powerful being. He was equal parts light and shadow. His beauty could be terrifying. His horror Interview: Tetsuro Shigematsu Developing His 1 HOUR PHOTO was sublime. I think if you ever met an angel in real life, the experience would be a combination of a nightmare, a wet dream, and lucid dreaming all at once. That was Ohno-sama. What blows my mind is that he started out as a high school gym teacher. I was a theatre usher for twelve years of my life. And I still remember all those moments when people treated me like a nonperson because they couldn't see past my job title. The irony being, if anything I was more artistically gifted back then. I was way more sensitive, more pure. Now I'm on the other end of that shared delusion. Now people are super nice to me for equally invalid reasons. So the lesson I've learned from Kazuo is now I'm inclined to respect almost everyone. Not because they might become powerful one day, and that person might become your boss, but because that person who you think you have all figured out might be a sorcerer in disguise. Only you can't recognize who they are because around their neck hangs a gym whistle.

You were the first person of color to host a daily network radio show in Canada - The Roundup (2004 - 2005). Do you see yourself as a pioneer, a role model for aspiring artists of color?
I used to resist the title of role model because I thought being put on a pedestal restricts your movement, but I've come to realize that if you have any kind of profile, and you belong to a marginalized community like I do as a diasporic Asian, then yeah, congratulations you're a role model! But I've realized there's actually an escape clause in the fine print. No one said you have to be a "good" role model. You can be cautionary example. Of course, you'll catch a lot more shit than a regular person, more haters, more trolling in the comments section, but you can still be who you are. On a more serious note, I've always had lots of people who I look up to. And they've instilled in me notions of expanded possibility because they occupied positions of visibility that have never been occupied by people who look us. And that's awesome. If I inspire anyone, I just hope they use that energy to surpass me because that's how the culture moves forward. And if they wanna thank me, they can hire me to push a broom in their theatre, and sleep in the coatcheck overnight. That'll be my way to sidestep homelessness when people no longer want to pay me to take off my clothes on stage because I'm too old.

Who were your role models growing up?
I really admired Vaclav Havel. He was a playwright who became Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia. I so admired the fact that he was truly reluctant to lead, which to me was the embodiment of Plato's ideal. Only those who do not wish for political power can be trusted with it. I never thought I'd see someone who reflected that level of integrity step into power.

Interview: Tetsuro Shigematsu Developing His 1 HOUR PHOTO Any plans to bring 1 HOUR PHOTO back live onstage? Or would you reprise your first solo piece EMPIRE OF THE SON?
My next show will be an adaptation of EMPIRE OF THE SON, which is the show that put me on the map. I've performed it to over 20,000 people, and all over the world, but now I'm most excited about performing it live and broadcasting from my own home in Vancouver. You know, when you're a professional theatre artist with a bit of profile, it's easy to curate a social media feed that looks pretty glamorous, being on tour, opening nights, all that jazz. But now people will get a voyeuristic glimpse into how I really live. I'm excited to be able to do all things you're not allowed to do in a theatre, like set things on fire, or take a shower while telling a story. Because all those things are too dangerous or expensive. And I feel like if I really do slip into a bath during a show, people will be getting their money's worth, because I really am in the best shape of my life! If you want to know when that show happens, sign up for my newsletter at That's my plug.

Thank again, Tetsuro! I look forward to seeing your 1 HOUR PHOTO.

For single viewing tickets for 1 HOUR PHOTO through June 20, 2021; or season tickets for East West's 55th Anniversary Season; log onto

From This Author - Gil Kaan

      Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas of film, television, and stage in... (read more about this author)

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