DISTANT OBSERVER By John Jesurun & Takeshi Kawamura Comes to La MaMa, 3/16-4/1

DISTANT OBSERVER By John Jesurun & Takeshi Kawamura Comes to La MaMa, 3/16-4/1"Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence" is a collaboration between Japanese playwright/director Takeshi Kawamura and American playwright/director John Jesurun. The project is conceived as a play written and directed in collaborative partnership by both artists. Written in sequential chapters by each playwright, it combines two noted and formative artists of the same generation, both with distinct voices and significant work, in a deep creative conversation across cultures. Its plot follows a supposed murderer who reinvents himself, and is reinvented by circumstance, in a series of adventures in the Suicide Forest of Japan. La MaMa will present the play's world premiere, directed by Jesurun, March 16 to April 1 in its Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East Fourth Street.

In the process of writing the play, each artist drafted a ten minute section in response to the other's contribution. Over three years, they built a sequence of chapters. Each section was translated into the opposite language so that the other playwright could respond. The plot, form and structure of the play evolved as the artists responded to each other from different sides of the world. They met in Tokyo and New York periodically to develop the work with actors in each language.

Their collaborative strategy recalls a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry called renga, in which one poem is written by more than one author working together. It is a true creative interchange of form and content. A renga consists of at least two ku, or stanzas. The opening stanza, called the hokku, was the historic basis for the modern haiku form of poetry.

The plot is, roughly, a tale of urban people who transform endlessly and struggle with whether they are characters or just ideas floating around. A man accused of his wife's murder has gone to prison for ten years and suffered. Now, he works as a sushi chef and may have taken the murder rap to conceal his wife's suicide. Believing this to be true, his sister-in-law offers him a rich financial reward, which he refuses. He becomes disoriented in a forest "of peaceful discontentment" with a bloody hiragana knife and a tuna perfectly cut into 456 sashimi slices. Apparently he has failed to kill himself and instead burned the forest down. The forest refers to Aokigahara, Japan's "Suicide Forest," which is littered with remains of people who have killed themselves there. The characters are forced to bury all the bodies in the burned forest and a higher authority changes their names, identities and jobs. In the end, the forest is reinvented as a fish market, then as a national teahouse attraction, and finally as a site for the Olympics. The one-time murderer reinvents himself as a Ramen chef.

The play's initial scene, which introduces a man who has served jail time for a murder, was penned by Jesurun. Beyond that, nothing plot-wise was pre-planned.

Themes of mortality are universal to Jesurun's plays and the concept of impermanence is central to this piece. In correspondence between the authors, Jesurun observed that New York is a city of migrants, where people need to set aside their individual histories to move forward. Kawamura found a mirroring theme in the mindset of Tokyoites, who constantly experience the fragility of their city. The city was destroyed by fires repeatedly in its long history, flattened by B29's during World War II, and is vulnerable to large-scale earthquakes. Rather than worrying about impending doom, which would destroy their mental state, citizens of Tokyo, he says, have learned to swallow peril and go on living. It's an acceptance of impermanence that underlies the Japanese mentality and is expressed on one of the country's most popular symbols, the cherry blossom.

The title refers to the phenomenon of perspective, which is a major theme in Jesurun's work. It is a twin reference, recalling the film criticism of Noël Burch, which explained Japanese cinema in terms of traditional Japanese aesthetics, and the famous haiku by Ki No Tsurayaki (872-945) which says:

To the distant observer
They are chatting of the blossoms
Yet in their hearts
They are thinking very different thoughts

To witness "Distant Observer: New York/Tokyo Correspondence" will be like being invited to take a wild ride, not unlike watching serial improvisation. Part of the thrill is to see how the chapters of the story, being born of two minds and two cultures, can actually stack up and work together. The writings are not braided, like in a usual collaboration, but more like individual links in a chain, but stylistically, they are actually hard to pick apart. Neither author's work seems dominant. The production's style will be a blend of language, film, architectural space and media. Jesurun will design the set and video.

The actors are Claire Buckingham, Kotoba Dan, Kyle Griffiths, Samuel Im and Anastasia Olowin. Lighting Designer is Jeff Nash. Production Manager is Caleb Hammond. Production Stage Manager is Katie Pedro.

There will be a talk-back Sunday, March 18 with the co-authors.

John Jesurun, a winner of the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship in 1996, is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost innovators of avant-garde theater, creating virtuoso works that overlap media and language in surprising and unpredictable ways. He was originally trained as a sculptor at the Philadelphia College of Art and studied film at Yale before turning to playwriting in the early 1980's. He was the Associate Producer of "The Dick Cavett Show" for two years. He has received grants and fellowships from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations as well as the NEA. In addition to La MaMa, his works have been presented in major venues and festivals both nationally and internationally. Jesurun's work has long been distinguished by his use of film and video to destabilize the audience's sense of reality. His "Deep Sleep" (La MaMa, 1986) had two 70-minute films projected on facing screens while the five actors were caught in between.

Jesurun received an Obie in 1986 for "Deep Sleep. His other La MaMa works include "Red House" (1984), "Number Minus One" (1984), "Dog's Eye View" (1984), "Black Maria" (1987), a revival of his most famous work, "Shatterhand Massacree," (1992), "Iron Lung" (1992), "Point of Debarkation" (1993), "Slight Return" (1995), "Philoktetes" (2014), three installments of his famed series "Chang in a Void Moon" (2003), "Stopped Bridge of Dreams" (2012) and "Shadowland Live" (2015).

Takeshi Kawamura is one of Japan's leading playwrights and theater makers with plays spanning three decades of contemporary theater in Japan. His work explores the ways in which things are both remembered and forgotten socially, politically and culturally. He has written over 50 plays and received numerous awards including Japan's prestigious Kishida Kunio Drama Award. His work has been performed in many international venues and translated into several languages. His "Aoi/Komachi," presented by Japan Society in New York in 2007 as part of its 100th anniversary celebration, was a re-imagining of two 14th century Noh plays into contemporary settings.

Kawamura and Jesurun are artists of the same generation. They met when Kawamura was in New York on an Asian Cultural Council grant in 1996. Their collaboration in the writing of this play was carried out over three years, supported by the Saison Foundation.

Aya Ogawa (Japanese to English translation) is a playwright, director and translator. She was translator of "Five Days in March," a revolutionary Japanese play by Toshiki Okada, which was performed by Witness Relocation at La MaMa in 2010. Her own plays, which she created and directed, include "Ludic Proxy" (The Play Company), "Journey to the Ocean" (Foundry Theatre), and "oph3lia" (HERE). Her translations have been published by Samuel French among others, and produced in the U.S. and U.K. She is a member of New Dramatists, a Usual Suspect at NYTW, an Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) and recipient of the President's Award, LMCC. Her latest project about failure will be shown on June 15 and 16 at BAX. (ayaogawa.com)

This project is supported in part by the Saison Foundation, which funded its writing development over several years. This production of the world premiere of "Distant Observer: Tokyo/New York Correspondence" is supported by The Japan Foundation through the Performing Arts JAPAN Program and by additional support from the Axe-Houghton Foundation.

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club is dedicated to the artist and all aspects of the theater. An integral part of New York City's cultural landscape, La MaMa has a worldwide reputation for producing daring work in theater, dance, performance art, and music that defies form and transcends boundaries of language, race, and culture. Founded in 1961 by theater pioneer and legend Ellen Stewart, La MaMa is a global organization with creative partners and dedicated audiences around the world. La MaMa presents an average of 60-70 productions annually, most of which are world premieres. To date, over 5,000 productions have been presented at La MaMa with artists from more than 76 nations.

La MaMa's 56th season highlights artists of different generations, gender identities, and cultural backgrounds, who question social mores and confront stereotypes, corruption, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia in their work. Its stages embrace diversity in every form and present artists that persevere with bold self-expression despite social, economic, and political struggle and the 56th season reflects the urgency of reaffirming human interconnectedness.

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