BWW Interview: David Hirata of A BOX WITHOUT A BOTTOM at The Marsh Berkeley Works Some Serious Magic
David Hirata is the creator and sole performer of "A Box Without a Bottom (Soko-nashi Bako)" currently running at The Marsh Berkeley. Within the context of a magic show, Mr. Hirata connects his own personal story to that of earlier Japanese magicians to explore the illusions of race and identity in America. Talking with him, it's evident that he's a true magic geek as he delights in sharing his extensive knowledge about the history of magic and finding hidden links to his heritage as a Japanese American. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
"A Box Without a Bottom" in part tells the true story of 19th-century magician Namigoro Sumidagawa who was the first Japanese citizen in over 200 years to be given a passport to visit the West. How did you first become aware of that fascinating piece of history?
A few years ago, I was beginning work on a show and my idea was to tell the story of American magic, and in so doing kind of tell a story of America. The very first American-born professional magician was a black man, a slave, which I found fascinating as a starting point. And then moving forward certain famous American magicians, for instance Houdini, really get at the immigrant experience of the early 20th century. I then became interested in the Japanese and Chinese magicians who had come over in the late 19th century. I stumbled upon a historical paper about the first Japanese vaudeville troupes that came over in 1867-1868. There were bunches of them, and these troupes really did serve as a way for the American masses to get their first glimpse of Japan.
Digging further, I found a series of articles in a scholarly magic journal that referenced Sumidagawa, and I thought "Holy crap! The symbolic first person to come to America from Japan was a magician." (Others had left Japan illegally.) With the fall of the Shogun and the sort of power vacuum there in the end of the Tokugawa era, you had Western theater entrepreneurs grabbing up Japanese variety acts. If I remember correctly, the Risley Imperial Japanese Troupe that Sumidagawa was a member of, was actually the second one to arrive in the States, but they became the most famous. A local author, Fred Schodt, wrote a book about the Risley Imperial Japanese Troupe which was an invaluable source, and Fred himself was extremely generous in sharing research materials. He gave me access to an interview that Sumidagawa gave in the twilight of his life around 1895 about his experiences in the West. It's the only document we have where he speaks in his own words, and that allowed me to construct the historical narrative.
There's also a certain element of historical fiction to the piece. When I discovered the existence of an American magician, Wellington Tobias, who appears to have had a connection with Sumidagawa, that kind of formed what I'll call kind of the second leg of the piece. Then in developing the work with my director, Mark Kenward, he encouraged me to add a personal angle to it, which forms the third leg of the tripod, so to speak.
Once you landed on the basic ideas, how did you go about developing it into a theater piece?
I was fortunate to have a really good theater workshop that Mark was heading up. There were five of us, and all had developed solo performance pieces. An observation I would get a lot during the early part of development was "Well, it sounds like a good TED Talk." Meaning that it was interesting, but a little formal, a little lecture-y. The group was constantly pushing me to give it an emotional grounding, and that's when my personal story, my personal relationship with magic and orientalism in magic, started to work its way in. I got into my family history and for Japanese Americans of my generation, the internment inevitably comes in. The piece developed into Sumidagawa kind of at one end of the timeline and me at the other end. It's in some ways a history of Japanese Americans told through the history of magic going back to the original work I'd been reaching for years ago. And then the opportunities that The Marsh itself provided, the Monday Night Marsh works in progress series, the Tell It on Tuesdays storytelling series, were really important for getting to field test the material in front of audiences. Eventually I cobbled together a version for the San Diego Fringe Festival [where it won an award], and that was kind of my first proof of concept. It was still only a partial version, but it at least gave me an idea the structure could work.
In terms of format, it sounds like your show combines elements of narrative theater with elements of magic. Do I have that right?
Yes. Another element in the creation of the show is that very early on there were pieces of stage magic that I felt metaphorically worked as visual counterpoints to represent certain plot points or emotional states of the characters or my personal conflict with how I was perceived as an Asian American versus who I felt I was. Another thing I did when I was feeling blocked creatively is I would think, "OK, let me play with this piece of magic of Sumidagawa's. Does it give me an insight into his character? Does it suggest images or themes?" And that would help me build the piece.
And then there was this magic prop which had been known as a "Jap Box." The name refers to a magicians' prop which appeared in the United States sometime around 1880 or 1890, and was a standard magic prop for about a century. When one is learning the craft of magic, a lot of the vital, classic texts that one has to study to learn the foundations, are books that were written in the 1880's [through] maybe the 1950's. You pick up these old books and certain historical attitudes are preserved there. One of them, to my surprise as a 10-12 year old kid, was this prop called a "Jap Box."
When you uncovered that as a kid, were you horrified by that term?
There was a lot of discomfort on my part. At the same time, I was as a magic geek, and fascinated by the secret it represented. When I learned more about it, I went "Wow, that is a cool bit of conjuring there in that technology." I did not actually pick one up until maybe about five years ago, when I was able to import one from Japan. I asked a really good historian of magic, does this prop have Japanese origins and, somewhat to my surprise, he said "yes." I was accustomed as a kid to see shelves and shelves of magic props in shops with Asian design motifs which were in no way Asian. They were American inventions, but at the time, slapping two Asian-ish characters on a piece of plywood could kind of signify "magic prop." And quite notoriously, there was a famous magician of the 1920's who performed under the name of Chung Ling Soo, primarily in England. He was a very accomplished magician, very well respected by his peers, hugely successful, but he was an American in yellow face, William Robinson. He's not the only one, there were many, it was just this fashion starting in the late Victorian age.
So I was surprised to find this is a prop of Japanese origin. Part of the challenge was to think how Sumidagawa would have interacted with this physical object. I do not know for certain that he used it in his act, though it would have been a common magicians prop for Japanese at the time. I found it very disappointing that it was used for little more than "Here's an empty box. I'm gonna pull a lot of scarves out of it." Which at the time was probably fine for a music hall vaudeville act, but not very interesting theatrically. In trying to think of ways that a Japanese magician of the 1860's/1870's might have approached it, I came up with some new techniques.
You've had an extensive career as a magician. Is this your first foray into, for lack of a better term, legitimate theater? Or do you see that as a false distinction?
Well, for the first part of the question, back in 1998 I did create a more conventional autobiographical performance piece incorporating magic which was produced at the Marsh called "Kanji by Starlight." Honestly, my skills as a writer and performer and magician were just not where I wish they would have been at the time. I was pretty immersed in the solo performance world of San Francisco in the late 90's. Then I got married, moved to the suburbs and started raising a family. That's when I entered the professional magic world.
Here's an observation about a difference between what I'll call a conventional magic act, the kind you might see onstage in Vegas, and magic in a theatrical [context], which is what "Box Without a Bottom" is. When I did an earlier version of the show in San Francisco, it was part of the Fog City Magic Festival. The show went over well, but I had two people, a magician and a non-magician, observe in passing that it felt like there wasn't a lot of magic in it. I thought about that and I went over my script and I made counts. At the time, the show was about forty-five minutes long, and there were twelve magical occurrences, roughly one every four minutes. The next night, I was the opening act at the California Magic Dinner Theatre in Martinez where I live. I watched the headliner, a magician I know well, Shawn McMaster, who does a very good comedy magic act. Shawn's act was forty minutes long and had eight magical occurrences, or roughly one every five minutes. So he was doing, according to the metrics, less magic than I was, but his act was unmistakably a magic act, while mine was something different.
It has to do I think with the expectations of the conventional magic act. A trick can run anywhere from five to twelve minutes and that's basically only one magical occurrence. But that expectation tells the audience for that entire time, let's arbitrarily say the trick runs for eight minutes, that they are watching a magic trick. In my show, the magic is integrated as a visual point or it's integrated into the plot. The engagement of the audience is with the story, the characters, and then the magic comes along. I mean it's enjoyable to the audience, but they don't have that same rhythm of expectation as with a conventional magic act. When a conventional magic act is done well, that's great. This is a different intent and purpose.
I want to go back to your start in magic. How did you first get into it?
It's the story that so many magicians will tell you: for my seventh birthday, I got this magic set. And I was very lucky with the particular magic set I got. It was this wonderful sort of arts and crafts project kind of thing. It had this instructional booklet, but all the props were a cardboard template that had to be punched out and assembled. That had two effects: One is that several of the props were simplified versions of fairly sophisticated magic props that I might not have otherwise gotten my hands on at age seven. The other was that the experience of having to physically put these things together gave me a relationship to the technical aspect of magic. Part of the experience was that I put one of the things together wrong, I wasn't paying attention, and seeing the difference between the wrong way and the right way was a pretty big aha moment.
Right! And that's what the current maker movement is about: you learn how something actually works by making it.
Yeah, I hadn't thought of it that way. And there's a joy in that, in making it with your hands and getting to use it at the end.
Theater actors always like to trade stories about their worst or funniest onstage mishaps. What is one of your most memorable mishaps as a magician?
I would have been in sixth grade, so about eleven or twelve, and our school was doing this kind of pageant presenting little vignettes meant to portray aspects of Colorado history. (We were living in the Denver suburbs at the time.) As one of the two kid magicians in the class, someone got the idea "Hey, why don't you two guys do a little magic act, like what might have been seen in one of the saloons or vaudeville houses of the Gold Rush era?" We thought, "Great!" We were all over it. I had chosen this trick and it was very simple. I show a glass of milk, I pour the milk into a cone and it vanishes in a shower of glitter. Very quick, pretty easy to do and it was a good trick. Then came the day there was going to be a performance for the entire school in the multi-purpose room, like three or four hundred kids there watching us. I got up that morning and thought "OK, I gotta bring this trick glass and milk and some newspaper to school, and I need to be able to set it up very quickly. What if I set up the trick glass and put the milk in it [ahead of time]?" I improvised a cover for the glass using Saran Wrap and Scotch tape, and if it tipped over [in transit] it wasn't gonna matter. I felt very clever about this. I get up onstage for my moment, I show the newspaper, I roll it up into a little cone, I pick up the glass from my prop case and try to pour the milk and I realize to my horror that I had not removed the clear plastic. I had stupidly forgotten. In my defense, I was eleven.
And you were in front of hundreds of people!
Right, and I was probably kind of rushed, but I was left with a glass of milk that would not pour. I knew it would probably take me a full minute to pick off that Scotch tape, and I was dead. I left the stage and my mind is a blank. The next part of my memory is about five or ten minutes later sitting with some of my classmates, fielding questions like "What was that about?!" And yet somehow, it didn't stop me, which amazes me. That's a relatively standard story of a kid magician who jumps in feet first, gets a little overly clever. You crash and burn, and also learn from those things.
But it shows that clearly magic resonates for you because it didn't stop you.
No, it didn't, and I kind of wonder that it's stayed with me this long. I love that it has, but... I don't know if Yo-Yo Ma has a great explanation for why the cello, you know? Or maybe he does. But for most of us with these things we love to do - what is the answer? But here we are.
"A Box Without a Bottom (Soko-nashi Bako)" runs through December 1st, on Saturdays and Sundays only, at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA. For information or to order tickets visit themarsh.org or call (415) 282-3055 (Monday through Friday, 1pm-4pm).