Hiro Kanagawa and Boca del Lupo: Theatre During Lockdown
As theatre venues around the world began to close their doors dues to the COVID-19 crisis Boca del Lupo Artistic Director Sherry Yoon, and Artistic Producer Jay Dodge were forced to confront the question, “What is the essence of theatre?” and from there, “How can we keep the ember burning for those who love performance as much as we do?”
Watching from home as productions went online and performances carried on through Zoom and other online platforms, they came to the conclusion that they needed to find a different path in keeping with their answer to the first question: “Theatre is live, theatre is communion, theatre is something to be experienced together, in the flesh.”
Drawing on their experience with Micro and Immersive performance and taking every precaution to keep audiences, staff and artists safe, Yoon and Dodge devised two unique ways to breathe “liveness” into theatre during these extraordinary, unsettling times: Red Phone and Plays2Perform@Home, both of which blur the line between audience and performer.
Red Phone takes place between two hand-crafted, fully enclosed phone booths outfitted with a vintage red phone and an integrated teleprompter. Two at a time, audience members engage each other in a five-minute conversation written by a Canadian writer. The act of having the conversation with an unseen partner provides an anonymity that adds to the intimacy of the performance, encouraging participants to be the actor in their own theatrical experience. Described as the theatrical equivalent to singing in the shower, Red Phone is free of charge and open three days a week. Anyone can walk up and into the booths with a friend or family member and spend five minutes engaging in some of the most urgent, touching, thought provoking conversations written by some of Canada’s most exciting writers.
The current collection of Red Phone scripts includes contributions from Governor General Award-winner Hiro Kanagawa (Vancouver), Metis artist/actor/director Keith Barker (Toronto), award winning actor/writer/director Karen Hines (Calgary), writer/musician/ filmmaker Ivan Coyote (Whitehorse/Vancouver), and award-winning Boca del Lupo Artistic Producer Jay Dodge (Vancouver) among others.
Plays2Perform@Home takes a different approach, with Boca del Lupo commissioning four Canadian playwrights to pen scripts to be performed around the dinner table, picnic blanket or campfire this summer. Working with Valerie Thai, the award-winning head designer and art director of Adbusters, each writer is creating 10 to 20 minute plays with three to eight characters. which will be packaged up in a boutique box set and delivered to your home. P2P@Home asks the audience to take a leading role in creating a piece of theatre with the close friends and family they have chosen to be a part of their “bubble”. The first playwrights contributing scripts, ranging from “Kitchen Sink Drama” to “Satirical Farce,” are Hiro Kanagawa, Jovanni Sy, and Karen Hines.
The Bulletin spoke to actor and playwright Hiro Kanagawa by email.
Bulletin Interview: Hiro Kanagawa
First of all, like the rest of us, I’m sure your life has been turned upside down by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. How have you been dealing with the current state of affairs?
On a practical level, I’m fortunate to have my wife and two kids. On a day-to-day basis, we’ve really done well. We have enough space at home so we can get away from one another, and we’re also fortunate to live in Port Moody – we can be in wilderness very quickly. I’ve stayed in touch with friends and extended family via social media and Zoom. Some poker buddies and I even managed to keep our weekly Friday night poker games going by combining Zoom and an online poker app. As for work, I’m fortunate to have enough of a voice career that I was able to have some work despite the complete shut down of film, TV and theatre. And as a writer, I’ve actually been quite busy working on innovative projects like this one with various companies from across the country.
On a spiritual level, I’ve had good days and bad days. But I accepted early on that COVID would be with us for a long, long time, so I got on with life after the first couple of weeks. We’re extremely fortunate to live in BC which has handled COVID as well as anywhere in North America. That makes it easier.
Many of us have seen you in your numerous film and television roles, which I suppose is your public face, but you’re a well-respected writer as well. Your works include 2017’s Indian Arm, for which you won the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language Drama. Have you always been a writer, and how does it mesh with your acting experiences?
Many people who know me as an actor are not aware that I am also a writer and have been longer than I’ve been an actor. I wrote collaborative pieces with Boca del Lupo, Rumble Theatre and others all through the 1990s. My first professionally-produced play The Tiger of Malaya, premiered at Factory Theatre and the National Arts Centre in 2003. I also spent five years working as a television story editor on shows such as Da Vinci’s City Hall, Intelligence and Blackstone. I probably had an ambition to be a writer long before I considered acting as a career.
Obviously, the work that writers and actors do is enriched by various life experiences, so certainly my experience writing informs my acting and vice versa. I think being an actor-writer tends to make me less precious about both.
These two projects by Boca del Lupo sound really great. Have you worked with them before?
I was a contributing writer on a Boca play called Hold Your Head Tight. I’ve also written short pieces for their Micro Performance Series and another event at the Fishbowl space on Granville Island. Prior to that, Sherry Yoon was actually the lead actor in the play I wrote for my MFA at SFU. I also directed her in a couple other short pieces around that time. So Red Phone and Plays2Perform@Home are continuations of a decades-long collaboration.
Red Phone sounds like a compelling project. Not only are the participants non-actors, they can’t see each other. How did this impact your writing of the script?
I come from a performance art background, so non-traditional theatre is in my blood. I like to go “meta” when I venture outside the confines of traditional theatre and that is most definitely what I did with both Red Phone and P2P.
Regarding P2P, you’re again writing for non-actors. What is alive for you in the concept of people performing together in their own homes?
P2P arose from the fact that live theatre is cancelled due to the COVID lockdown. That’s the aspect of the project that makes P2P different from Red Phone. Red Phone wasn’t necessitated by any outside events, but P2P is happening because we otherwise can’t have live theatre. My piece for P2P is informed by the awareness of what we’ve lost: the human connection.
Do you see this project growing wings, with people recording and/or sharing their performances with others?
That’s hard to say. I don’t know that it’s anyone’s intent that these pieces be recorded on video and shared online. My friend Michel-Marc Bouchard shared a poignant image on social media recently: there’s a theatre production happening on a computer screen, and the caption underneath says, “Ceci n’est pas du theatre.”
P2P was conceived as a way for audience members to experience something like live theatre in their homes or other spaces in their lives. I think recording that experience on video takes it out of the realm of live theatre.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The live performing arts sector is already in severe distress and many companies and organizations will be struggling for their very survival in the weeks and months to come. The human cost in terms of lives and careers curtailed and put on hold is incalculable. We certainly need more projects like P2P, but we also need theatre-goers and patrons of the arts to support their local theatres and theatre artists as much as they are able to, in any way they can. There is a misconception that the arts in Canada receive so much in government subsidies that they will do just fine regardless of whether there is an audience. In fact, government subsidies account for a small fraction of the operating costs of most performing arts companies. Without ticket revenues, the existence of many of our iconic performing arts institutions is very much in jeopardy. We all have to pull together now and start the work of keeping the arts alive during these dark times so that they can come back in full glory when it’s safe to turn the lights back on.
Red Phone runs on Granville Island, from July 1 to August 22
Thursday to Saturday 1pm to 5pm
Admission is free, walk ups are encouraged, and donations welcome
Designated timeslots are available through bocadellupo.com
Plays2Perform@Home is available for order online through bocadellupo.com and in person at the storefront office on Granville Island
#100-1398 Cartwright Street, Vancouver, BC
Hours are Thursday to Saturday 1pm to 5pm, July 1 to August 22
Box Sets available for $30 for 3 plays