Tetsuro Shigematsu: Empire of the Son
Like many, I first became aware of Tetsuro Shigematsu when he took over from Bill Richardson as host of CBC’s popular afternoon show, The Roundup.
My first thought was, huh, they’ve replaced Bill Richardson with an Asian. Cool. I remember being struck by his face. It was, as I wrote in a 2008 Bulletin feature, the face of a Japanese woodblock print samurai. Richardson was a tough act to follow; it was somewhat akin to trying to fill Jon Stewart’s shoes on the Daily Show, but Shigematsu dove in fearlessly, putting his own stamp on the long-running program until its cancellation in 2005. He was, according to Wikipedia, the first broadcaster of colour (my words) to host a daily network radio program.
Although to most listeners he seemed to appear out of the blue, Shigematsu’s CBC hosting duties were a natural progression in an already eclectic career. At 19, he had been the youngest playwright to compete in the Quebec Drama Festival. Several years later he was performing his one-man show, Rising Son, in Montreal, Boston, Los Angeles and Tokyo. In the mid-nineties, he spent a year studying poetry with beat icon Allen Ginsberg and two years in Yokohama studying with butoh founding master Kazu Ohno, although he claims to be neither a good poet nor good dancer.
Back in North America, Shigematsu co-starred in the television movie Rinko, The Best Bad Thing, with George Takei of Star Trek fame, marking a shift towards TV and film work.
In the 2000s, Shigematsu began working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in both radio and television. Prior to his hosting duties on The Roundup, he was involved in a number of shows including Madly Off in All Directions, Pass The Mic, CBC Radio One’s The Afternoon Show, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
In working for the public broadcaster, Shigematsu was to a degree following in the footsteps of his father. Although his parents were both born in Japan, his father in Kagoshima and his mother in Osaka, they relocated to London in the sixties, where his father worked for the BBC, and where Tetsuro and his four siblings were born before relocating to Canada.
Several years ago, while working on his PhD at Simon Fraser University, Shigematsu returned to playwriting. With his father in failing health he decided to revisit some of the themes he had embarked on with Rising Son, 20 years earlier. The resulting one-man play, Empire of the Son, opens October 6 at the Vancity Culture Lab and runs to October 17.
Tetsuro Shigematsu spoke to The Bulletin during reherasals for Empire of the Son.
The Bulletin Interview: Tetsuro Shigematsu
Your new one-man play, Empire of the Son, is a look at the father-son relationship. Much like the mother-daughter relationship, it is a subject ripe with endless possibilities, for pathos and comedy and everything in between. Describe your relationship with your father.
I never really knew him, and I didn’t cry when he died four days ago. But Empire of the Son is the second work I’ve done about my father. My first piece, Rising Son, I wrote and performed 20 years ago. In between, I never wrote any other plays. So I guess my relationship with him is full of contradictions. Just like the piece itself. For example, I vowed to be nothing like him, but I ended up working in the same profession, working in the same building, working with the same technicians, even using the same microphones. So it makes me question free will. Even though I like to believe I’m the captain of my own ship, I find myself inadvertently following in the footsteps of a man who I didn’t understand at all. I’ve come to believe that our parents’ experience, even if they remain unshared or unspoken, affect us like shipwrecks in our psychic lagoons. When waves roll in, they crest and break because the water suddenly gets shallow due to the reefs or structures beneath them. Empire of the Son has been kind of an underwater exploration of my father’s shipwrecks, all the storms he has weathered including World War II, and how their wreckage and treasure has affected my salinity, and my sanity.
Your father worked for the BBC, you worked for the CBC, but you say you speak different languages. Do you mean that in a literal or figurative sense?
Both literally and figuratively. My Japanese is lousy, but in the piece I focus more on how we expressed love in different ways. I have two kids of my own and I’m extravagant in my affection towards them. Really, it’s too much for them. They’ve even developed quick reflexes to block my kisses with their shoulders because I’m that relentless. But my father was never like that. He never hugged me, never said I love you. But within Empire of the Son, he demonstrates a level of love for his own father that goes beyond a Shakespearean sonnet – all without saying a single word. As a writer, I could never have used my imagination to invent what he did, but as former radio reporter, I knew how to ask him questions, and I transcribed what he said. Sometimes, the secrets of our parents are that powerful, that surprising.
Having experienced the death of my own father seven years ago, I know that it is something that goes right to your core. Whatever your relationship to your father, there is something of them embedded in you. Something beyond words. Is this play a way of dealing with your feelings? What kinds of emotions are you experiencing putting it together?
When I began creating this show two years ago, my father was still walking around. But we knew between his Parkinson’s, kidney failure, and multiple strokes, he didn’t have a whole lot of time left, so I took it upon myself to start recording his stories. Once a radio man, always a radio man. What I never anticipated was him dying two weeks before the world premiere. Of course, this changes the piece in many ways. Because at the very beginning, the artistic team with Richard Wolfe and Donna Yamamoto, we made a commitment to keep this performance piece as real and as truthful as humanly possible. It is as intimately connected to my family and my father in real time as an EKG reading is to a heartbeat. I think that’s the one thing the audience won’t fully appreciate. They’ll think they’re watching a piece of theatre, a play being performed by an actor, sure a writer/performer doing something autobiographical, but it’s actually closer to a piece of performance art in that whatever is happening that week, or that day, that hour, will change the text because for all its techno-wizardry, it all comes down to something like this conversation – me talking to you right here, right now. Now that my Dad just died, my sisters flew in from all over to be here. And they have always been supportive of me, but never more than now, because they see it as a living memorial to my father. And even though I’d like to be home more, to hang out with them, laugh around the dinner table, they are happy to see me go to rehearsal because it’s our tribute to him. I’m so grateful to be able to make this living monument to my father during the aftermath of his death, because even though it is such hard work, I don’t know how else I would deal with it.
Empire of the Son is described as a theatrical hybrid – what does that mean?
When I was thinking about what form the piece should take, I heard an interesting comment from one of my theatre heroes, Robert LePage. He said that radio was the most visual of mediums. Like many people, my father and I are big fans of public broadcasting. I thought of all the times listening to the radio, and how immersive and transporting that experience can be. I wondered for our theatre audience, how can we can deepen the experience of listening? Because there are a lot of archival audio and radio moments within the show and even given the genre of solo work, the audience is often simply listening. I thought of campfire stories and how staring at dying embers or the dancing of flames can draw you in more deeply into the act of listening. So what was the visual equivalent within the theatre that could have the same effect as a flickering campfire? The solution came to us in the form of what I describe as a sort of “live cinema.” We use a camera tethered to a projector and we project images of toys and miniatures onto a screen. There is something about the scale of the miniatures on the screen that transports the audience. We found that a kind of special alchemy takes place in the imagination of the audience when they are participating in very deep listening combined with simple yet hypnotic imagery. Using the simplest of means, we transport the audience from the ashes of Hiroshima to the glass towers of Vancouver.
The last time I interviewd you, you were living in LA working on a screenplay. Now you’re at SFU working on your PhD. What’s it about and how’s it going?
This play is the central part of my thesis, and in academic terms, it can be described as a piece of arts-based research. This kind of research is predicated on the idea that the research that artists conduct when they make art is a valuable form of sociology. This is the story of my father and my family – it’s an auto-ethnography, but it’s also the story of one Japanese family who left Japan and emigrated to this country. So in generalizable terms, this is actually the story of Canada.
Finally – the moustache . . . I’ve been following you on social media and you’ve been sporting this rather spectacular moustache for a few years now. Where did this come from? Is it some sort of mid-life thing?
My shaver broke two years ago. Actually, now that I think about it, it was about the same time I began this piece. Anyways, I thought I’d save time and money by not having to shave in the morning, and that worked for a little while, but now it takes way more time in the morning to shape it just right. I use Got2b Glue, it’s just a sticky hair gel to hold it all together. I imagine someone more manly than myself would probably use some kind of old school moustache wax. But I’m trying to undermine traditional conceptions of masculinity and using metrosexual hair gel is my way of subverting the patriarchy. I’m kidding of course, but in a way, Empire of the Son really does explore that territory. Some might see my father’s story as a cautionary tale about the hidden costs of trying to embody traditional models of masculinity. Men don’t live as long as women for a reason. There’s even a phenomenon called the “gender paradox of suicidal behaviour.” It basically means that all over the world, it’s mostly men who kill themselves by a significant margin. In Japan, it’s over 70 percent. Why is that? Men’s Rights Activists tend to see the gains of feminism in the context of a zero sum game. If women win, then men must lose. What they don’t realize is when men “win,” everyone loses, INCLUDING men. Because if you think about it, there’s only so many ways you can “be a man.” You have to make the most money, because a real man provides, and if you can’t do that, then you have to be the strongest, or have sex with the most women, or be able to drink the most, or be able to fight, and you can never, ever be vulnerable. All that’s a recipe for, well, uh, manliness isn’t it? And it’s killing us. It killed my father. He died believing his life was insignificant because he didn’t score well on any of those metrics. I don’t want my son to grow up to “be a man.” Maybe Empire of the Son can break that chain.
Show dates and times:
Oct 6, 8 PM: Preview
Oct 7, 8 PM: Opening
Oct 8 – 10, 13 – 17: 8 PM
Oct 11: 2 PM
Post-show talkbacks: Oct 8, 11 & 13
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
Written and Performed by: Tetsuro Shigematsu
Produced by: Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre
Artistic Producer: Donna Yamamoto
Director/Original Concept Dramaturgy: *Richard Wolfe
Dramaturge: Heidi Taylor
Set Design: Pam Johnson
Lighting Design: Gerald King
Costume Design: Barbara Clayden
Sound Design: Steve Charles
Audio Dramaturge: Yvonne Gall
Stage Manager: *Susan Miyagishima
Technical Director/Production Manager: Jayson McLean
Props Master: Carole Macdonald
Video Design Consultant: Remy Siu