Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West
Written by Naomi Iizuka
Directed by Les Waters
Main Season · Roda Theatre
February 26–April 11, 2010
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
The month of March is devoted to a sexy and intriguing new script in the Roda Theatre. Well before the digital age, the camera selected, filtered and obscured the truth—even as it promised to provide an authentic look at distant lands. Naomi Iizuka explores the intersection of art and authenticity in a haunting play commissioned by Berkeley Rep: Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West.
Taking its title from a treatise on photography translated into Japanese, the play shifts between the present and the 1880s when a weird new technology first seized the world in freeze frame. Cameras capture images of geishas, monks and shrines and send them to the future in a flash—where we continue to seek meaning through lenses of exoticism and xenophobia. The intricate parts of this world premiere nestle together like a delicate puzzle…or erotic glimpses of an enigmatic tattoo. Expose yourself to the mystery of Strange Devices.
Naomi Iizuka · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
Mimi Lien · Scenic Design
Annie Smart · Costume Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Lighting Design
Bray Poor · Sound Design and Original Music
Leah Gelpe · Video and Projection Design
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Karen Szpaller · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Janet Foster · Casting
Mina Morita · Assistant Director
Jack Carpenter · Assistant Lighting Design
James Ballen · Assistant Sound Design
Teresa Avia Lim · Kiku / Woman in a Kimono / Servant Girl
Bruce McKenzie · Andrew Farsari / Dmitri Mendelssohn
Kate Eastwood Norris · Isabel Hewlett
Danny Wolohan · Edmund Hewlett
Johnny Wu · Hiro / Tattooed Man / Insect Peddler / Blind Monk
“Scintillating…a sexy puzzle…The shards of story, vintage and modern photos, lies, surmises, history and tattoos set the mind spinning about topics as varied as the art and commerce of photography, the ways in which humans love and use one another, a century of intercourse between Japan and America and the mutable relationships between appearance and reality…So full of casual clues and odd payoffs that every moment is worth close attention…A puzzle that haunts the mind long afterward.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Another winner from Berkeley Rep! With its intricate, clever combination of lights, sounds and visuals, it will absolutely amaze you. When I say this is a ‘must see,’ I really mean it. I give it a ‘Wow!’”—KGO-AM
“Dazzling…A sly, elliptical play…Tantalizing images shimmer throughout…Touches on issues of art, authenticity and the elusive nature of perspective. It’s shot through with provocative visuals and intellectually stimulating themes.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group
“Concerning Strange Devices isn’t a mystery in the genre sense; its myriad dangling threads are meant to tease, not be solved…Expertly directed by Les Waters, this is a delicate yet piquant evening…The play feels so deceptively light while encompassing so many dimensions, from historical errata to contemporary satire.”—Variety
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
I have a photograph in my office of myself as a 10-year-old boy. I am holding a fish about half the size of my body, my two-toned cowboy shirt barely tucked into my protruding underpants, which are showing above the waistline of my patchy blue jeans. The shoelaces of my sneakers are undone, and I am wearing the half-smile of someone in a state of utter disbelief that he has caught a fish this large. I love this picture. It is funny and charming and always elicits a great reaction from those who first see it, something along the lines of, “My god, is that you?”
I have the exact same reaction as the new viewers. Every time I look at it. I have no recollection of the picture being taken. But the photo connects me to my vivid memory of struggling with that fish: the enormous weight on the line, my father and my uncle in a state of hysterical excitement, exhorting me, “Hold on! Hold on!” even as my pole bent to an impossible angle, even as I was about to give up. But I didn’t. I held on, reeling in the first and last fish I ever caught in my life.
But there are other reasons for my attachment to the photo. The boy in the photograph looks so innocent, so happily unaware of what he looks like. It reassures me that I was him. That I was that innocent at one point in my life. And from the look on his face you can tell that this innocent kid obviously doesn’t care about anything other than his recent triumph. He is showing off—not to the world, but to his father and his uncle. His father so proud that he wanted to take that picture, to show to the world what his son had accomplished. Even though I am the only one in the frame, we are all in that picture together. My father, my uncle and me. I see them as clearly as myself.
Naomi Iizuka’s new play, Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, delves headlong into the chimerical world of photography. Marshalling the full force of her considerable intellect and imagination, Naomi leads us into the heart of mystery behind every photograph. We travel to 19th-century Japan, where photographers are exploiting the desire of Victorian Westerners to purchase photographs of exotic geishas, as if by doing so their own lives become more exotic. From there we move to modern-day Tokyo, where the same photographs reveal a host of secrets and relationships that raise much larger questions: What is real? What do we imagine as real? What do we need to be real?
Les Waters and Naomi have worked together before. We are the beneficiaries of their deep and continuing collaboration. May you enjoy this, their next adventure.
All the best,
Prologue: from the Managing Director
When you walk through the doors at Berkeley Rep, we consider you guests in our artistic home, and we always want to know more about our guests. Among our questions are where you come from, why you choose to be here and what your theatregoing experience means to you.
We recently completed a research project that brought home some deeply gratifying truths—as well as a few satisfying revelations about the 180,000 people who come to Berkeley Rep each year. Not surprisingly, you are very smart people for whom enrichment and entertainment are often synonymous. You have wide-ranging interests and an abundance of curiosity. The people sitting around you here in the Roda Theatre may as easily have come from Carmel or Sacramento as from North Berkeley—it turns out our audiences come from throughout Northern California; they traverse long distances to enjoy these plays. This helps explain why Berkeley Rep has been able to successfully program such eclectic seasons year after year.
One of the pieces of information I was most pleased with is that our audiences overwhelmingly rate Berkeley Rep as an excellent value. With the economy in the doldrums, and with all of you making difficult choices about how to use your resources, it is heartening that we’ve struck the right balance. We were ahead of the curve in 2007 when, for our 40th birthday season, we lowered prices by as much as 33 percent in both theatres. For the coming 2010–11 season, you can sit in a great seat for less than you paid in 1997!
We hope Berkeley Rep beckons you not only with its shows, but also with a superior experience that sets us apart from the rest by showing how much we appreciate you. It’s your support that makes it possible for all of us to share experiences like the one you’re enjoying tonight.
Very soon, you’ll have an opportunity to purchase tickets for next season. Tony and the artistic team are planning another year of thought-provoking, entertaining productions. As you think about whether to see all seven shows, or whether to select a package with fewer productions, I want to remind you that there is no way to get a better value on your Berkeley Rep experience than to purchase a subscription.
If you would like to see more than one Berkeley Rep production per year, you’ll always get the best value by purchasing one of our ticket packages. See a few of these shows—or all seven—and you, too, will see why so many of our audience members consider Berkeley Rep a great value. Among the many benefits of signing up for multiple plays are the special discounts you can share with friends and family, the priority notice you’ll get to special events like American Idiot and An Evening with David Sedaris and the free (and easy) ticket-exchange privileges. In addition to all that, you’ll get our very deep gratitude!
Sign up for the season and enjoy the ride.
The photographic link between isolationist and modern Japan
By Madeleine Oldham
The story of photography in Japan cannot be separated from the history of the country itself. Until the mid-19th century, Japanese life and culture looked very much as it had for hundreds of years, and the nation thrived inside its own borders. Japan had isolated itself from the rest of the world and created a stable, efficient society virtually free from technological progress and industrialization. The opening of the country to foreign trade in the 1850s changed this with unprecedented speed: once Japan caught a glimpse of the world outside, there was no turning back. Among the first technological innovations embraced by this rapidly developing nation was the capturing and reproduction of images. Photography ignited not only the national imagination, but also the global one: the world now had a window into what it perceived to be a supremely mysterious and private culture.
Prior to 1854, Japan stood as a nation almost completely shielded from foreign influence. The 1600s had seen an influx of foreign missionaries, and the government responded with alarm to the successful spread of Christianity, worrying that it posed both a cultural and political threat. They outlawed Christianity and closed Japan’s borders to foreigners.
For the next 200 years, the government took great pains to ensure that its country’s traditional ways of life remained vibrant and protected and sought to actively deflect calls for participation in the flourishing global economy. In the mid-19th century, however, pressures to engage in foreign commerce began to mount: a Western desire for free international trade had recently gained momentum, and it wasn’t long before the world came knocking once again on Japan’s door.
American Navy Commodore Matthew Perry arrived, uninvited, at Uraga harbor in 1853, bearing a letter from President Millard Fillmore. The letter requested a trade agreement with Japan and warned that if denied, the United States would invade. Japan acquiesced, and in 1854, a new era dawned: several ports began to allow Western access, and intrepid entrepreneurs from England, Russia, the Netherlands and the United States flooded in. A strong and sudden push toward Westernization created myriad opportunities for European and American-style industries like clothing, railroads, coal, manufactured goods and food.
The Meiji period began in 1868 and lasted until 1912. “Meiji” translates to “enlightened rule.” This new chapter welcomed the outside world and viewed technology and industry as essential touchstones of Japan’s future. The rush to adopt all things Western and shake off Japan’s provincial stigma resulted in a rapid disintegration of traditions that had persevered for hundreds of years. As the Japanese people embraced hats and umbrellas and left kimonos and top-knots behind, Westerners arrived curious about “the real Japan,” looking for clues that would shed some light on this enigmatic and reclusive culture. They wanted to glimpse a Japan that didn’t exist any more. Enter photography at the nexus of the Japanese push to modernize and the Western desire to observe a hidden society.
Attitudes toward early photography in Japan included a great deal of suspicion: as in many cultures, it was thought that having your photograph taken stole a little piece of your soul and, as a result, shortened your life span. Japan’s secretive stance on revealing itself to the outside would be difficult to maintain with such physical evidence. And in a culture heavily influenced by Buddhism and the value of impermanence, making an image fixed in time seemed to go against nature.
But by the 1870s these feelings shifted, and photography fell into fashion. The emperor and empress had previously placed severe limitations on the circulation of their portrait, choosing to mirror their country’s reclusive tendencies. But, adopting a complete about-face, they made a decision to welcome progress and set an example for their people by sitting for a photo shoot in 1872 and permitting their image to be duplicated and widely distributed. The public found a huge appetite for these photographs, and this helped squelch the last remnants of resistance to the new technology.
The photographic industry took hold in the port cities, where most Westerners settled. Many studios sprang up in response to the public clamor for photographs, and it proved a profitable business. Photography now came to be seen as a symbol of Japan’s reinvention as a modern nation and its entry onto the global playing field. It particularly caught on in Yokohama (one of the first points of foreign entry, opened in 1859), which became a center for the famous Meiji-era staged photographs.
When the ports first opened, most foreigners came to Japan for purposes of business—it wasn’t until the 1880s that tourists began to arrive. One period scholar notes, “Many came searching for the picturesque life that they encountered in prints, photographs and teacups, a life which by their very presence Westerners helped to destroy.”
Photographers realized that if the real thing didn’t exist or was too hard to find, they could fabricate a likeness that satisfied Western curiosity and provided a unique souvenir to boot. They made painted backdrops of pastoral scenes or recognizable landmarks like Mount Fuji, and in front of this, posed a person in costume. This person might be someone brought in off the street such as a rickshaw driver or a Western tourist dressed up as a geisha. Despite the fact that they could be found all over Japan, these came to be known as Yokohama shashin, or Yokohama photographs, due to the concentration of studios creating them there.
Some debate ensued about whether photography had quickly toppled from an elevated status where art met science to mere commerce. Regardless, there is little question that the booming business of photography ushered in the new Japan, providing both a mirror reflecting the past and a beacon of opportunity for the future.
Western photographers in Yokohama
By Madeleine Oldham
Japan was primed for the photographic explosion that took place in the latter half of the 19th century. The 200-year-old art of making woodblock prints had engendered an appreciation for representational scenes. Some of the woodblock techniques such as color and composition carried over into photography, lending a uniquely Japanese feel to Meiji-era images. This was in spite of the fact that a number of significant photographers of this time hailed from Europe.
The three major Western photographers setting up shop in Yokohama all possessed strong personalities and adventurous spirits, though detailed information about them can be sketchy. Italian-born Felice Beato, later a UK citizen, arrived first in 1863. He had already established a name for himself abroad as a talented artist and had no trouble attracting customers. His outgoing and vivacious character contributed to his popularity. Beato’s photographic style was considered to be a somewhat documentary one, and he is often referred to as a pioneer of photojournalism. In Japan he gravitated toward portraits and landscapes and adopted a straightforward tone in his work.
Baron Raimund von Stillfried Ratenitz, an Austrian military serviceman who later became an officer of the Mexican Army, bought Felice Beato’s business in 1877. In addition to his military career, von Stillfried was also a painter and an interpreter. It remains unclear how he came to the business of photography, but he did distinguish himself as having a talent for it. He employed more posed and less real-life situations than did Beato, which led many to consider him the lesser artist, but he had a keen eye for composition and proved very adept at arranging aesthetically pleasing scenes. Von Stillfried took on many Japanese apprentices, passing on his knowledge and techniques and enabling them to go on to open their own studios.
It is widely believed that von Stillfried’s studio and most of his stock passed into the hands of Adolfo Farsari in 1886 (though no official source can confirm this information beyond doubt). Farsari, born in an area of the Austrian Empire that later became part of Italy, remains a somewhat shadowy figure. He, like von Stillfried, served in the military, and after his stint in the Italian army, he later moved to the United States and fought in the American Civil War. He went to Japan in 1873. It is known that he had his hand in various entrepreneurial pots: during his time in Yokohama he managed a cigar company, sold stationery, imported books and ran a newspaper before landing on photography.
Farsari, a man of relatively surly and unsociable character, nevertheless established a reputation as a talented artist who demanded quality. He became known for his color work, rendered in exquisite detail. The hand-tinting of photos never quite took off in Europe but caught on like wildfire in Japan. Farsari did not do it all himself, but rather hired a handful of prominent Japanese watercolor artists to work under him. At one point, Farsari’s studio had as many as 33 employees. He left Japan in 1890 and died in Italy eight years later. His studio continued until 1917, and some even believe until 1923.
An air of mystery surrounds more than just the photographers themselves. Meiji-era photographs cannot always be attributed to a particular person, largely due to uncertainties of authorship. People quickly started to view photographs as merchandise, no different from a table or a shoe, rather than works of art, and therefore photographers did not always feel the need to make sure their names were on their images. When studios changed hands, the ownership of the studio’s negatives often transferred as well, meaning that two or more photographers might legally claim the same print as their own. Certain stylistic differences may point to one photographer over another, but in many cases, it is extremely difficult to say definitively who took which photos.
The art of Japanese tattoo
By Rachel Viola
The art of tattoo in Japan is as old as history, rife with secrets and signifiers. Clay figurines from the fifth century BC have been found with facial markings indicative of the earliest tattoos. Mysterious and beautifying, ancient facial tattoos conveyed elevated social status. Yet over the course of several centuries, the Japanese government began to use tattoos as punishment, symbols of crime and misconduct. The Shogun, dynastic military rulers of Japan whose power base was the city of Edo (contemporary Tokyo), upheld this tradition through the 1800s. Modern Japanese tattooing, striking in color, imagery and scope, would eventually emerge as a response to the Shogun’s practice of marking criminals and the underclass.
Punitive tattooing, or irezumi, gained popularity with the Shogun, and criminals often found their foreheads lettered with a character meaning “bad.” (Previously, Japanese delinquents had suffered amputation of ears or noses as punishment for their offenses.) Outcasts were tattooed as well—not as penalty for anything in particular, but to be easily identified as the lowest of the low. Decorative tattoos existed at this time, but stigmatization sent practitioners underground to develop designs and application techniques in secrecy. Tattoo as an art form joined the ranks of the ukiyo-e or “floating world” of Japanese culture.
Originally a Buddhist term, ukiyo-e referred to “the dark, shifting world of existence” that encompassed Edo’s brothels, teahouses, public baths and theatres. Ukiyo-e is now most commonly used to describe a technique of woodblock printing thought to have directly influenced modern Japanese tattooing. There are two schools of thought on the connection between tattoo art and printmaking: some historians believe modern tattoo motifs were drawn from the illustrations of the ukiyo-e, while others feel that the woodblock print images were actually inspired by the tattooed men of Edo’s underworld.
It is agreed, however, that the pivotal moment for both tattooing and woodblock printing came from the overnight smash success of the Suikoden. A literary sensation in its time, the Suikoden was a Japanese translation of a classic Chinese novel depicting the exploits of 108 legendary heroes. In the early 18th century, the people of Edo went crazy for these stories, commissioning hundreds of ukiyo-e illustrations. An artist named Kuniyoshi famously portrayed at least 15 heroes with full body tattoos comprising animal, floral and mythical motifs. The prints showed the heroes themselves surrounded by flames, waves or waterfalls—all common themes and images in 19th-century Edo-period tattoo art.
Despite a barrage of government prohibitions, tattoos became popular and acceptable. For example, the tattooed firefighters of Edo were heroes, not surprising given that the crowded city was built of wood and prone to rampant flames. These men typically had distinct water motifs tattooed across their backs to counterbalance the blazes they fought. Tattoos were prominent in criminal enclaves too, where the forefathers of the yakuza (the famous Japanese mafia) defied the Shogun’s ban on decorative tattoos, proudly reclaiming the art by vividly tattooing their entire bodies. Tattoos were indicative of physical strength and a high tolerance for pain, often referred to as isamihada or “courage-skin.”
By the end of the Edo period, having a tattoo could signify many other things as well. Samurai warriors were tattooed with prayers to protect them in battle or even with clan crests, should they be stripped of their armor and otherwise unidentifiable in death. Tattoos for lovers were all the rage, with “love dots,” called irekoburo, or a name of a significant other inscribed on a hidden area of the body. Another style was also briefly popular, in which white ink was applied, rendering the tattoo almost invisible except for when the skin flushed from excessive drinking or a hot bath.
The Meiji Restoration succeeded the Edo period in the 1850s, when Japan’s ports were opened to Europe and the United States. The Meiji government issued its own strict bans on tattoos, fearful this custom would seem barbaric to the Westerners. Ironically, visiting Americans and Europeans were fascinated by the art. Tattoos remained illegal for the Japanese people, but foreigners were permitted to patronize traditional tattoo parlors, and many tourists returned home with exotic, indelible souvenirs of their time abroad.
After World War II, American occupation of Japan overturned many of the strict prohibitions imposed by Meiji rule. Tattooing was legalized, though the art did not immediately flourish as might be expected. Many of the older artisans had died without passing their techniques to members of the younger generation, who found the new Western influx of rock ‘n’ roll and television more exciting and rebellious than wearing traditional tattoos. In another cultural twist, Japanese-style tattoos gained popularity among young Americans searching for self-expression in the 1960s.
Recently, new practitioners have invigorated the time-honored art of tattoo in contemporary Japan, though the art still bears a stigma of threat and danger. While tattooed people are banned from public baths or spas, tattoos are once again highly regarded in other Japanese circles. Modern tattoo culture continues to thrill and terrify, as haunting images on skin reveal secrets of personal affiliation, identity or love.
How to tattoo an actor
By Rachel Viola
Japan has a rich tradition of theatrical performance, from the slow, courtly noh drama to the highly stylized, almost life-size puppetry of bunraku. Somewhere in middle of this dramatic spectrum is the kabuki: a wild, dynamic kind of theatre with roots in “pleasure quarters,” which flourished alongside tattoo art in Edo-period Japan. As literature began to depict both heroes and villains covered head to foot in traditional tattoos, so did the kabuki. Plots would unfold around the shocking reveal of a character’s prison tattoo, or the promise tattoos of forbidden lovers. Costumers in the 19th century had to devise beautiful and sophisticated ways to “tattoo” actors for the stage.
The first attempt at stage tattoo design involved makeup applied to the actors before they put on their costumes. The inks would rub off the skin, staining the elaborate kimonos or warrior outfits, so another solution was devised. Niku-juban, or body stockings, were painted with tattoo images and worn under the rest of a kabuki actor’s costume for quicker changes and less damage.
Berkeley Rep joins the tradition of creating stage tattoos for the actors in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West. According to Costume Director Maggi Yule, tattoos are still tricky business: this show requires two separate styles of tattoo, each with different application methods. To create the first set of tattoos, Annie Smart, the show’s costume designer, chose gorgeous images drawn from her historical research. These images were combined into a collage, forming an interlocking lovers’ tattoo. This design was finalized by Amanda Gonzales of Sacred Rose Tattoo in Berkeley, and then it was returned to the costume shop for transition into printable, wearable, temporary tattoos.
For a character whose whole body is meant to be tattooed, a different approach was taken. A Los Angeles company called Tinsley Studios specializing in film effects, took art research generated by Berkeley Rep, and used the expertise of their own designers to collaborate on a two-piece, full-body suit. This body stocking is made of light, flexible material and the Meiji-era tattoo designs are printed directly on it.
A conversation with playwright Naomi Iizuka
By Madeleine Oldham
Madeleine Oldham: Where did you find the title for Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West?
Naomi Iizuka: I came across it in a footnote in a book about photography in 19th-century Japan. It’s the title of a manuscript written by a Dutch trader. It covers various inventions of the period, not only the camera, but it was the first detailed treatise on photography that made it to the shores of Japan.
Was this early published work the impetus for the play, or did you stumble upon it later?
Yes. For me, the initial idea for the play was sparked by seeing these old Meiji-era photographs that I had come across purely by chance.
Are you able to articulate what it was about Meiji-era photography that captured your imagination?
I came across these photographs from 19th-century Japan and I was captivated by them. It was like getting this tantalizing peek into this magical, faraway world. They were these extraordinary pictures of geisha and samurai, but also beggars, condemned criminals, street vendors and little children working in rice fields. As I kept looking, I began to wonder about the people in these photographs. I think like pretty much everyone, I wonder about people I see in photographs, particularly people I don’t know. I wonder about their lives after the photograph was taken. Like that famous Diane Arbus photograph of the boy with the toy grenade? I always wonder whatever happened to that little boy. I guess part of it is just the mystery of their lives and speculating about that. Also, with the 19th-century photographs, everybody in them is dead, and I think about that, too. There’s something about being able to see these strangers frozen in this moment in time that brings up a mix of emotions for me—curiosity, empathy, anxiety, wonder—and I wanted to explore that further.
The script has passed through a number of incarnations with whole sections appearing and then going away. Will you describe for us how the play came to be in its current form?
When I start to write, I generally have an idea of where a play is going, but there’s a lot I don’t know that I discover along the way. I make those discoveries by writing a lot of different versions of what could happen, going down a lot of different paths, some of which are dead ends, and that takes time. I arrive at what a play will eventually be through trial and error—writing scenes and monologues that don’t make it into the final draft, finding one kernel of an idea or an image, even a line of dialogue that feels right, and then circling around that until I intuit what comes next. For me, that’s how I write.
Did anything surprise you as you were writing the play?
The ending surprised me completely. For months, I kept writing different endings and I wasn’t satisfied with any of them. I wrote the current ending at the end of an intensive weeklong workshop of the play up in Portland this past summer. I remember sitting down at night, starting to write, and the scene just came out of nowhere. I remember I took the new pages in the next day, and we were all sitting around the table. Nobody had seen the ending yet, and the actors started to read, and the feeling in the room was palpable: “Yes! She found the ending!” I think everybody was relieved. I know I was relieved.
How did you discover the play wanted to be in three parts? Or did you decide that ahead of time?
I had a sense that the play would go back and forth in time, starting in the past, then moving into the present and then going back in time. I think the triptych structure emerged because of the way time works in the play.
At what point in the process did you start thinking of it as a puzzle?
From very early on, I had an intuition that the story would be a kind of puzzle. I think my experience of looking at the photographs, trying to figure out who the subjects were, what the context was and who was behind the camera was so much like trying to solve a puzzle. I wanted to reflect that experience in the story and the play’s structure. I also love puzzles. As an audience member, I like to put a story together, to feel like I’m figuring something out in an active way. For me, that kind of puzzle structure lets an audience do that.
How did the commission with Berkeley Rep come about?
Les [Waters, associate artistic director] asked me if I wanted to write a play for Berkeley Rep, and I was delighted and honored to. My play 36 Views premiered at Berkeley a few years ago, and that was an amazing experience. I love the Theatre and the community. I consider it an artistic home. I’m really happy to be coming back.
Can you talk a little bit about your own relationship with Japan?
I was born there and spent time there growing up. My father is Japanese.
You grew up moving around a lot, living in different places around the world. What influence, if any, did this have on your writing?
That’s a great question. I’m not sure. I think I had to learn to adapt to different places and the different ways people do things in different places. For me, that meant watching and listening carefully to what was going on, trying to figure out the lay of the land, the social dynamics, the spoken and unspoken rules and expectations. I think that’s probably good training for a playwright.
Certain imagery and motifs that appear in this play, like photography and tattoos, have also appeared in some of your previous work. What appeals to you about returning to an idea over the course of your body of work?
I don’t think it’s really a conscious choice. I gravitate to what intrigues me, and that shows up in my writing. I have always loved photography for reasons I can articulate and other reasons that are harder to put into words. I’d say I’m compelled by some of the philosophical questions that photography raises about how we perceive ourselves in the world. I wonder a lot about how we see and recall a person or an event, the distance between what we think we see and what actually is, and how photography figures into that experience.
Do you see connections among your plays?
Yes and no. I find myself thinking about the ways in which an event that happened in the past—whether it’s the distant historical past or your own personal past—how that event has an impact on the present. And how unpredictable and far-reaching that impact can be. I’m obsessed by how one small decision can completely change the course of your life. I think a lot of my plays circle back to that idea. I would say a lot of my plays explore the question of how we remember, the things we hold on to and also the things we miss or get wrong. Also, there seem to be a lot of ghosts in my plays. I’m obsessed with ghosts and ghost stories.
Your plays really make use of their medium. You write stories that need to be told on the stage and rely heavily on what the theatre can offer that film or screen cannot. Did you always feel that writing for the stage was a natural fit for you?
I came to theatre relatively late, but once I did it was a eureka moment. I knew that I wanted to write plays and that’s what I wanted to do. There’s something about theatre that’s magical. That sounds corny, but it’s true. The simple fact of live actors pretending to be somebody else in front of an audience who’s pretending along with them is magical to me. It was magical to me when I was a kid, and it’s still magical. I’m also fascinated by all the different ways you can tell a story on stage. I love stage magic in the most literal sense. I love a surprising exit or entrance. I love when the space transforms or an actor transforms right in front of your eyes. The virtuosity of live theatre at its best is like nothing else.
Sexy tattoos, photographs of Japan in the 19th century and many mysteries. Watch a one minute preview of Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West by Naomi Iizuka.
Highlights from Les Waters’ Director Presentation for Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West.