In Part 1 of a series of interviews with the cast of Spooky Action Theater’s Kwaidan, meet David Gaines and Tuyet Thi Pham.
Joel: Why did you want to become a member of the cast of Kwaidan?
David: Richard Henrich approached me in the early stages of the development of the piece, because he admired my previous work (7 (x1) Samurai), and because he thought my movement training would fit well in this collaborative project with Izumi Ashizawa (the director). We had a number of discussions in the months before rehearsals, trying to find the best way to tell the story theatrically. Izumi brought her vision of a site-specific audience-immersive performance event. Richard brought the love and understanding of the central character (Lafcadio Hearn)’s work and stories as literature. I brought, I guess, a commitment to simple theatricality and clarity of the narrative line for the audience. Once we had a story that we thought could be satisfying for the audience, then I was happy to play whatever role I could in the production. The role they asked me to play was that of Hearn. I should mention that although Hearn is the central character of the narrative thread through the stories encountered throughout the experience, it is the rest of the ensemble cast that does most of the work in the show. And the tech crew. It’s kind of like a very intimate, well acted, and weirdly unsettling very good Haunted House event,with literary and spiritual ramifications!
Tuyet: I think for me, it was the opportunity to work with Izumi. I knew her work from the University of Maryland, and from her show, Dreams in the Arms of the Binding Lady at The Kennedy Center. This would also be the first time I have been directed by an Asian director.
Who do you play in the show and how do you relate to him?
- David: I play Lafcadio Hearn, an American who moved to Japan and found himself in their stories and culture. Kind of the Alan Lomax of 1890’s Japan. I relate to him in that he was a person, and I too am a person, so I feel it’s not too much of a stretch for me to play.
Tuyet: All the characters long for something or obsess about something. That is all very human and relatable, but for us portraying spirit characters, we had to ask, what happens if that longing never ends? If that state of want and need is perpetual and never ending? Unlike most Western beliefs about the afterlife, the characters of the play don’t go to a better or worse place. They have simply changed to a different state – and all the desires and needs of their terrestrial life comes with them.
What is the play about from the point of view of your character?
David: It is about my character (Lafcadio Hearn) trying to reconnect to something, an ineffable feeling he has not had since he was very young. He has come to Japan as a reporter, but the stories and the world they inhabit draw him in and lead him into a world more vivid, frightening, – and eventually, satisfying – than he had ever imagined.
Tuyet: There is this moment in the play where I as the Guardian Spirit try to comfort Furisode who longs for her lover. The moment she thinks she is close enough to touch him, he evaporates. That is her eternity.
What do you admire most about your character and what do you not admire about him?
David: What I admire most about my character is that he has managed to get himself played by such a Gosh-darned handsome actor! No wait – that’s not right. It is that he is intrepid, albeit a bit reluctantly so. That is, he is willing to open himself to this very foreign culture and experience in search of finding himself.
What I do not admire about him is that he is currently dead.
What did you learn about the Lafcadio Hearn after you were cast in the show that you didn’t know before you were cast?
David: Everything. I had never heard of Hearn before beginning to work on this show. Now I know he was born to a Greek mother in Greece, then raised in Ireland as a kid, moved to Cincinnati at 19, worked his way up in a newspaper, married a black American woman there (which I believe was against the law at the time), divorced, moved to New Orleans, explored and wrote about the spooky Voodoo stories there, then went to Japan. Interesting fact: He always wanted his picture taken in profile from the right side, as he had had a boyhood accident in his left eye which left him unable to see out of it. So – the most challenging aspect of my performance will be always keeping my right profile to all of the audience members as they roam around the space. I imagine the difficulty of that endeavor will leave me little headspace for the traditional acting niceties such as paying attention to what’s going on onstage.
Tuyet: I had a little knowledge of Lafcadio Hearn. I knew he was an a writer and spent a good amount of time teaching in Japan. My understanding is that he was the first to transcribe the many legends and ghosts stories in Japan into a book he titled Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. At the time, very little was known about Japan and its culture in the West. His book gave many their first glimpse of Japanese culture.
What advice and suggestions did Izumi give you that helped you prepare for your role?
David: Well, most of our work together was in trying to figure out just how Hearn, who is an outsider and observer can be dramatically as involved in the stories as possible. So she helped me chart the progressive sucking-in of the character into the world of the stories until he is enraptured, and comes out the other side.
Tuyet: Izumi was great. As a director, she was open and generous and very collaborative. I’ve had very little experience with Japanese theatre so it was important to me that I understood and could execute the movement and style correctly. It is all very minimal and precise-a style very different from what I was use to. Izumi taught me that very little can do much.
What have been some of the challenges you have faced in rehearsals and/or preparing for your role?
David: Well, they won’t let us eat in costume. Is that what you mean? No, perhaps not. For me the challenge (as I think I mentioned) has been trying to find actions to play, and where the dramatic events are to which Hearn can have a genuine response (“Huh….Well that was interesting.” not being the most dramatically gripping response for a character in a heightened drama like this).
Tuyet: The show is very physically demanding, which seems like a contradiction to what I said earlier. Maybe minimal is the wrong word. The actors are running throughout the building and chanting during the whole show. To the audience, it may looks effortless. But to the actor, it’s work, very hard work. There are many moments of juxtaposition between stillness and springing unto action from high to low, downstairs to upstairs and vice versa. And sometimes, moving slower is much harder than natural speed where you can use gravity and momentum to help move things.
What character is so much like you, and why?
David: Well, there is a character who keeps getting killed by a samurai, but then returns to haunt him, with a smile and a smirk, and to chide him annoyingly. That’s kind of like me. The younger brother in the back seat of the car who keeps putting just his toe over on what international agreements have categorically decided is “your side,” just to drive you crazy.
Tuyet: I am a big fan of all my less-nice spirits. I think it’s obvious why.
What line or lines that someone else says is/are your favorite(s)?
David: “They’re in the back.” I like this line because it occurs after quite a weird, intense, frightful scene, and as I am recovering from the experience, trying to get it down in my notes, an old woman makes this comment, in a casual, offhand, realistic manner, catching me off-guard, surprising me (I like surprises). Then it leads into another even weirder, more unsettling story!
Tuyet: “You broke the bell.” I don’t why. It’s just a very odd statement, and I like it.
What themes and issues does the play address that current audiences will find relatable?
David: Well, first of all there is the pure joy of telling ourselves scary stories. But also, and here is where the Japanese cultural traditions and ghostly pantheon are perhaps different from the western ones, they all somehow speak of characters who are locked in this world of ghostly interaction by some obsession they cannot let go of. The kimono of a dead lover, the lust for a beautiful scroll, the need to hear their story told, etc. And so they repeat their drama, over and over in this world, this space, until, for some, they find release. Are there not some connections here to western psychological behaviors? And yet what is nice about these stories is that they can externalize those behaviors and allow us to examine, acknowledge, or just enjoy them, depending on our interest. Like the Greek myths, like the Christian, Bhuddist, and Hindu stories. Fun. With symbolic, perhaps cathartic value for those who wish to see it.
Tuyet: Needing, and how it can turn to an all-consuming obsession.
What are you doing next on the stage after Kwaidan closes?
David: I will be performing my solo show 7 (x1) Samurai at the Indianapolis Fringe Festival in August. Then I will perform my NEW solo piece A Little Business at the Big Top – at the Rochester Fringe Festival in September, and then here in the DC area at George Mason University, in Fairfax, on Nov. 7th and 8th. I’m excited to present this new show to my hometown audience.
Tuyet: The timing on this question is tricky. I would love to tell you but I can’t yet.
What do you want audiences to take with them after watching Kwaidan, specially being a site-specific play?
David: I’d like them to take the dirty laundry, and return it clean before the next show – NO, JUST KIDDING! I’d like them to take away a realization that Richard Henrich is doing some very adventurous, and very good theatre in the Spooky Action Theater space at 16th and S. And the more people come to see things there, the more his work, and the work of all thepeople who put their shows together, can be adequately rewarded. And by “adequately rewarded, I mean of course – by your applause.
Tuyet: You should wear comfortable shoes when going to the theatre;-)
Kwaidan plays through June 22, 2014 at Spooky Action Theater performing at The Universalist National Memorial Church–1810 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.
Review of Kwaidan by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins on DCMetroTheaterArts.