Empire of the Son makes debut at the Cultch

Vancity Culture Lab presents latest work from Tetsuro Shigematsu

Tetsuro Shigematsu's Empire of the Son, produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and presented by The Cultch in its Vancity Culture Lab, Oct. 6-17. Tickets (from $25) and show times: thecultch.com.

When Tetsuro Shigematsu's father's health began to falter, the result of a diagnosis with Parkinson's disease a couple of years back, the artist turned to a medium they'd long had in common to bring them together.

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Shigematsu, 44, has a background in radio, having hosted CBC Radio's The Roundup, and his father, Akira, was a former broadcaster as well, having worked for the BBC and Radio Canada International.

Shigematsu essentially conducted a series of radio interviews, asking his father a variety of questions about his life, inquiring about things like his childhood and why he came to Canada. Not only walking away with a better understanding of his family history, Shigematsu also gained greater insight into and acceptance of the state of his relationship with his father over the years.

"It began as a way for me to record his story for my kids and my nieces and nephews, but the more I began to share it - people of all ages, of all backgrounds would tell me, 'Oh my God, this is my story. The accent is different but this is 100 per cent my family. That was really gratifying to me that this story isn't just my story. In a sense it's the story of so many Canadians," he says.

Shigematsu, a former writer for This Hour Has 22 Minutes and columnist for The Huffington Post among other film, television and online credits, was compelled to use his interviews with his father as the basis for a new performance piece that he wrote and is starring in, entitled Empire of the Son, a Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production, that's being presented by The Cultch in its Vancity Culture Lab, Oct. 6-17.

Born in London, England, Shigematsu describes the work of theatre, telling the personal story of his relationship with his father, who is from Japan, as a "kind of a hybrid," sitting between traditional categories of academia, theatre and performance in its exploration of the intergenerational conflicts of one immigrant family. "Separated by a generation but connected by blood, Tetsuro and his father speak different languages and possess different values, but what ultimately keeps them apart is their similarities," according to The Cultch.

On the eve of the show's world premiere, Shigematsu and his family are dealing with the unfortunate passing of Akira, on Sept. 18 at age 84. He's grateful for the last few weeks during which his father and mother, Yoshiko, were able to live under the same North Vancouver roof with him and his wife, Bahareh, and their two children, Mika, 12 and Taizo, 8, making a positive impact on all involved.

"I was hoping we'd have a little longer with him," says Shigematsu.

While the timing of the play's premiere is obviously less than ideal, at the same time, Shigematsu has been finding it beneficial in helping him grieve and process what's happened. It also speaks to the truths he set out to impart in the work. Something Shigematsu hopes audiences will appreciate is how real everything they're seeing is. Empire of the Son is not just another writer-performer doing an autobiographical play, with action based on true stories, etc., he says. Rather, "we made a commitment early on that as far as philosophically, esthetically and as humanly possible we were going to keep this play -it's actually half way between theatre and performance art -we were trying to keep this piece as real to life and as truthful as possible," he says.

As a result, the work is continuing to evolve. "This show is like an EKG reading and life is the heartbeat and that's how intimately the two are combined. Even now, we're not sure, the final shape of the show, what it will be," he says.

Empire of the Son is the first theatrical undertaking Shigematsu has undertaken of this magnitude -seeing him serve as both writer and lead performer -in 20 years. Back then, he created a work entitled Rising Son, also about his relationship with his father.

"As a result of that I got picked up by This Hour Has 22 Minutes and from there I went on to radio and so forth. And so I kind of got plucked from theatre and into mainstream broadcasting just as a result of doing this tiny, one-person show that almost no one saw," he says.

While revisiting the topic, Empire of the Son is completely different in terms of its material as well as its unique form, intended to deepen the experience of listening.

"One of the things that makes our show unique is that we're doing a form of live cinema.. .. We are making a movie and screening it at the same time," says Shigematsu. To do so, they're employing the use of miniatures.

"The miniatures are interesting because they're simultaneously very small, because they're just toys, but when they're projected with our macro lens they're writ larger than life. So you have this sort of cinematic experience of watching these beautiful images unfold on screen while at the same time listening to a story. We find that the combination together really has the power to transport audiences not only around the world or back in time but deeply into their own memories," he says.

Shigematsu is grateful for the support of his collaborators on the project, including Donna Yamamoto, artistic producer, Richard Wolfe, director/original concept dramaturgy, and Heidi Taylor, dramaturge, all of whom have played a role in making Empire of the Son a reality.

"Being able to perform as part of The Cultch's season, for me it's like going to the Olympics. It's just unbelievable," says Shigematsu.

Out of 12 performances, nine are already sold out.

"That's how strong the community has responded. A perennial question for a lot of artistic directors and producers is, 'How do we attract a more diverse audience? Which is code for, 'How do we get the Asians into the theatre?' We've always maintained the answer is simple: people will come when they recognize themselves on stage," says Shigematsu.

That's not to say the work doesn't have a wider appeal across cultural lines. For example, Shigematsu was encouraged when he heard from a young Italian woman, who, after watching an excerpt from the play, said she saw a lot of her own father in his.

"When we look at Canadian culture it doesn't reflect the reality of Canadian streets. When you look at Vancouver theatre stages, it doesn't reflect Canadian sidewalks. We talk about multiculturalism and we pay lip service to these issues of diversity but the fact is when you look at Canadian culture we're not all represented. The absence of people of colour is something that I think we're very aware of. And I think anyone who is interested in not reproducing social inequality, you have to be mindful of marginalized groups. You can't help but take note of a lack of gender diversity or other forms of exclusionary practices," he says.

That interest in showcasing a variety of cultural experiences is among the reasons he's involved with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, currently serving as artist in residence.

"Most other theatre companies are doing it for perhaps the most noble of reasons, which is they're doing it for art's sake. They're trying to make a difference in the world by creating something meaningful and expressing that truth beautifully. But the difference for Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre is that in addition to the mission of creating art is that we're also interested in social justice," he says.

The audio interviews Shigematsu conducted with his father not only helped inform Empire of the Son, but they're part of the PhD he's currently working on as a Vanier scholar at the University of British Columbia, where he also teaches creative writing. The play is a component of his PhD, focused on education, creative writing and social justice, which he hopes to complete in about a year.

Shigematsu recalls the conversation he had with Akira, asking for permission to share his stories with the general public. He was overwhelmed by his father's response when he asked him why he was so willing to give the go-ahead. Akira said it was, "'because if you share my life with other people then maybe my life will have had some meaning,'" recalls Shigematsu.

"When he told me that I realized that maybe it wasn't about him giving me the meaning of life but maybe this whole journey was about giving him something that he needed. That just left me speechless."

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