When my son was a senior in college (University of Illinois in Champagne IL) he needed one more credit to graduate and was attracted by a papermaking course. The course was taught by a visiting paper artist, Kyoko Ibe, internationally reknowned for her pushing the process of papermaking into a contemporary context, while still firmly grounded in its traditional forms. Little did my son know, as a theater major, how synchronous and serendipitous this connection would become.
My son loved learning the craft and formed a solid relationship with Ibe-san. At the time, Kyoko Ibe was at the beginning of an amazing theatrical project with Elise Thoron. They were creating a performative piece about paper, Recycling: Washi Tales: its stories, its nature, its rich history, its magic. The set would be designed by Kyoko Ibe, using her large paper sculptures and hangings. The both of them would work on the script. My son became involved with the project and has been an assistant to Kyoko and Elise in the workshop process to develop this show.
Yesterday JB and I went to Champagne where the third workshop was taking place. We spent the entire day watching the theatrical process develop, focusing on “Tale Two: Najio River.” (There are four tales in the production.) The organic evolution of the heart of this story was magically transforming and inspiring as the community of actors, lighting technicians, designer, musicians, director, stagehands, choreographer, assistants worked together to create a whole, through experimentation and improvisation, through commitment to the collective vision of the piece. Though there is a script, the majority of the work is interacting with the set (Kyoko Ibe’s remarkable paper creations) and the choreography involved in that interaction. And at the core, of course, is the spirit of washi (Japanese paper made by hand).
There are two main actors, one of whom speaks Japanese, the other who speaks English. The Papermaker (english speaker) acts as a kind of narrator and guide for the audience. Both of them have incredible grace and presence on stage stemming, it seems, from a real love for the rich layers of paper, metaphorically and literally. There are traditional Japanese musicians (biwa player, drummer, vocalists) used to great effect. Cross-cultural and cross-temporal, this theatrical experience touches a deep place in the creative soul.
In the particular tale we witnessed, the process of papermaking is fully explored. The actors drip kozu (the substance which holds the paper fibers together), mix the paper pulp suspension, and actually frame of a sheet of paper. The compelling nature of the process is further enhanced by the aesthetic nature of the tools themselves.
This theatrical experience will have its World Premier at the University of Illinois on September 17. (We will definitely be there!) It will then travel to LA where Kyoko Ibe will have a simultaneous exhibit of her work at LA County Museum of Art. The following year it will begin an international tour.
You can read more about Kyoko Ibe, Elise Theron, and this project by visiting the Recycling: Washi Tales website. You can also see my son’s photographs of “Washi Tales” on the previous site (as well as a video he made and another he edited), or see these photos and more on his own website.