Recycling: Washi Tales opened last night at the Krannert Center in Champaign. It was a transformative theatrical experience, poetic, magical. This drama took the audience on an historical and process-focused journey of what it means to make paper and pushing the concept of recycling both literally and metaphorically. The entire production felt as if we were floating/flowing down a river, as one of the actors, Sonoko Soeda, shared. Or perhaps it is as if we were all the kozu floating in the papermaking suspension itself.
Kyoko Ibe, the papermaker whose remarkable paper sculptures are the substance of the show and its physical context and set; Elise Thoron, whose writing and directing compellingly reflects the poetry and spirit of the process of artmaking; and, of course, all the actors and musicians, some of whom demonstrate the more traditional Japanese arts of Noh performance, Shomyo chanting, Shirabyoshi dancing, and Biwa music, make the experience richly layered, mysterious, provocative, and haunting.
The show weaves four different tales of papermaking from different time periods of Japanese history:
Tale 1: Najio River
This poignant legend from the Edo period tells of the papermaker and her daughter, who journey from their village of Echizen to find her husband, who had disappeared suddenly. This tale is based on a contemporary short story by Tsutomu Minakami translated by Claire Cuccio.
Tale2: Sen no Rikyu
Sen no Rikyu, a 16th century teamaster and aide to the powerful Shogun Hideyoshi, designs a tea house with recycled paper walls in defiance of the shogun’s power.
Tale 3: Hogosho
“Hogosho” (scrap paper) springs from Kyoko Ibe’s most recent work, a series of panels incorporating handwritten documents from a 19th century village in northern Japan that no longer exists.
Tale 4: Fujiwara Tamiko
Fujiwara Tamiko is the ninth century emperor Seiwa’s beloved consort. After his death, she uses his love letters and poems in a unique way.*
The principal dancer/ actor, Karen Kandel (crouching in photo above), is the mesmerizing guide through these tales. Her literal possession of the stage and natural commitment to the stories come across as if she is speaking her lines for the very first time, impromptu, improvised at the very moment. And along the way she demonstrates and instructs us how to make paper.
The lighting (Nicole Pearce) further dramatizes the power of these stories, which also is a special opportunity to focus on the quality of the texture of the paper itself (Ibe’s towering paper sculptures), especially the use of shadows in the fourth tale, which is like bunraku and traditional shadow puppetry traditions writ large, very large.
At the reception, Shonosuke Okura (also pictured above), a Noh Otsuzumi Drummer, took JB and I to a corner of the room to show us one of the drums he used in the production. He slowly opened a multi-colored hand-knit bag and removed a drum body covered in lacquer with its designs infused in gold, 600 years old, which has been used by his family for 15 generations. In fact, he is the eldest son of the late 15th-generation head of the Ikura School (of Noh), Chojuro Okura. He then opened a thermal bag which had three small drumheads inside, thermal to keep the drumheads warm. Only two are used at a time which gave the third a chance to rest. “The drumheads need to rest,” he said.
In an earlier post I wrote about my son’s participation in this project. Because he is presently teaching in Japan, he was unable to be at this opening, but because of his archiving, brainstorming, problem-solving, and general assisting in this project almost from its inception, we were embraced and welcomed by the artists and actors. In fact, it is because of his work with Kyoko Ibe and this production that he became interested in going to Japan in the first place.
JB brought some of his photographic prints of the workshopping of this show we witnessed last spring, printed on high quality art paper (of course) as well as some Chicago stones for the actors and participants in this production. They were touched and moved by these gifts. We were touched and moved by the profound spirit and honor this production paid to the craft of Japanese papermaking and by extension, to all artmaking.
The end of the show is particularly powerful, as the guide (Karen Kandel) makes paper at the front of the stage and the music and voices from all the previous stories play and march behind her, all their spirits alive in the creation of each and every single piece of paper that is pulled from its frame.
Then she makes a piece of paper in complete stillness.
The show goes to LACMA this week.