Do you want to tell the story of young American boy, what happens with him?
Well, its autobiographical, for a number of reasons. In my own work, I dont want to say Ive been entirely disenfranchised, you know, Im white and Im privileged, and Im a male, so I have my finger on the inside track. But, being a gay male, I also have my finger on the outside track. I tend to think of myself in my work as trying to locate myself in history, trying to find out what does all of this enormous amount of history and culture that we have accumulated have to do with me? Where am I in that? And, so this piece is autobiographical, Im just trying to place myself in the story of the Hiroshima Maidens. Not literally, but it sort of functions as a lens, again I thought it was an American story and I wanted to see the story through an Americans eyes.
With the boy, there is a lot of shame and embarrassment…
Yes, there are all kinds of different aspects of sight that I am exploring in the piece. One of them is the shame of being looked at, but another one is the unavoidable pull of looking at something terrible.
Like a car accident…
Like a car accident or a ruined face. But there is also the idea of censorship in there, from the State Department. The idea that you know someone is trying to tell you what to look at and what not to look at. And people are often controlling what you see and in fact the State Department did control what the United States could see, and for very good reason. It was at the time when they were trying to develop the nuclear power industry. You know, turn it into our friend, The Atom. The last thing that they needed in this burgeoning nuclear power industry was to see images of hibakusha. Hibakusha is the Japanese word for survivor. So thats one of the reason the government sort of scrubbed the media of images of these women. I asked Michiko, “Do you remember going on This Is Your Life?” And, in fact, she didnt actually go on This Is Your Life, she was in Mount Sinai Hospital recovering form her first surgery when that happened, but she saw it on television. I asked her, “Well, what did you think?” Because I was horrified at the idea they would be introduced to the pilot. She said, “I thought it was great!” And I said, “What?” She said, “Well, first of all it paid for my surgeries.” And second of all, she really thought it was the first step at cultural reconciliation between the two cultures. And, in fact, its true. Even though the women were only seen in silhouette, it really is the first time Americans were allowed to see a hibakusha. That they were allowed to see people who has actually survived over the mass media, and you cant really reconcile until you see each other. You cant really come to terms with what youve done until you see. So, it really was a very important, although forgotten, moment.
Whats the story of the pilot? He was drunk when he went on?
I dont think that he was told completely what was going to happen on that episode. He showed up, and when he discovered that he was going to be meeting some survivors, he ran from the studio. They later found him in a bar, and poured coffee down his throat, and convinced him to come back to the studio. Ive seen a clip of him being introduced to Tanimoto, who was the Methodist minister responsible for these women coming over. Its just a heart breaking a horrible, horrible thing, I start to choke up when I even think about it. [The pilot] is sweating profusely, white as a sheet he looks like a mushroom, he just looks awful, hes looking at the floor, hes rubbing his forehead with his hands, and the look in Tanimotos face is equally as heartbreaking. Hes shocked and trying to rise above it. I mean, the word awkward doesnt even begin to approach what is going on. Interestingly, I know that when [the pilot] came home from the war, he got a job working in a candy factory. When the women came over, he actually went to Mount Sinai Hospital to meet all the women and bring them candy, and the women refused to see him. It wasnt until Tanimoto sort of scolded the women and said, “No, no ,no, this is a guy who was just doing his duty. It is not his fault. It is not the Americans fault. You cant blame it on him” that the women finally came around.
So, you could say a lot of this came about because of Tanimoto, the minister?
He was a very important man in Hiroshima, and had a Methodist church where he started what we would call a support group for women. It is a complicated question, because in Japan there was a great deal of discrimination against hibakusha, because they didnt really know anything about it. When the bomb dropped it became a million degrees, and people ran to the rivers to drink. Of course, the people who drank, died. Almost instantly. And some lingered you know for months or weeks. Some people are still dying to this day from radiation. So when people had these Keloid scars, it was assumed that they had contracted whatever that disease was, because people didnt know about radiation. They were somehow thought to be carrying a waterborne disease, and they were then asked not to use public facilities because people were afraid that they would be contagious. And then, because they believe in reincarnation, it was somehow assumed that their tragedy, their disfigurement, was somehow visited upon their families by some great indiscretion that one of their ancestors had committed. They were the shame of the family. Also, in Japan at that time women were really second class citizens, and if you didnt have the prospect of marriage you kind of didnt have any kind of future. And these women have no prospect whatsoever of marriage. So, [Tanimoto] started this support group and there were about fifty [hibakusha] that would meet regularly in the basement of his church. And, then he hooked up with a man named Norman Cousins in New York, who at the time was the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and Norman was a Quaker and together they made it possible.
Moving on, lets talk about you…
One of my favorite subjects…
You used to direct childrens musical theater?
I was the artistic director of a childrens theater, Andys Summer Playhouse. It was a theater that was by and for children in rural New Hampshire. I actually used to go P.S. 122 all the time and shop for my staff. [Dan laughs.] They would give me comps because they knew I had jobs to give away. [More laughing.] I managed to get the entire downtown performance art scene up to New Hampshire to work with little kids. We had like, oh…just name somebody and they were up there…Neil Greenberg, David Dorfman, Holly Hughes, Carmelita Tropicana, the list is sort of endless.
Was it like regular traditional childrens theater?
Well, yes and no. It was sort of like Hiroshima Maiden. That was kind of like what the kids did. We commissioned everything new, based on an existing children novel, or a story. We did things like The Day the Earth Stood Still that sci-fi movie as a musical. We did The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carol as a opera. We did Barbie and Ken: The Untold Story and Godzilla, and then we also did some classics like Peter Pan and Harriet the Spy. We did a bunch of stuff.
Now, youre really known for your puppetry. Why puppets?
Well, first of all I am a frustrated painter. I really wish I was a visual artist and puppetry allows me to scratch that particular itch. I dont know why I am fascinated by object theater. I mean, therere all these theories about why puppets are so engaging, I sort of buy into all of them. Among them, is that we know in our conscious mind that puppets are inanimate objects and yet here it is running around the stage and behaving. So if this block of wood is behaving like that, then whats to prevent our dining room table from running around the dining room when we get home. Theres this scary element to the puppet. You know you often hear people say how puppets give them the creeps. They do. Puppets are creepy. But again its the same kind of creepy as a Hiroshima Maiden. At once, youre repulsed by it, but youre also drawn into it.
The other thing about it is, you can actually do stuff with puppets. Find me an actress who will allow to make her face fall off every night. [laughing] You know what I mean. This is sort of a perfect thing for puppets, because in that first scene she gets blown around the stage from the atomic bomb. You just couldnt do that with live actors.
Right. So whats next for you? Youre touring with this, and then what? Do you have other projects that are percolating somewhere that you would share with us?
I want to do something very different than I have ever done. While I was making this piece, I became very good friends with a painter up in New Hampshire. She was preparing for a one woman show while I was preparing for this, and we would go over to each others studios and help out, and be a sort of mutual admiration society for each other. She came over to my studio once and said, “Oh god, I envy you so much. You go into the studio and you know what needs to be done. You have this list of things, and you just do them, and it’s so cut and dried and so organized. It’s so great.” And I said, “Oh my god, are you kidding? Its a burden, I love how you get to just go into the studio and intuit your next step. You know youre really living in the moment and guessing and trying things, and if it doesnt work, its okay. You just go back and try to use your intuition to make something else.” I thought about that discussion we had and I thought, “Why not?” So, I know what my next piece is, but I have no idea. Basically, I am going to go into the studio and start building. Its kind of exciting, Ive never worked that way before.
Sounds great. Well, it looks like I have nothing else for you. Do you have anything you want to add?