Talking with Dan Hurlin, part 1

dan hurlin puppet Writer/director Dan Hurlin has been creating original puppet theater since 1980. His work has been presented at such spaces as New York’s P.S. 122, The Kitchen, and Dance Theater Workshop; Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center; the Duke University Institute for the Arts; and the Flynn Theater for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont. His latest show Hiroshima Maiden just completed a highly successful run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. I recently met up with Dan for breakfast to talk about the project, his fascination with puppets and what’s next.

Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about the piece? How it started? Where it came from?

The piece is based on a true story about twenty five women who were invited to come to the United States in 1955 for reconstructive surgery after having survived the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. The problem is the State Department didn’t want them here because there was a news blackout on images of survivors that wasn’t lifted until 1964. You could print pictures of the city but you weren’t really supposed to print pictures of people. So, it was sort of the State Department’s worst nightmare to have the women here. The women managed to make it here anyway, but whenever they made public appearances they were only allowed to be seen in silhouette. The State Department said that was to shield the women from the shame of being looked at, which was true, also. Anyway, the Hiroshima Maidens became minor celebrities. They recorded a pop song while they were here, and they went on the television program This is Your Life where they were reunited with people from their past, including the man who dropped the bomb, the pilot of the Enola Gay.

This piece came about because a very good friend of mine, David Sterlin, is an American historian, and his specialty is medical history. He’s got a new book coming out called Replaceable You, which is all about medical procedures that alter the human body significantly. There’s a chapter about the history of prosthetic devices, there’s a chapter about Christine Jorgensen (the first male-to-female transsexual), and there is a chapter about the Hiroshima Maidens. When he told me the story I just couldn’t believe my ears, that they were re-united with the pilot on This Is Your Life, I just thought that was unbelievable.

Then you went to Japan?

Right. I went to Japan with my partner, Kazu, who performs in the piece, and he is Japanese. We went to the City of Hiroshima, primarily because we want to see if they had a copy of the episode of This Is Your Life. We were at the museum looking through their card catalogue to see if we could find the episode, and they didn’t have it. So, we started looking for the pop song, which we still have never heard, but they did have it listed in their database. We told the librarian that we wanted to hear it. She came back about thirty minutes later and said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is: we have it. The bad news is: we don’t know where it is.” Kazu, who had been looking at the database for about, I don’t know, 5 hours, in this lightless room, coming all the way from New York, just to do this, he just sort of snapped and said to the librarian, “If one of the Hiroshima Maidens was alive, and would come in and sing it for us we’d go away happy. We just want to hear the song.” And the librarian said, “Oh, there was one here about 15 minutes ago. Do you want me to call her up and make an appointment?” Naturally, we said yes. And that’s how we met Michiko Yamaoka, who is one of the original Hiroshima Maidens. I had a great talk with her and emailed her several times during the course of the development of the piece with different questions. And then we invited her to come to the opening night, and to our great surprise and delight she said yes.

Michiko is a peace activist now, is that right?

Yes, she is. While she was here [having her surgeries] she was housed with Quaker families, and on the second or third night she was here, the father of the family she was billeted to came to her and said, “I’m sorry.” It was the first time anyone had ever apologized to her, and she said that from the moment on she realized that Americans were not the problem. The Japanese were not the problem. The problem was War in general. Before the bomb was dropped she had wanted to become a teacher, and then she was a shut-in for ten years. Since going back to Japan, she basically has been running the outreach programs for the Hiroshima Peace Museum. She teaches little children about nuclear disarmament.

Going to Japan and meeting with Michiko, this all happened pre-September 11th, before the war with the “evildoers”? How have these recent events shaped the work or influenced the direction of the piece?

Well, it’s made the piece a lot more immediate, and a lot more timely and vital. I don’t think it has changed or shaped the piece terribly, but there were some images that I had come up with prior to September 11th that sort of had a different resonance after September 11th. There’s an image of people falling that was originally supposed to be ants falling, which become people falling, which then become buildings falling. I actually ended up getting rid of the buildings falling because I didn’t have enough acetate. [Dan chuckles.] That image sort of took on another meaning after September 11th. Also, my first creative meeting with the composer [Robert Een] was on September 11th as the buildings were falling. We were having a meeting right here in the East Village.

Do you want talk a little about him?

I’ve known Bob for hundreds of years. I don’t know how I met him. We just been in the same sandbox playing around for so long.

He came up to my studio in New Hampshire a couple of times just to see what I was making and what I was thinking. He started noodling around with some ideas on the cello and then he would come to rehearsals periodically, and as the puppeteers were going he would sort of be improvising to see you know if it fit, if he liked it. Then, about two weeks before we opened, he disappeared. The next time I saw him, he came in with complete scores and a band, and they played it. It was kind of, done. You know, the way you collaborate with someone is, you work really hard to decide who it is you are going to collaborate with. You pick the right people and then you just let them alone.

For the handful of people who didn’t see your show, what was the music? What did it sound like? What did it feel like?

Well, there’s a huge tradition of puppetry in Japan called bunraku. One of the elements in bunkaru is that there is a narrator called the tayu, and there is a shamisen player.

What is a shamisen?

A shamisen is like a Japanese banjo. We wanted those elements. We wanted music and a narrator, but I think that this is an American story that involves Japanese people. I don’t think it’s a Japanese story. And so, I didn’t want to have all Japanese-y sounding music. I wanted American music. Bob orchestrated it with a cello, and percussion, a hammer dulcimer, marimba and vibes. It’s got a kind of mid-century jazz quality to it from the vibes, and a little bit the marimba, and the hammer dulcimer oddly gives it a kind of Asian quality. He also sings in it.

Does the tayu sing, too? Or does she just talk?

No, she just speaks. She tells the story of the young American boy which initially is counterpoint to the story of the Hiroshima Maidens and has seemingly nothing to do with it, but as the piece progresses the two stories get closer and closer and start to intersect.

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