CLUB DIAMOND – An Interview with Saori Tsukada and Nikki Appino

Photo by Kathryn Raines

This January I had the privilege of seeing Saori Tsukada and Nikki Appino’s CLUB DIAMOND at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival.  The work uses various forms of storytelling (live performance, silent film, musical composition, scrappy street theater) to speak deeply about our collective urge to tell stories, despite (or perhaps especially because of?) the challenges that can stand in the way of this fundamental human act.

All of the characters in CLUB DIAMOND are storytellers, and all are played by Tsukada with a virtuoso’s delight. Her own immigration narrative served as material for the play, and we first view a heightened version of this story via a black and white silent film directed by Appino. Our live guide to this film is a finely-dressed Benshi (there were thousands of Benshi in early 20th century Japan, who provided live narration for silent films and were sometimes celebrities in their own right). But both the Benshi and the film’s narrative are interrupted before the story ends— when the talkies arrived, the ranks of Benshis began to dwindle.  The next time we pick up Tsukada’s story-within-a-story, our Benshi is a rag-wearing street performer, selling candy from a cart he pulls through the streets. But the story must be finished—even in these newly humble circumstances— and the fallen Benshi proceeds using hand-drawn storyboards and a manually-cranked projector. Lastly, we experience the most “direct” version of Tsukada’s narrative, as she speaks directly to the audience about her father’s words to her before she began her journey to America.

This wasn’t my first encounter with the piece—I met the creators this summer at the Sundance Institute’s first Theater-Makers Residency, which was designed to flexibly support new modes of storytelling. And CLUB DIAMOND is absolutely that—a strange and wonderful hybrid whose meaning arises out of form as well as content. Throughout the piece, I found myself thinking often about the artist as immigrant and immigrant as artist—and the indomitable human urge to strike out for new lands and new stories. I wanted to interview the creators about how they came to create this unique evening.

There are many different forms of storytelling in the piece (oral, gestural, filmic, hand-drawn, musical)–how did creating within these different modes effect the content of the narrative(s)?

NA: As we were in most respects, retelling the same story, the most “dramatic” or challenging mode was the kamishibai (translation: Paper-play). It needed to tell its story in a single image. As it developed the next layers of content came from the performance of the storyteller: the broken english, the movement, and the puppetry. As with the Benshi narration, the motivations and character come through these modes just in different ways.

ST: Those modes came along naturally as we conceptualized the piece. How we perceive, interpret informations (visual & audible) and form our own story out of it. And how a story can be manipulated by it.

What were each of your roles in creating the piece? Had either of you collaborated in this way before? What felt new to you in this process and and how did you balance your collaboration?

NA: We had an equal partnership, this is new for me. I have always worked with an incredible team of collaborators, but I was always in charge at the end of the day. This was totally new for me in an artmaking adventure. It’s much more demanding, it take longer, and for me taught me very valuable lessons about trust…trusting the process, trusting your partner, respecting how you are different and letting the piece unfold. The balance I’d say was intuitive, we had natural roles from out past experiences and with so much to do as creators and producers, we just got it done…checked in constantly with one another, but just did the next thing in front of us.

ST: We didn’t really define our roles when we began. It was like ‘Let’s make something together.’ ‘OK, how about something like this?’ I’d draw on a sketch pad. ‘That’s cool.’, Nikki’d take notes and ask questions. We wear many hats but each of us knows which hat fits better on who, so no need for discussion.  My favorite was the designer hat. I really enjoyed designing and making props/costume, and that process gave me a lot of input on shaping characters that I play in the story. Like setting up a detailed landscape for the character.

One of my chief delights in the piece is that there is very little English in it–there is silence, music, movement, and Japanese– but I still understand everything. What were your considerations in constructing the work, in terms of conveying meaning in all these different languages?

ST: This was my experience when I came to America. You don’t understand the language, so you try to catch clues from other resources to understand the unknown environment. Club Diamond provides you with those other resources that are tad animated and heightened.

NA: When we both agreed on the idea of making a silent film we set ourselves up in this form that was built on very simple storytelling with little or no words. It seemed that then the Benshi narration would live over top of that simple story and layer itself in. We watched how many english words needed to slip out so non-japanese speakers wouldn’t feel lost, that was all carefully crafted…and I’d say again that is was a matter of trust – this time trusting the live environment, the emotions in the music, the tenor of Saori’s voice – that these would resonate and tell the story too.

It’s thrilling to experience silent film with a live musical score, and those sensations really helped put the audience (historically and emotionally) in a different place. At what stage did the music (and violinist) enter the piece’s creation, and what was your intent for how music and/musicality function within it?

ST With Tim’s composition as a center piece, Club Diamond itself is a music score as a whole. Live narration, footsteps, gaze and silence are all part of it.

Once we knew we were making a silent film we knew we needed a musical score. We both knew Tim Fain and asked him pretty early in the process to come on board. Then next part was a live violinist, this was also an early idea…a musician in his own western world playing live with the film and with the kamishibai performance.

What’s next for you both?

NA: Saori and I have a title for our next piece, The Archivist. She’s says it has to be about me – but we’ll see. 🙂

I’m also working on a piece about a turn of the century American, Theos Bernard, one of the first to visit Tibet – a first generation Amercian religious innovator and showman. And I’m also reviving a piece about a love story of two women set in the 1935 Transcontinental roller derby.

ST: I’m also involved in developing several projects by different artists including playwright/director Aya Ogawa, composer Joe Diebes and choreographer Catherine Galasso. And I’ll be performing in Ripe Time’s Sleep at BAM this fall.

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