INSIDE SUICIDE FOREST
Deepali Gupta in conversation with Suicide Forest creators Kristine Haruna Lee and Aya Ogawa, about the inner world of the play and its process. The show premieres at The Bushwick Starr this week, and runs through March 23rd. Get tix at thebushwickstarr.org
Suicide Forest is a bilingual nightmare play excavating the Japanese-American consciousness and its looming relationship with sex, suicide, and identity. In 1990’s Japan, a teenage girl grapples with her sexuality in a nightmarish, male-defined society as a salaryman desperately tries to escape his masochistic psyche. Both are clawing for their self-worth. When their two journeys collide, they expose their darkest desires fueled by shame as they now confront life and death with the notorious Suicide Forest looming over their imagination. Performed by a Japanese heritage cast, Suicide Forest examines the role of community and the inner struggles of emotional, psychic and social suicide through the playwright’s lived stories and inner landscape.
Deepali: What are the instruments that you feel the two of you wield in rehearsal—as individuals, as partners, and as leaders in the room?
Kristine: I was thinking, you know, I wrote this, and now I’m performing in it—like, fully embodying the inside of the play. I get the daily call, and it tells me what I’m working on today. And I’m like, okay, today I’m working on the hardest scene. And then I get the daily call the next day and I’m like, oh fuck, it’s another hard scene. So it’s been a succession of hard, hard scenes. That’s what it felt like last week.
And this week, now we have this palette, there’s form to these scenes. And I’ve been finding that it’s a little bit easier to enter back into the space. And I think a tool I’m using and have been meditating on for this process, is being in touch with my soft animal place. Which is a Mary Oliver thing. But that series of words entered into my sphere before I jumped into this, and I’ve been really trying to stay soft, amidst all the hard, hard material.
D: I’m curious about what the rhythm and shape of rehearsal is, as well as the ebbs and flows of how you sustain momentum and energy throughout these explorations.
Aya: In my ideal world, I would have the full cast all day long, and we would have two hours for check in, and warm up, and we would have no other obligations. We would take meals together! And then at the end of the day, we would cool down together. And it was, I think, only twice last week thatwe began the day with the full cast in the room. So I take advantage of those opportunities to check in, talk, warm up—really quickly.
K: Aya is a savant when it comes to assessing people’s emotions in the room and creating a generous space. I’ve watched this over time, people just feel so open.
A: Right before we started rehearsal last week, Kristine and I had to check in. We had just come out of a process of a play that I had written and was directing, and Kristine was very much part of the creation of that piece, and the DNA of that piece. I couldn’t have made that play without her. Not just as a performer who’s embodying me— but as an energy in the room. Anyway, I was checking in with Kristine, like, how do you feel after The Nosebleed?
She said, I feel like a racehorse that has been totally pushed to my limit, in a really great way. And actually, that is exactly how I feel right now. I’m exhausted at the end of the day, but I also feel really good and happy. I just try to find the best balance that I can, of making sure everybody’s okay. But also pushing really, really hard on people. I feel like I’ve been pushing harder than I normally would. But I feel like there is kind of this trust in the room, to do that.
D: For me, what I’m gleaning from this play, and what I’m learning, is that location—landscape is important. Embodiment and location, the force of the body, the human body, perpetuating violence, being perpetuated against.
K: You using those words right now, and the process we’ve been in—it’s really hitting me in this moment, the connection of location, or site, with immigration. So, everyone in this room is, to a certain degree—either by choice or not by choice—displaced from this home space. And we carry that in our bodies. And so much work goes into making our bodies our home because we can’t find the physical embodiment of home outside of ourselves. Or like, the ways in which this new land that we arrive on, we feel we can’t connect with culture, or we’re not represented or reflected by the culture. And the desire to be. And then the work that it takes to make sense of any dissonance there. I’ve really been sensing that in this room.
A: I also feel like when you’re talking about landscape and body—yesterday we were working on one of the pivotal scenes in Act I in which we set up the trajectories of these two characters; the Salaryman, played by Eddy Toru, and a high school girl which is played by Kristine. And this is a scene where they actually like, collide…and it precipitates a huge shift in the play, and brings on a huge transition to the world of the play. And when we were working on that scene yesterday, I felt very much that it wasn’t a scene about these two people in a hotel room. It was actually like the site, the stage, was a psychic space—and there was a kind of battle of two different energies over ownership of the space. And it was just a reminder, to me, about how this place functions.
D: I wonder how your relationship to the play is changing in terms of, what do I know about the play? What do I not know about the play? What will I never know about the play?
K: I think for me, each day in rehearsal feels like there’s more and more clarity around the world. And that kind of seeing, being able to see, feels like the opposite of unknown. Like, maybe I began the play in a space of unknown, and through this collaboration, it feels like arriving at clarity. But the unknown for me, outside of the play, is how it will be received. And that is a question that’s come up a lot.
People are like, well, how do you think a downtown audience will receive this play, and what are your thoughts around that?
And we’ve had a lot of conversations around that. Something Aya has really helped me to see is, historically in the American Theatre, we are very much used to seeing plays written by white playwrights, and created by white artists. And there are people who are not of that dominant space who come to see these plays. Including myself, including Aya, including us.
And when we arrive, we must create context around what we’re seeing, so that we can have a relationship with that material. Even if the material doesn’t speak to my direct experiences, or history, or culture. That’s the work that I’ve learned to do when I go see theater. And so to be asked, like, what’s the work you’re doing to make sure other people can understand this play? I’m like, well actually, don’t you think that work can land on the audience?
Like I said, this play is so truthful to my experience of being Japanese, being American, being Taiwanese, as well as being Asian, and Asian American, being a woman, being queer. It’s so truthful to that. And I would like to invite the audience to come in and participate in that. And if that is not your experience, to be able to participate in a way that isn’t about trying to own my experience.
D: When you need to just dismiss that, break out of that in your room—what are some of tools you use to ensure that this room is your own?
A: I don’t think that this moment would have been possible unless we had spent the last two years together, in so many conversations, on so many different levels, and, you know, being in relationship with each other in different capacities. So here we are in this moment, and I feel like my role in seeing this play through is to be the number one audience member. I am making this play to appease me, and trusting that what appeases me, and what I find thrilling, or satisfying, or disgusting, or provocative—that all those things are landingin a way that I can take.
D: How do you feel this rehearsal process is reverberating or resonating in the rest of your life? Your personal relationships, the day to day, in terms of what you keep here, and what you bring with you.
A: I think what I was trying to say before was that, despite the title of the play, this room is very joyful. We are constantly delighting each other with things and discoveries and even in scenes where the characters are brutal and cruel beyond imagination to each other—as soon as we get out of character, everyone is so full of laughter and joy. So it hasn’t really been a process of like, cleanse myself or leave something behind. I actually just carry it around with me all day and all night.
I mean, this is why I’ve never directed anyone else’s play, because as an artist, my practice is in living in the work until it meets the audience and seeing that process through. So it has never occurred to me to try to separate myself from the rehearsal room in my personal life. It’s all just like, I embody multiple roles and multiple identities all the time—so it’s all just permeable membranes for me. I dream about the play.
K: There is such adelight in working on one’s own project because you do live in it day in, day out. Something that’s been happening to me outside of rehearsal, because this material is so,for me, sexually charged, edging on the erotic and abuse—like how do we take care of our erotic energy and not abuse it? But my experience outside of working on the play has been like full erotic mode, turned on all the time and I’m like, oh my god, what’s happening?! And I’m usually not that tapped into my erotic side, like, I’m pretty good about (laughter) compartmentalizing those things. But this play… isn’t that wild? That a play so dark, and so like a nightmare makes me feel so open right now. And like, totally turned on all the time. My partners are like, what’s going on, what’s happening?