On the Train with Maiko Bae Yamamoto: A Theatre Review9 min read

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RP: I’m interested in how your company attempts to redefine the theatre experience for the performers and the audience. At the start of your play, you ask your audience to “get ready to really feel something.” What is it about the traditional performance experience that is limiting?

MBY: I went to a show last night and it was a fine show, but I felt like I could’ve been doing Sudoku for half of the time. There are some really good “traditional pieces” that audiences emotionally connect with; however, there’s also a lot of mainstream theatre that puts up a fourth wall that separates the performers’ space and the audience’s space.

We’re always trying to break that rule a little bit because we feel it’s important to challenge our audiences, so that they’ll come to us, or maybe, we’ll meet in the middle and share our sense of engagement.

RP: Your poetic use of movement is one of the most engaging parts of Train, although the movement doesn’t necessarily correspond with the text you’re speaking. It’s a unique and very intricate dance. How was this created?

MBY: The idea was to create movement so that the audience engaged, physically, and wanted to come to us. For Train, the choreography was all taken from text from the show. I worked with choreographer-director Sarah Chase, and in her work, she often combines physical scores and storytelling. The idea was to use physical scores throughout the piece so that they began to gain resonance when layered onto different aspects of the show.

Photo credit: Jeff Harrison

RP: Which part of the play’s text inspired the movements?

When we choreographed it, I took a quote from Lafcadio Hearn, “The dead never die utterly,” which we put into different areas of the play. In the late nineteenth century, Hearn went to Japan and wrote a number of books about his experiences living there. He educated the world a great deal about Japan’s culture and customs. The quote made it through many drafts of the play and it became sort of like the play’s thesis.

RP: Did Hearn’s history have relevance to the story that you were telling, or did you use the quote because the words alone kept with Train’s themes?

MBY: I spent a lot of my younger years wanting to use history and folklore as a source. I read a lot of books about history and was inspired by those stories but over the years, I’ve become more interested in how they relate to contemporary existence. Because I’ve been working on this piece for so long, the quote was sort of an important homage to my beginnings. In the end, it’s the heart of the piece and the string to the past.

RP: What did you learn from your most recent run at the Gateway Theatre?

MBY: It was really good playing to an audience that is not familiar with this kind of theatre. Having conversations with the audience after the show, about what they understood and perhaps didn’t, informs how I will perform it the next time. I’ll do a rewrite and a bit of tweaking from the feedback that I received, to clarify the material as to match my intent.

RP: That’s something you’ve formally integrated into your company’s practices. Theatre Replacement defers to the audience in shaping your performances. What was the theatre audience’s role in this piece?

In the early stages, we did readings of the family stories for an audience and they were allowed to ask any question they wanted. From this process, I learned that people felt like these were their own stories, which was really striking to me. That was a great discovery along the way.

I’m glad that early process happened because it really informed the play. All of a sudden, it made me want to write the piece from a contemporary perspective. When we wrote Sexual Practices of the Japanese, we really invested in the culture of the play. But I avoided that because I didn’t want to contextualize for a white audience what they were going to be seeing, or just play to a Japanese audience. It became really important to just speak as a human being, and embrace the universal experience so it resonated for everyone.

After a performance of Train, an old woman from Richmond came up to me and said that she felt the struggle of the woman on the train platform. That was quite beautiful because I knew it struck a chord for her. And I knew that we could transcend the boxes that we are placed in. As an artist, that is quite meaningful to me.

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