The majority of interviews that I’d done in the past had been in the early 90’s and with British musicians, so it was good to have a chance to get back into it and interview some different subjects, that came from a different background too.
The play was written by a relative of Thomas Edison and performed as a series of monologues. It was my first experience of writing about theatre and also the first time to work with a transcript that came from a digital source rather than an analogue one. Certainly an improvement on slowly rewinding a cassette! It was also interesting to share some experiences I could very much relate to of living as an expat in Tokyo.
The article that appeared on the site can be found below. The photographs of the actors were all taken by Tomomi Akagi.
A woman is telling the story of how her husband died. She is nurturing a glass of red wine and occasionally leans on a bottle of pills. She seems to be trying to purge herself of the guilt she feels about his death and thinks she might have been in some way responsible for it. 10 years previously, she’d had an affair with a young student at the university where she taught and her husband, an acclaimed writer, had never forgiven her for it. An argument about it arose when they were on a dark and wintry Canadian road and a sequence of events including a deer in headlights, a truck carrying metal poles and the driver losing concentration led to his death. She later tries to commit suicide, but fails and realises that life is a better option.
An older man, dressed in a bathrobe, gaunt and bent yet still putting in a powerful performance, is describing the style of his sermons. He’s a minister awaiting a heart transplant, not yet ready to meet his maker. He too is carrying his own burden of guilt. When a childhood friend killed herself in a bathtub, he felt to blame for it and in religion he found a kind of salvation or remedy for his guilt. Later, we learn that his body rejected the new organ, his struggle ends and the heart continues its journey into another body.
A younger man drops into the seat at his desk, glaring into his laptop and barking instructions in German into the headset he’s wearing. A high-flying advertising account executive director, his immigrant mother was raped and he grew up in fatherless poverty. Clearly, his profession is his revenge on a world that gave him such a cruel start. More than just playing a part in shifting trucks, he sells the dream of ‘Rugged Outdoor Man’, the pinnacle of masculinity who fights the elements and protects his beautiful family. Like a badge of honour worn by so many in his profession of hard work and hard living, he suffers a heart attack at 33.
The Canadian Embassy in Tokyo is a grand looking building; slickly modern, smoothly finished, tastefully lit and welcoming. Staged at the theatre belonging to the Embassy, ‘The Domino Heart’ was performed by three actors delivering monologues. It was written by Matthew Edison, a young Canadian actor and playwright who is also the great, great, great, grandnephew of Thomas Edison. Inventiveness clearly runs in the family, for the piece was most poetic, richly laden in metaphor and rose very well to the challenges posed by being entirely constructed from monologues.
On one level, it was a play about heart transplants, with the first donor’s organ going into another body and then a second when the first patient dies (thus the ‘domino heart’, an organ falling like dominoes into body after body). On other levels, the play was about the eternal themes visited by many of the arts; love, life, trust and communication between people.
‘The Domino Heart’ was directed by Robert Tsonos and Rachel Walzer. Robert, a Canadian actor and director, has lived in Tokyo for about 5 years and also played the part of Leo, the character in advertising. Rachel, originally from Jerusalem, has been in Tokyo on and off for the last 13 years and also teaches drama when not working as an actress or narrator. Mortimer Wright, the minister, is played by Bruce Michell, from Sydney and in Tokyo for 16 years. Lynne Hobday, a British-born actress, vocalist and lyricist who played the part of Cara, the grieving wife, as initially drawn to Japan at around the same time as Bruce.
The cast and crew were able to spare a little time after the show to talk about the production and their lives here in Japan’s vast metropolitan capital city.
We began by talking about the play itself. Robert was attracted to the poetry and the metaphors of it, also complimenting the style of the piece. Intrigued by the challenges posed by making a series of fairly long monologues into engaging theatre, Rachel commented that ‘it was really interesting to find all the little ways, the little secrets, the little paths to make it alive and visual’. For both, it was an intense experience to produce. Robert added that the concentration, commitment and talent needed was high.
There were challenges too for the actors. Bruce had to tone down his Australian qualities to play a character that’d moved to Canada. Lynne mostly acts in Japanese language theatre and this was her first English production in many years. Naturally, it was also important to maintain focus and keep the monologues interesting too.
So, how about their experiences of theatre in Japan, and was it much different to that of in their home countries? What are some of the delights and drags of being an expatriate in one of the world’s biggest cities – being an outsider yet also being on the inside? What difficulties do they face and where are their favourite haunts?
Robert: ‘Well, there’s language restrictions obviously. In order to do major TV dramas or things like that, you have to be fluent in Japanese and I’m not.’
Rachel: ‘We have a large, foreign English-speaking community in Tokyo, but I think just a very small percentage of that community is interested in theatre. We’re always striving to get more audience members, but generally…I think the izakayas are more attractive. If you’re an actor in London or New York perhaps, then you’re OK, but outside of that, it’s difficult…’
Bruce: ‘We probably wouldn’t be doing this kind of play in Australia. We’d be more likely doing the classics or we’d be doing an Australian play.’
Robert: ‘To have the entire cast of 8 or 9 people sometimes, all from different countries, is fascinating to me. How do you communicate with each of them in a different way? Some of them are more…like the Venezuelan actress (I worked with) was very physically based, and the British are very intellectually based, right? So you’ve got to give almost different direction to each of them, which I find fascinating, so I that’s been really exciting.’
Rachel: ‘It’s also fascinating when people bring their own culture and mannerisms and yet when it comes to just human issues, it’s all the same stuff and if it’s expressed with honesty, it doesn’t really matter if you’re the kind of person who uses your hands more or if you’re the kind of person who uses your head more. It makes the play even more interesting. What does connect the Japanese who work within our group as well as everybody else is that everybody seems quite internationalised, meaning that they’ve been exposed to a lot of different cultures and they’ve brought a lot of the different flavours that they’ve been exposed to to their performances.’
Bruce: ‘People, I think, are less insular. You’re getting a more international feel. You’re getting people from different backgrounds…So I think you’re getting more variety of experience, variety of directors and the variety of plays.’
Naturally, living in a place like Tokyo has its advantages as well as its drawbacks.
Lynne: ‘It can also be a bit precarious, because I’m pretty much freelance, but I’ve been in work for quite a long while. Tokyo’s always changing, there are always new opportunities, you never know what’s around the corner, so (there’s) that excitement.’
Bruce: ‘I think that in your home country, people are more set in their ways. They have routines and they tend to be more family-orientated to start off with, and it’s not so easy to meet people or to break into new social circles, but in Tokyo I think it is much easier. People come, they stay for 2 or 3 years and maybe then they leave, so they’re more inclined to go out, meet people, open up themselves.’
Rachel: ‘It might be a bit hard for me if I were Japanese…I think I would feel a little bit restricted, because the culture here is a restrictive type of culture. As a foreigner, I feel liberated, I feel that nothing’s expected of me, I can do whatever I want, so I feel freer here than what I would in my own home country.’
Bruce: ‘Foreigners, particularly Westerners, are cut a lot of slack. They’re treated pretty well. Sometimes you’re not treated well by everyone, but generally speaking, I think Westerners are treated quite well…People do say there may be discrimination, say in the rental market or something like that, but it’s nothing that I’ve experienced.’
It’s a very big and busy place. Any other downsides?
Lynne: ‘A little bit too busy. Actually doing things and not chilling out enough, probably. I can never stop here!’
Bruce: ‘Travelling at 8.30 in the morning on the Yamanote line is not great, obviously, and we do things to survive. We wear iPods, we have our mobile phones…and that’s a sad thing…but I think that’s kind of a survival mechanism. We do that because we have to do that, just to cope with the crowding, the pushing, and those kinds of things.’
Rachel: ‘I’d be happier if there was a little bit more nature.’
Bruce: ‘When you’re working hard, and people do work hard here, it’s nice to have access to a little bit of nature, to be able to relax. I think if you’re used to it, you have actually a hunger to see trees and greenery and sky and things like that, but, you live here for a certain period of time and you get used to it. That’s the body and the mind. It adapts to what environment we’re in. But you’re reminded of it sometimes. Sometimes you see Fuji in the distance, and you think, ‘Wow, yeah, that’s great, there is a sky, a horizon out there.’
Tokyo’s green spaces do find favour, as do some of the livelier and more cosmopolitan spots.
Rachel: ‘There are parks that are very beautiful, there’s Nezu Art Museum, that has its own little Japanese area with ponds and trees and stuff like that. If you know the little nooks and crannies of the city, you can find a little peace.’
Bruce: ‘I really like Shinjuku Gyoen. It’s a lovely park. I also sometimes go down to the area around Omotesando and the park near that area as well.’
Lynne: ‘Harajuku, Omotesando, probably. Lots of trees and wide roads, it just feels a bit European.’
Rachel: ‘I love the nightlife of Tokyo. I like the excitement and the buzz of places like Omotesando and this area, Aoyama, and I love the various flavours sometimes…when I’m in the mood for Shinjuku or Roppongi.’
No matter how long people have been resident in this city and whatever background they’ve previously come from, there still seem to a lot of commonality to their lives. Whilst Tokyo seems to be systematically busier than most places and may lack an abundance of wide open green spaces, these are similar reservations that many of the Japanese people drawn to the magnetism of the national capital have. What does mark the ‘foreigners’ out from the ‘locals’ is the experience of being an ‘outsider on the inside’. Other global hotspots such as London or New York might take a more integrationist approach, as cities built on the backs of their respective countries waves of immigration. Simply the act of living there makes one a Londoner or a New Yorker.
Here, one can never be a ‘true Tokyoite’, yet that is not without its advantages. While most incomers have to hurdle the language barrier, and Japanese is a notoriously difficult language to learn, there is often a greater freedom in being a foreigner in Japan. Rachel spoke of the liberation she felt here. Bruce mentioned the fact of many foreigners having an easier time than in their home countries and of being ‘cut a lot of slack’. Everybody also felt the buzz of the place.
It would appear that, for our actors and directors at the Canadian Embassy and undoubtedly many others like them, their city transplant operations were successful. Their bodies accepted their new Tokyo hearts.