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Home > Arts > INTERVIEW: Rick Shiomi on Updating <em>The Mikado</em>, Combatting Yellowface, and Post-Mu Life

INTERVIEW: Rick Shiomi on Updating The Mikado, Combatting Yellowface, and Post-Mu Life

Director Rick Shiomi and Music Director Randy Buikema look at an updated score for Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado.

On March 15, the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company opens a very different look at The Mikado. The updated version of this classic light opera, which plays at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Minneapolis, promises a nuanced update of the Gilbert & Sullivan favorite that captures the essential humor and wordplay of the original.

One of the most popular works in the Gilbert & Sullivan canon, The Mikado has attracted criticisms over the years for its caricatured depiction of Japan. Different companies have approached these troubled waters in different ways, ranging from under-the-radar text tweaks to simply transporting the story to a fantasy world. This time around the block, GSVLOC hired the noted theatre director Rick Shiomi to steer its ship through these rough seas. The result? A transplant of the setting to Edwardian England, re-localizing the Japanese characters as English, and various and sundry other changes intended to retain the fundamental humor while removing the stereotyping and reductionist caricatures.

Director Rick Shiomi is a shrewd choice to captain this ship, a local legend and widely respected voice in Asian American theatre and its Canadian equivalent. The Toronto native has more than twenty plays to his name; a stack of awards including an Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement, a Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision, and a McKnight Foundation Award; and a resume that includes leading the St. Paul-based Mu Performing Arts for two decades. Currently Co-Artistic Director of Full Circle Theater, he joins GSVLOC for the first time to direct his new adaptation of The Mikado – an update that further develops a 2013 reworking that he penned for Skylark Opera, attracting national and international attention.

Basil Considine and Rick Shiomi spoke last week about bringing his new version of The Mikado to the stage.

A promotional photo for the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s 2019 production of The Mikado. Featured: Anthony Rohr as Franki-Poo, Maggie Matejcek as Tum Tum, and Tyus Beeson as Co Co.

Where am I catching you in the rehearsal process?

We have just worked through most of the scenes, the music, and the choreography. There’s a lot of choreography in this production, and now we’re bringing it all together.

How did you become engaged with this production?

Stephen Hage, the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s Producer, approached me after seeing a collaborative production of The Mikado that I directed between Mu Performing Arts and Skylark Opera back in 2013. He was interested in having me direct my version of The Mikado for them.

What’s different in your adaptation of The Mikado?

A poster by J. Hassal for the D’Oyly Carte’s 1919 production of The Mikado. Like many theatrical works of the period, this production’s exaggerated depiction of Japan and Japanese people has not aged as well as its vibrant musical score.

The first key aspect of my version is that I reset the opera’s setting to England around 1910, so that it dealt with the two key issues. First there’s often protest by Asian American communities about what they believe are stereotyped depictions; by resetting the opera in Edwardian England, we don’t have to worry about that.

Second, because the opera was originally set in Japan, you had all these white actors playing Japanese characters – yellowface actors – and by setting it in Edwardian England we now have white actors playing white characters. To me, that solves the two key concerns that might come up.

Because of these changes, I think you can now again enjoy the cleverness, the fun, and the music of this opera, in a wholly different context.

I presume that the opera now being in the public domain helped – you didn’t have to go through any estates for licensing.

Yes. My discovery, back in 2013, that The Mikado had recently entered the public domain suddenly allowed us to have a free hand with the material. I was then able to, beyond that simple setting reset, start playing with certain problematic aspects of the opera itself.

One of these aspects, of course, is all the names; I immediately started changing them to suit the shift to Edwardian England. The young lovers in the original are Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, and I changed it to Franki Poo and Tum Tum – “she makes our hearts go tum tum“. I’ve found the basis for these names in the lyrics of the song, and needed something that would both fit and easily fit, for both. Katisha similarly became Katie Shaw; changes like that allowed me to not only remove the offensive names, but also fit the changes into the new world of the opera.)

The transformation of the piece kicks off with the opening song, “If you want to know who we are”, where I changed the references from Japan to England. When the cast comes out in the opening, I have a group playing cricket, and a group of men at a pub – those kinds of classic British things have become part of the updated play.

Rick Shiomi talks with Lara Trujillo (Katy Shaw) in the rehearsal studio. Photo courtesy of GSVLOC.

That’s a lot of changes adding up – are there any plans for circulating this edition?

I was curious to see if I had enough changes to get them copyrighted, and the Library of Congress let me. I’m not interested so much in making money off this new edition, but if other companies use it, I’d like to be recognized for my work.

Updating sung texts can be tricky business – accent placements, syllable counts, and avoiding mis-hearings. Content and setting aside, what are your guiding principles?

I truly am trying to follow good text-setting principles, and to not actually change the rhythm and lyrical-musical things.

I don’t read music myself and I’m not a music theory person, so I depend a lot on my musical directors to test these out. When I worked with Skylark, Steven Stucki was the musical director there…I really depended on his sense of the music to help me with these changes. In this production, Randall Buikema at GSVLOC has been great in terms of collaborating and making sure the changes in this version work.

What are the nuts and bolts of your revision process like? How do you track all of these changes?

I use a pencil – crossing out the lyrics in the score and writing my own. The company produces copies for those who need specific changes. (Choral changes have to be mass-produced, but some of the leads’ changes are just for those individual singers, since they’re the only ones in the scene, so we share the actual script for those singers.)

When did you begin the work that became the current performing edition?

It basically started just a year before the 2013 production – and then, after, I let it go because I wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in that version of it. When Stephen asked me to use my edition and direct for GSVLOC, however, I thought, “If we can do a good job with the G&S company here, it might be interesting to other ones.”

The Skylark-Mu production was a kind of specialty production, since I was artistic director of Mu at the time, and cast some Asian actors in the British roles to reverse the casting. For Gilbert and Sullivan companies that don’t have many Asian characters, that early edition’s cross-casting might not seem practical. With the newer edition we’re doing with GSVLOC, however, they might see it as suiting their purposes.

Besides recently shoveling snow, what have you been engaged with after stepping down at Mu?

I’m now the co-artistic director of a new company called Full Circle Theater Company, which I started in 2015 – right after I retired from Mu. It’s really focused on the larger/more diverse community, rather than my earlier focus on the Asian American community. I think it’s more wide open in that sense, and very much reflecting of the whole theatre. Its mission has a focus on diversity encompassing different groups of people, rather than a strictly Asian American one.

That sounds like the opposite of retirement. Are you actually kicking back, or busier than ever?

The irony is that it takes more work and effort to start a company. With a large company like Mu, I had support staff: grant writers, marketers, etc. When you start a new company, there’s no support staff, so those of us working together end up doing all of that other work…which takes more time and energy than you think.

At the same time, I got a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to help develop an Asian American theatre presence in Philadelphia, so I’ve been going there on a monthly basis to talk with theatre people there and help develop a community of Asian American artists working in Philadelphia.

The combined work from Full Circle and in Philadelphia has kept me very busy.

You haven’t, say, decided to do some home modeling as well, have you?

Actually, we did a kitchen renovation, too – we were eating out of the basement for three months.

Do you remember when/how you first saw The Mikado?

I can’t remember when I first saw The Mikado – but I’ve been aware of it for 20-30 years. Because of my perspective from Asian American theatre, it’s always been one of what I’d describe as “Bad Actors of Asian American Performance”, where Asian American artists feel that it has the double whammy of creating Asian stereotypes onstage and having yellowface, which creates a very negative view of it. Also, because I was more involved in straight theatre (as opposed to musical theatre and opera), I didn’t see initially see it as a theatre/performance piece that I’d be involved in.

In 2012, when The Mikado was again brought to my attention by Stephen Stucki of Skylark Opera, this was the first time that I really thought about how I could possibly be involved in producing or reshaping it.

Given that background context, what was your initial reaction?

What was interesting for me was that my initial reaction would have been “No, no – no, thank you. I’d rather not work on this” – but I realized that if I didn’t get involved, it’d probably be just a normal production [with all the normal problems]. So, I proposed making adjustments to make it more palatable to the Asian American perspective, and they were good enough to be open to it.

I don’t think that this was what they [Skylark] originally attended when they asked me to direct, but they went along with it, and when I realized that the show was out of copyright…

Was the process smooth-sailing?

Each time, as I made changes, they were always agreeable to them – and in that sense, it’s a recent phenomenon for me. I think part of the reason that Skylark approached me was because, in my last 5 years or so at Mu Performing Arts, I started to direct a musical each year: Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, Flower Drum Song – and it gave me experience as a musical theatre director. So it was perfect timing for when I became involved.

Gilbert and Sullivan companies are a special phenomenon in which they often have large numbers of people who are literally involved for decades, which can sometimes create a delicate balancing act in auditions. What was the casting process like?

It was great. Part of this was that they, as a company, have become more attractive in recent years to younger musical theatre performers. In the auditions, we were able to look at quite a few people. From talking with Stephen, one of the reasons for this, candidly, is that GSVLOC is now paying a stipend to performers…which is an incentive to young people (and, also, the credit that it’s a paid gig). This moves it up from a strictly community group where no one gets paid to a semiprofessional one where the actors in a given show get paid something.

As a long-standing company, there are a certain number of people who’ve been there for decades, but most of them can in a sense be grandfathered into chorus positions, as opposed to necessarily being cast as leads all the time. In this case, most of the leads are younger – younger, middle-range characters – so we got a lot of good choices with all these younger people auditioning. There’s a feeling of a whole new energy when you have that mixture.

GSVLOC Music Director Randy Buikema and Rick Shiomi review lyrical tweaks in The Mikado. Photo courtesy of GSVLOC.

You have a very large cast and the stage that you’re performing on isn’t especially large – has that impacted your planning and staging process?

We haven’t moved into the theatre yet, so I’d be able to talk better about that in a week or so, but I will say that it is a challenge to have a large cast on a not-that-big stage. It’s something that I’m constantly thinking about working with.

Choreography was so key to the production that we did with Mu and Skylark, so I brought in the same choreographer – Penelope Freeh, she’s very prominent in the community – because I was so happy with her work there. We of course had to adapt things, since the stage used by GSVLOC isn’t as big as the E.M. Pearson Theatre at Concordia–St. Paul), but that movement is very important to me. It gives a certain dynamism to the whole opera.

One can easily be lured into a stand-and-deliver style when you have this many people onstage in musical theatre, but we’re trying to create as much variation and movement as possible, and to give a gestural role for the chorus, so that it’s not just people standing on stage and singing.

How have you structured rehearsing the different show elements? Does this vary significantly from your earlier work at Mu?

Because the choreography is so important (and because we wanted to make sure the music was solid), we spent most of the first 2 weeks of rehearsals in strictly music and scene rehearsals. From the 3rd week on, we started to incorporate the choreography and combine it with the music in different segments. Now, at this point, we’re starting to put all those pieces together: the cast has studied the music and we expect them to know it, we are locking in the choreography, and I’ve been working with them on putting it together with the scene works. That’s the fun for this week; next week, we see how it goes together in the theatre space.

GSVLOC’s system is different from my old system at Mu. At Mu, we rehearsed 6 days out of 7 for 4 weeks, then tech rehearsals and performance; at GSVLOC, we do 8 weeks of rehearsal, but only 4 days out of the week. It amounts to about the same amount of time, but it’s fewer times each week, spread over a longer number of weeks. For the first 4 weeks, basically, the chorus comes in twice a week and the leads come in twice a week, sometimes with extra calls for the leads if there’s a song mixing both the leads and the chorus.

GSVLOC’s schedule is actually quite relaxing, in a way, since rehearsals 6 out of 7 days has you feeling that you’re pushing every day. With just 4 days of rehearsal a week, you have actual days off that you notice, and it’s not as high-pressure. It’s a longer process, but I’m not “under the gun”, in a sense, with other projects – so it’s all right.

What’s up next for you?

We open The Mikado on March, then in the middle of April, I begin rehearsals for a play named Caught by Christopher Chen. Caught is being staged by the company I’m working with as a co-artistic director, Full Circle Theatre, at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio. Caught opens on May 18 and runs through June 2; we have, basically, 4 weeks of rehearsals.

I directed the world premiere of Caught in Philadelphia in 2014, and it won an award for Outstanding New Play, and the playwright won an Obie in 2017 when the play ran in New York. [Editor’s note: Shiomi modestly refrained from mentioning that he also received a Philadelphia Barrymore Award Nomination for Outstanding Direction for Caught.] It’s being produced around the country at different theatres, and I think it’s a brilliant play. Devilishly clever.

A promotional photo for InterAct’s 2015 production of Caught, which Rick Shiomi directed. Photo courtesy of InterAct Theater.

So your engagement with Philadelphia actually predates your stepping down at Mu?

Yes – I was in Philadelphia regularly between January and December 2014 for the first Doris Duke grant; this let me separately direct the play there. It was a big hit for InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia.

When I was leaving Mu Performing Arts, I was thinking about projects that I could pursue as an original artist. One of the things I thought about was developing an Asian American theatre presence in a city where it was unlikely or didn’t exist before. I knew Seth Rosin, the Artistic Director of Interact, from a previous engagement many years ago, and suggested to him the possibility of applying for the Doris Duke Foundation’s Building Demand for the Arts grant.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation had a program where they wanted to create projects that weren’t productions, necessarily, but building audience interest in the arts. My project was to develop a demand for Asian American theatre in Philadelphia where none existed. We made the proposal, Seth agreed to co-sponsor it, and we got that first grant…in January 2014, the year that I left Theatre Mu.

In 2015, we reapplied because there was a second opportunity for an implementation round (2014 was an exploration round). That grant started in January 2016 and ran through June 2018 – so it was 3.5 years over a 4.5-year time period, and all since I left Mu. It’s been a constant thing!

Last June was the end of that project, and we’ve been doing wrap-up and final reports…but there’s the possibility of a final round, still, that we might apply for. If we get it, it would be one of the longest grant opportunities that I’ve ever been involved in…and all because we were able to find and cultivate a whole group of Asian American theatre artists in Philadelphia that no one knew were there, or thought to recognize, what’s now Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists. If we have an opportunity to apply for and do a final round, it would be about setting up structures that would help the group endure for a longer time.

I can’t help but notice that this opportunity took you away from the Minnesota winter – coincidence?

It was strictly artistic planning, not climate planning. If it were, it would’ve been a good idea to do it in Tucson…but no such luck.

What’s your show pitch for The Mikado?

It’s going to be a tremendously fun and funny production. The more I see how this particular production is evolving, I see it almost as a precursor to Monty Python, in the lineage of vaudeville theatre.

In some ways, I feel that I’m giving the actors a lot of rope to go out and have fun with, and they’re taking it and running with it. The more I see that happen, the more I feel that we are having this really fun, Monty Python-esque humor and a character play, and that’s really exciting. With Randy as the music director, it’s on a solid musical structure, of course, but within that we get to have fun. All the elements together lend a much more vaudevillian approach to the material.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company’s production of The Mikado runs March 15-April 7 at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center (located in Plymouth Congregational Church) in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine