A fight rehearsal for the Theater Mu/SteppingStone Theatre for Youth co-production of The Last Firefly. Photo by Jessica Kray Martin Photo.
Fireflies float on the boundary between the mundane and a world of magical realism. They are also important biomarkers, whose disappearance foreshadows local ecosystem collapse. This dual role has made the firefly an important character in masterpieces such as Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, set in Japan during the last months of World War 2, and both a magical and tragic figure in poetry. Fireflies, or their absence, figures evocatively in the title of Naomi Iizuka’s play The Last Firefly, which opens March 22 at SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul, MN.
If The Last Firefly sounds vaguely familiar, it should – the work was commissioned by the Children’s Theatre Company and had its premiere there in September 2016. This time around, it’s being co-produced by Theater Mu and the SteppingStone Theatre for Youth. Director Daisuke Kawachi and assistant director Sara Ochs spoke with Basil Considine about bringing this play to life.
It begins with light, a sliver, a flash, then comes a sound, a pulse, a beat, a crash like a giant hammer smashing through the sky. Thus, the story of Boom, the son of Thunder, begins as he sets out on an epic search for his father, ultimately discovering his true self and the strength within him that always existed. This mythical adventure will transport you and your child on a fantastic journey where the littlest things can make all the difference in the world.
When did rehearsals begin? When did you each, respectively, join the production team?
Sara Ochs: We began assembling the production team in December and rehearsals began in February.
Daisuke Kawachi: I was the Assistant Director of last year’s Mu-SteppingStone co-production of The Princess’ Nightingale; I learned so much about directing and working with youth actors. Therefore, it made sense to me to accept Mu’s offer to join the production team in December – this time as director, and with Sara by my side.
Director-Assistant Director working relationships are highly variable in their implementation. How have you decided to divide duties – who does what in the rehearsal studio?
DK: Before we started this process, Sara and I had a meaningful conversation about how to use our different skillsets to ensure a successful rehearsal process, and also how to impart healthy and sustainable theater practices to the youth cast. Sara is using her training and experience as an actor to focus on the technical elements of performance like breathing, diction, and physical awareness. In contrast, I’m using my training and experience as a director to focus on text analysis, staging, intention, and the design elements.
In all of my rehearsal processes, I work really hard to hold space in such a way that invites conversation and collaboration from everybody involved. Sara and I check in regularly about actors, staging, scenework, and more both in the room and outside of it.
SO: I am brand new to directing. Besides taking a directing class in college, my experience consists of assistant directing A Little Night Music this winter for Peter Rothstein at Theater Latte Da. My role in The Last Firefly is twofold – to serve as an acting coach/mentor for our student actors and to learn more about directing. Mu provides artists with such great artistic development opportunities; I’m grateful for this opportunity to grow.
I’m learning a lot by observing Daisuke work with our cast members. I run warm-ups with the student actors, where we practice skills that will help them be successful onstage and talk about things like the importance of representation in the arts and how they can fully take up space in society. If Daisuke wants to split the rehearsal room, I’ll take a group and we’ll work on things like projection, picking up cues, reviewing movement, clarifying intentions, etc.
How many student actors do you have?
SO: 11 awesome student actors! I love working with kids, their energy and love of theatre is boundless. And our cast is especially delightful, they’re thoughtful, funny, and very talented.
Where do you rehearse?
SO: At SteppingStone. They have great rehearsal spaces on the lower level, and we sometimes also rehearse upstairs in the theatre when scheduling permits.
Naomi Iizuka is a prolific playwright who’s written several commissions for area theatres. How did you (each) first encounter her work?
DK: It’s funny, Naomi actually brought an earlier draft of The Last Firefly to Carleton College when I was a sophomore. I worked with Sean Graney (formerly of The Hypocrites) on that production. Since then, I’ve read a lot of her work. I’m mixed-race myself, and the way that she plays with culture and draws influence resonates so deeply with me and my experience.
SO: My first encounter with her work was Walking Shadow’s 2008 production of 36 Views. It was the first time I got to see Sun Mee Chomet onstage! (I’d left for Seoul shortly after she moved back here.)
The script engages with elements of Japanese fairy tales and folklore. Does this present any dramaturgical challenges or concerns in conveying this to the audience?
DK: Naomi does such a great job taking influence and plot points from Kabuki and Japanese folklore, and what’s she has created is something wholly unique and distinct from the source material and inspiration.
There’s a really beautiful note in our script, “A Note About Kabuki”, in which Naomi says, “I am a product of many traditions. I am a member of many tribes. The traditions of Kabuki are meant to be a starting point. What happens next is up for grabs.” All of which is to say, we’re building this show as its own entity.
The dramaturgy that concerns me the most is how abuse warps memory and experience and how we, as theatre makers, can strike that delicate balance between representing something truly terrifying without traumatizing or re-traumatizing our audiences.
SO: During table work, we talked together about moments and characters that were inspired by the folktales Naomi lists in the script. The conversations helped actors in developing their characters, and also, as Daisuke said, Naomi created a world that is inspired by and distinct from these folktales. Our performers and design team are bringing to life a timeless, universal story about the journey everyone takes at some point to face our fears and find the strength we all have deep inside.
What is a favorite aspect of this script?
DK: As a Hapa person living in the U.S., I have a complicated relationship with Japanese culture which I can simultaneously claim and still be excluded from. In this play in particular, Naomi is playing with and remixing so many elements of Kabuki; what she has written gives me, as a director, so much freedom to work within the spirit of the Kabuki elements without trying to create traditionally and historically accurate replicas.
For example, we’re not building a Hanamichi (a catwalk style stage that traditionally runs from Stage Right on the Kabuki stage to the back of the theatre); instead, we are taking the spirit of that element and having characters enter through the aisles. That freedom to engage with and remix elements of Japanese culture and theatre is my absolute favorite part.
SO: Naomi is a brilliant writer. The script is beautifully theatrical and leaves the audience with lots of great questions to contemplate. I love the way she takes the audience on a hero’s journey through the character of Boom and the delightful mix of characters Boom meets along the way.
What’s up next for each of you?
D: I will be helping to manage a grant funded project at the Guthrie. It’s called Stories from the Drum and is generously funded by Theater Forward.
SO: I’m headed to Asolo Rep in Sarasota, FL to play the Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd.
Theater Mu and SteppingStone Theatre’s co-production of The Last Firefly runs March 22-April 7
at SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul, MN.