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Naomi Iizuka and 36 Views
Connecting the lives of artists and academics, dealers and journalists, Naomi Iizuka’s 2001 play 36 Views is an examination of the dynamic opposition within those different spheres. Incorporating Eastern theatrical techniques, Iizuka tells a highly contemporary story in a traditional way, subverting the typical perceptions of East and West. At the heart of 36 Views is the question of authenticity: what’s the difference between the real thing and a very good fake? What’s at stake in making that distinction? Currently in production at Toronto’s Berkley Street Theatre by the Actor’s Repertory Company, Naomi Skwarna recently had the opportunity to speak with Naomi Iizuka about her play, further illuminating the various themes within this compelling piece of theatre.
NS: You chose to set 36 Views in the world of academia and visual art. What attracted you in particular to the pillow book and Hokusai prints?
NI: I love Hokusai's study of Mount Fuji, how he approaches the mountain from so many different perspectives. The way that he forces us to see a thing in such a multitude of ways was very compelling to me – particularly the premise that the only way you can really see the mountain is to see it in constant flux. I wanted to see how that structure could be translated to the stage. As for Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, I loved the voice that emerges as you read it. You feel as if you're hearing this very smart, very feisty individual speaking to you over centuries. I began to wonder about the writer. We know so little about her really and I think the contrast between the dearth of biographical information and the vividness of her voice was fascinating to me.
NS: 36 Views is a play that deals with the themes of shifting perception, and "realness" of an object or intention. Do you think that people can learn to see the authenticity of a situation or object? Or is it an impossibility to ever really know?
NI: I think that the universe is more complicated than we sometimes think. And by that I mean, that the truth of a situation or a person may not be what it seems, that it can shift over time. So how one defines what is "real" needs to take into account that fact. I don't mean to sound like a relativist. I do think there are essential truths, but I think how we approach and understand them requires a certain humility in the face of all that we don't know about human nature and the universe we inhabit.
NS: Why did you choose to utilize Noh and Kabuki traditions to tell this story? How do they support the themes within the play?
NI: Does the fusion of theatrical styles relate to the importance of authenticity? What I mean is, can I truly appreciate the Eastern aspects of the production even though it is used in conjunction with a Western theatrical style? I think one of the challenges for me in writing the play was to find ways of dramatizing the tension between East and West. I loved the idea of trying to find a way of integrating a very specifically Asian theatrical tradition into a Western play. How do you find a way to translate a roppo, for example? I believe that the form a story takes is as key as the content of the story. And in this instance, I wanted that conflict between East and West to play out not only in the dialogue that the characters speak, but in the actual structure of the play.
NS: Does 36 Views ask the audience to only accept the authentic, or
NI: I think you've landed on a central tension in the play. I think the play does posit that there are certain truths, be it an authentic art object or an authentic feeling of love. But at the same time, how you discern that truth is very tricky. I guess I would say that the real thing exists, but it is elusive and hard to pin down. And on some level, I think the play suggests that you need to take a leap of faith in discerning the truth in both art and love.
NS: The relationship between Claire Tsong and Darius Wheeler is very engaging; when it is discovered that Claire was at one point deceived by Wheeler, our perception of Wheeler shifts quite drastically. He is shown to be not just ruthless in his business dealings, but in his personal relationships. Knowing this, can we believe that Darius really loves Setsuko?
NI: That's a tricky question. I think he is most certainly an unreliable character on so many levels. And yet to rule out the sincerity of his feelings for Setsuko out of hand is, I think, a mistake.
NS: Is Darius's predatory pursuit of the Eastern ideal (in art and women) a comment on appropriation of other cultures?
NI: I think there is an impulse to acquire and own that fuels Darius Wheeler. But I think – and this is where it gets tricky again – I think there's also a genuine love. I think he loves the art work he owns. He appreciates it and understands it in a profound and authentic way. So as much there's a somewhat unsavory aspect to his pursuit of art objects, there is also a genuine passion and love. And I think the same could be said of his attraction towards Setsuko. There's an element to that attraction that is, at least initially, suspect. But I do think that there's a shift that happens over the course of the play, and I think what began as a desire to conquer or appropriate transforms into something else.
NS: 36 Views asks a lot of questions based around ethics and truth. Do you think "authenticity" is a spectrum concept? For example, Setsuko Hearn, portrayed initially as a Japanese ideal is later discovered to be Chinese American, not Tokyo-bred as Darius assumed. Another detail that comes to light is Claire's altar ego, Utagawa. In your opinion, is there a dividing line between duplicity and diversity?
NI: What does it mean to be authentic? That's one of the central questions of the play. Do the biographical details of Setsuko's life diverge from both Darius' first impression as well as the audience's? Yes, but what does that mean at the end of the day? How do we assess the value of the forged pillow book once we know that Claire is also Utagawa? What interests me is how we define authenticity. And also what the anxiety is that propels us to privilege authenticity over other values.
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December 28, 2009.