Writer and star of Empire of the Son, Canadian-Japanese broadcaster and scholar Tetsuro Shigematsu takes the stage at the Vancity Culture Lab at the Cultch Theatre from Oct. 6–17.
Produced by the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT), Empire of the Son is the story of Shigematsu’s personal relationship with his now dying father. While they speak different languages and have different value systems, it is their similarities that have created a distance between them.
While both generations of Shigematsu men can boast of successful careers in radio broadcasting, the generational and cultural gap between them offers different understandings and traditions, notably of what it means to “be a man.”
Dubbed “the voice of our Azn generation” by Ricepaper Magazine, Shigematsu tells the story of his immigrant family and their intergenerational conflicts in his one-man play.
An outsider looking for answers
“When people ask me where I’m from, they’re surprised to hear I grew up in Surrey, because that’s not what they’re expecting” says Shigematsu. “Then maybe I tell them what they really want to hear, that my parents are from Japan. Ah that’s much better!”
While he was born in England and is of Japanese descent, Shigematsu is Canadian bred and educated. Nevertheless, his Asian heritage plays a big part in his strongly autobiographical work.
“A big part of my self-identity has always been as an outsider,” says Shigematsu, recalling a time when being Asian in Vancouver was quite unusual.
Being the child of immigrants, Shigematsu considered his reserved communication with his father to be normal and had no problem with it.
“I suppose like many men, I’ve never really had a heart-to-heart conversation with my own father – especially given his generation.”
Now a father himself however, Shigematsu knew that eventually his two young children would have questions about their grandparents – who they were and why they came here – and that he wouldn’t have the answers.
With his father having maybe less than a year to live, time was running out for Shigematsu to find the answers and so Empire of the Son was born.
From ashes to glass towers
Being that both Shigematsu and his father are big fans of public broadcasting, and specifically the “immersive and transporting” experience of radio, Shigematsu attempts to enrich the listening experience of the theatre audience in Empire of the Son.
“I heard an interesting comment from one of my theatre heroes, Robert LePage – he said that radio was the most visual of mediums,” says Shigematsu.
Due to the nature of the one-man show and because it includes numerous archival audio and radio moments, the audience experience for this play is often simply listening.
“I thought of campfire stories and how staring at dying embers or the dancing of flames can draw you more deeply into the act of listening – so what was the visual equivalent within the theatre that could have the same effect as a flickering campfire?” asks Shigematsu.
The solution is what Shigematsu describes as a sort of “live cinema.” Using cameras, miniatures and projectors, Shigematsu and his crew create entire worlds in the imaginations of the audience, from the combination of deep listening and hypnotic imagery.
“Using the simplest of means, we transport the audience from the ashes of Hiroshima to the glass towers of Vancouver,” says Shigematsu.
Being the artist-in-residence with VACT, Shigematsu has worked closely with artistic director Donna Yamamoto. “It would be hard to overstate her contribution to Empire of the Son –
my name is on the show, but she made it possible.”