Stick around any scene for a while and you'll start seeing the same names and faces pop up: at Hollywood parties, it's Lindsay Lohan or Cory Kennedy, in the presidential campaign, it's Obama and Clinton, and in LA's Asian American theatre, there's the ten-member cast of The Emily Project: Alberto Isaac, Emily Kuroda, Haruye Ioka, Irene Furukawa, June K. Lu, Ken Narasaki, Ping Wu, Sab Shimono, Sharon Omi, and Takayo Fischer. Brought together by director Jason Fong, the team of actors gave two performances of their show on February 9th at the Electric Lodge in Venice.
The Emily Project began as an idea, about a year ago. "I wanted to get this cast of actors whom I'd grown up with through theatre, mainly through East West Players," says Fong. "Bring them together, put them in a room, and just see what happens."
Co-producers Traci Kiriyama and Andrea Apuy supported the idea, and Emily Kuroda was the first to get called up. Fong told her, "Give me a list of actors you'd love to work with," and they basically got everyone that was on Emily's list.
Sab Shimono sums it up pretty well: "Whenever Emily says something, I follow: ‘Okay!'"
"Knowing she was involved and because I respect Emily -- she's always doing something -- I said sure," recalls Takayo Fischer. Hence the name: The Emily Project. "We had to call it something," explains Fong, "Talking about it, we'd say ‘Hey, how's that Emily project going?' And the name stuck." A case of the signifier becoming the signified.
Despite their quick agreement to join the cast, the actors knew little about what they were getting themselves into. "I got a telephone call from Emily telling me they were going to do something with older people," says Fischer.
"Something with older people" is not quite the best way to describe this show. The press materials bill it as "an Oymun show." No, Oymun is not some esoteric term of theatre art; it's a rather newfangled concoction. Oymun is director Fong's middle name and, to this group, has come to signify this particular experimental method of producing and presenting a piece. The term comes from a show Fong directed a couple years ago called Oymun's 11, utilizing eleven actors and produced in a similar fashion to this show.
"[The cast of The Emily Project] started meeting here [at Keiro, a Japanese American retirement home] about a month ago, a couple hours at a time," explains Fong. "We basically put two people up on stage and let them create a scene out of nothing. And out came all these ideas, tons of scenes and moments. So I'd go home and take whatever idea or phrase or picture or scene that seemed to resonate with myself. I'd write it down into some sort of script form, and the actors would take it, improvise it, workshop it -- until we came up with this."
Sure, it sounds like fun and games, but the whole process was actually rather nerve-racking for the actors. "When I found out we weren't going to have a script in the traditional sense of a script, I'd never done improv before, so it was very scary for me," reveals Fischer. June K. Lu worried about being able to communicate on the spot: "English is my second language, so I said, ‘How am I going to do the lines?'"
But improv is all about trust, trusting your fellow actors and trusting your acting instincts. Drifting around the same circles in the theatre community, the actors, director, and producers have all worked together before and share a common acquaintance with Emily Kuroda.
"I've worked with them all before in various capacities," says Shimono, "but never improvisation." It seems that they've overcome the initial jitters, and Shimono says they've become "very amazingly tight knit group."
"Usually you get hired to do a play, you rehearse the lines, you perform them, and you go home. But this time, it's so different," says Lu. "My whole energy's into the play, it's extremely invigorating."
A surprising outcome of the improv workshops was the movement the scenes took on. "I was surprised by how physical some of the scenes became," shares Fong. "I [thought] that they would gravitate towards two people sitting in a chair having a conversation about life, but so many scenes became these active movement pieces. Some even became humorous, which really kind of connected with my own sense of story and theatre."
The scenes indeed take on some charades- or tableau-like quality, with the actors running around on stage, arms waving, and hands gesticulating to create the missing props. The physicality is possibly a manifestation of the actors' perceived anxiety from the outset, working on this piece without a hard script, even up until the performance. Perhaps instead of sitting still and creating a verbal piece, getting up and moving around was a way of dealing with the uncertainty: more movement, less talking, easier on the nerves.
The end result of all this work, development, and discovery is a collection of stories that make up the hour-long piece. Because of the way they created the show, there really are no leading actors. Each plays a key role in at least one of the stories, giving the show the feel of a cooperative, ensemble piece. A family member copes with the tragic loss of a loved one in a misunderstanding, a rooster king sacrifices the life of a lowlier chicken for his own, two babies handle life in the crib, a fisherman tries his hand at catching some uncooperative fish, and so on. The vignettes are presented progressively and reappear interwoven in the finale for a nice sense of closure. But more than anything, according to Fong, "They're just these relationships, usually between two people, and that's it."
Seeing the actors after a rehearsal, sitting in a circle, laughing and interacting, it's clear the level of closeness they've reached while creating this piece. It lets you breathe a sigh of relief in a world too defamiliarized and in a community that still needs to grow. Out of this, they hope their audience will appreciate their work: "I'd like to think the audience would laugh, maybe even cry and be touched," says Fong. "That's a good place to start."