Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Hiro Kanagawa, a Vancouver-based actor and writer. His full-length plays The Tiger of Malaya and The Patron Saint of Stanley Park have been performed across Canada as have many of his shorter works. He received the 2017 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Drama for his play, Indian Arm. Also a script doctor and consultant, he was story editor on several critically-acclaimed Canadian television series: Da Vinci’s Inquest, Da Vinci’s City Hall, Intelligence and Blackstone. Hiro’s next play, an adaptation of Mark Sakamoto’s best-selling memoir, Forgiveness, will premiere in January 2023 in an Arts Club Theatre / Theatre Calgary co-production directed by acclaimed Japanese Canadian director Stafford Arima.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays?
I wrote well from a young age and started writing rock songs and short stories while in high school — some of which I’m still proud of today — but I came to playwriting fairly late. I went to college intending to focus on creative writing but wound up with a degree in visual art and spent a few post-grad years as a sculptor and musician. Later while pursuing an MFA in sculpture at the Tyler School of Art (Temple University, Philadelphia), I started to gravitate away from objects and into performance art because I knew a couple of dancers who I was writing music for and performing with. So you could say some of those early performance art scripts of mine were like rudimentary, experimental plays.
I eventually became disillusioned with making objects altogether and after kicking around Tokyo for a couple of years, I moved to Vancouver in 1990 with about 10k in savings, intent on writing my great debut novel. (Incredibly, the basic story and premise of that novel is the play I’m currently writing now, 32 years later.) The novel, of course, never materialized. At the time I had never been successful in anything outside of academia, so when I learned about a new MFA program in Interdisciplinary Studies at SFU, that felt like where I belonged. I enrolled in that program fully intending to integrate all of my interdisciplinary interests — music, writing, visual art, performance — but the program was in its infancy and not really set up to be truly inter-dis. I wound up with the department which seemed the best fit — Theatre — and there under the tutelage of the late, great Marc Diamond and his partner Penelope Stella, I started to write my first real plays. I wrote my first full-length play, Slants, as my MFA project, and it went on to be a runner-up in the Herman Voaden playwriting competition.
You wear many hats in your career, including writer, actor, consultant, etc. When and how do you find time to write, and do you find that your artistic practices influence each other?
I think my various artistic practices most certainly do influence one another, as do my artistic and “non-artistic” practices. I was an assistant coach on my son’s football teams for many years and getting a team ready to play football is in many ways very similar to putting on a play. And as anyone who is married with children can attest, what you do as an artist is absolutely influenced by that life. It’s true that with all of my other activities, my output as a playwright is not as prolific as it could be, but I don’t have any misgivings about that.
To some extent, having a career in film & tv has insulated me from any economic necessity to write plays at a regular pace, and that is a good thing. When Forgiveness premieres in January, 2023, it will be almost 8 years since Indian Arm premiered in April, 2015. Granted, Forgiveness has been delayed a couple years due to Covid, and I’ve had many shorter works disseminated in the meantime, but 8 years is plenty of time to write, develop and polish a new full-length play regardless of how busy you are. In any case, I’m glad Forgiveness is not being rushed to the stage as new plays sometimes are.
Now, on the level of daily practice, you do have to learn to be efficient and learn when it is worthwhile to even attempt writing. I know it is pointless for me to try to write between, say, lunch and 9pm. Early mornings are best for me. And I have a secret weapon: when I am heavily focused on a writing project, I will often wake up around 3am with several pages of 24k gold flowing down to me from the ether. I keep a notepad by my bed so I can jot things down and then I type it all in first thing in the morning — while I can still read my own semi-conscious scrawls. Semi-conscious though they may be, they are, as I said, gold. There are substantial passages in my plays, even two or three-page long chunks that came to me as I was sleeping. I guess once your conscious mind and ego get out of the way, the rest of your being is free to do its thing. A lot of my writing problems are solved in this way — at 3 in the morning while my rational brain is asleep.
You’ve said elsewhere “Many of my plays are about the relationship between the dominant culture of whiteness and those on its periphery. This is probably true even when race and ethnicity are not at all a focus.” Can you tell us about how this has influenced your writing, and how it is reflected in your work?
First, I want to clarify that “whiteness” is a social construct that is not the exclusive domain of white people, and talking about “whiteness” cannot be reduced to “white people bad, brown people good.” At one time, under apartheid in South Africa, the Japanese were accorded “honorary white” status. Similarly, the Nazis considered the Chinese and Japanese the “Aryans of Asia.” There are ethnic groups today in North America who are now generally considered white — people of Italian and Jewish heritage, for instance — but it was not that long ago that they were not considered white. So “whiteness” is a construct and it’s always evolving. In Vancouver and several other cities in the world now, it is possible for someone of East Asian heritage who speaks fluent English and is culturally Westernized to live very close to the centre of whiteness. Very close. But not completely.
As someone of East Asian heritage, specifically Japanese, I’m keenly aware of my proximity to that centre and the relative privilege that accords me, and I’m also keenly aware of how my relationship to “whiteness” has evolved over time and the artificiality of it all.
Insofar as the plays I write typically have multi-cultural, multi-generational casts and the action of the plays inherently involve struggles for status and power and recognition, the concept of “whiteness” is always going to be an organizing principle of how the characters relate to one another, whether it is explicit or subtextual. This is all the more true when you consider what the audience brings to the equation. As hierarchical social animals living in a global system where “whiteness” has been dominant for the past several centuries, an audience understands without even thinking which characters have status and which do not. It is heartening, of course, to live in a time when the hegemony of “whiteness” is perhaps being questioned and dismantled in a meaningful way. On the other hand, it is appalling to see the backlash, and it’s no coincidence that people of Asian descent are feeling the brunt of it. All of this is on my mind as I write my plays.
All of this plays a large role in what plays I even choose to write. I am a Canadian man of Japanese ancestry married to a Canadian woman of mixed European and Coast Salish ancestry who is white-passing but identifies as Indigenous. The fact that “whiteness” is an organizing principle of our world is both an inescapable reality and an undeniable absurdity.
Your adaptation of Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto will be staged by Arts Club Theatre starting in January 2023, and then by Theatre Calgary in March 2023. Can you tell us about the creation of that piece, and what it’s been like to bring it to the stage?
Forgiveness first came to me via my agent. When Forgiveness won Canada Reads in 2018, Mark Sakamoto’s agent apparently put the call out for various adaptations of the book: a film or miniseries, a children’s book, a stage play. My agent knows Mark’s agent well and suggested me as a strong contender to write the stage adaptation (I had just received the GG for “Indian Arm”). After I had a conversation with Mark and he gave me the green light to proceed, my agent then pitched the project to Theatre Calgary and the Arts Club and they decided to co-commission. So initially, the project got going on a “business” level, but it very quickly became something that consumed my heart and soul on a personal and artistic level. Writing the adaptation of Forgiveness was a way for me to re-connect with the Japanese Canadian community and that part of my identity. For many years I had avoided writing about the Japanese Canadian experience because I resisted becoming what Joy Kogawa has called a “professional ethnic.” And while I still resent the notion that my ethnicity must be a central focus of my artistic output, I realize now as a senior, established artist that it is important for younger Asian writers and especially Japanese Canadian writers that I do my best to help “represent.” We have to tell our own stories.
Now, Forgiveness is very specifically the story of Mark’s family, but this is a case which proves that old writers’ adage that in the specific you find the universal. Forgiveness is ultimately a Canadian story, and I am proud of the role I’ve played in bringing this story to the stage. On a technical level, there is a whole dissertation I could write about the art of adaptation and the need to balance my responsibility to the original book, to history and to the actual living people depicted with my responsibility to write a good play. In the end, you just have to recognize that as compelling as the original story may have been as history or as personal memoir, it’s not necessarily a play. And you have to write a play. A good one. It helped that I had carte blanche permission from Mark and his family to write the play that I needed to write but, more importantly, I had to give myself permission to write that play. I had to give myself permission to write an adaptation that is not necessarily “faithful” to the original book, but it is emotionally faithful, in the same way that Impressionist or Expressionist paintings are faithful to whatever they depict. For those who know the book, seeing my play will not be like going to see a cover band playing the greatest hits of your favorite band, but, hopefully, it will make you feel all the same feels. And more.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
When I look back I wish I had found more focus earlier, but I realize I had to go through the things I went through to get to where I am today. I have no regrets for my youth and the journey I took, meandering though it was. Having said all that, I would tell my younger self, “Listen, take the work a little more seriously, and take yourself a little less seriously.” And as I write this I realize the young guy would look at me and tell me to follow the exact same advice!
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a play called Urashima, a co-commission between the Banff Centre and the Stratford Festival. It’s inspired both by archetypal, cross-cultural myths of voyagers in mystical lands and by astonishing true accounts of Japanese castaways who landed in the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th Century. As I alluded to above, it is a project I first tried to write as a novel over thirty years ago at the beginning of my writing career. It was beyond my abilities at the time and may still prove to be too much for me now, but I’m giving it a shot. It is very much in keeping with what has become one of the themes in my work to date which I’ve touched on above: the relationship between the culture of whiteness and those of us on its periphery. With Urashima I’m writing about a time and place when the concept of “whiteness” and its relationship to other cultures and ethnicities was not yet codified, so it’s an opportunity to explore the very foundations of what has become an organizing principle of our world.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays?
There are so many. Of plays I’ve seen in the past few years, Christine Quintana’s Clean/Espejos and Kim Senklip Harvey’s Kamloopa stand out. I’m also a big fan of Catherine Banks’ Bone Cage and pretty much everything by Michel Marc Bouchard. Because of my performance art roots, I’m also a big fan of artists creating non-traditional theatre. People like Marcus Youssef, as well as Maiko Yamamoto and James Long at Theatre Replacement and Sherry Yoon and Jay Dodge at Boca del Lupo come to mind. Our Canadian theatre community is small — village-sized, really — so I’m happy to be able to say that I know all of these folks personally and several are friends I’ve known since we were in school. I’m proud to see what they have accomplished for Canadian theatre both nationally and internationally and I look forward to the great new Canadian work yet to come.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.