Tetsuro Shigematsu is often described as a modern day renaissance man. His broad talents and credentials include: playwright, CBC TV writer and radio host, stand-up comedian, filmmaker, actor, Huffington Post columnist, TED Talk presenter and, as a samurai descendent, the in-house expert for TV’s Deadliest Warrior. He wrote his play, Rising Son, an autobiographical one-person show about his relationship with his father, when he was 23 and performed it in cities around the world. The sequel to that play, 2015’s Empire of the Son, was a smash hit, a history-making total sell-out before the play even hit previews. Last year, Shigematsu wrote and performed in 1 Hour Photo, another feat of masterfully cinematic storytelling. Now, the polymath is in the midst of a third world tour for Empire of the Son (with a run at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre, November 8-17). Let’s get to know Tetsuro Shigematsu a little better.
What is the most personal thing you’ve divulged on stage? Dry-humping my dad in bed. You’ll have to see Empire of the Son onstage to understand.
What are three indicators that you are having a great show? When we experience a technical meltdown mid-show, I love that, because then the audience gets to witness the eruption of the real, and it gives me a chance to kill time by talking with the audience. I’m a good writer, but I feel like I’m at my very best on my feet.
What’s more fun: writing or performing and why? Writing while performing is the most fun. A game Richard Wolfe and I would sometimes play while workshopping 1 Hour Photo would be for him to throw me a prompt, and I would improvise an impromptu monologue that was rooted in honesty. Of course, it had to be compelling, funny, revealing, and entertaining, and often it would be all those things.
One of the first things Wikipedia says about you is that when you replaced Bill Richardson on CBC afternoon show The Roundup, you became the first person of visible minority to host a network radio program in Canada. Was your minority status something you thought quite a bit about? Or how did it impact the way you did your job? There was no question that given my intercultural connections and relationships, certain music got played and certain people got on the air that wouldn’t have. Not that someone else would have blocked them at the gate and said “no", but simply that they would have never known about these artists and been able to pick up the phone and reach out. But beyond that, in retrospect, I think I focused on a more subtle form of activism. When I was on the radio, I focused on being a more distilled version of who I already am, someone who is curious, irreverent, playful, who happened to have this multisyllabic Japanese name. Spending two hours a day with someone for years in the privacy of their home, their workshop, or their vehicle is an extraordinary degree of intimacy. I think in that way, for many Canadians, I became their first non-white friend. And an experience like that can change someone forever.
You studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg. Key thing you learned from him? Sometimes, your raw notes, your offhand scribbles, are the poem itself. That, and even if you’re world famous, with films made about your life, tons of books written about you, and countless Google search results, 99.999999 percent of who you are, your memories, the anecdotes that you tell, have never been documented anywhere. And that vast part of you, is only accessible when you meet someone face to face. Of course, that may be changing. Thanks to my kids, I am now familiar with a whole galaxy of extremely prolific YouTube personalities, and I’m pretty sure, what you see is what you get. But I’m not a declinist, I don’t think things were better in the past. Finally, I have a great deal of empathy for women who find themselves in the predicament of being sexually propositioned by someone powerful whom they admire, and just how very fraught and complicated that situation can be to navigate. It is not easy. There are no simple, effective strategies to gracefully exit a situation like that, and anyone who thinks so has never experienced something like that firsthand. Its so easy to be brave at a distance.
You followed that up with two years of Butoh dance study in Japan. Key take away from this experience? It is possible to blow open the doors of your mind without using drugs.
And what about this ‘renaissance?’ What drives you to be so creative in so many mediums? I’m guided by curiosity.
Empire of the Son is about your relationship with your father. Now you are a dad of two. How different from your own father are you as a dad? I’m physically affectionate, extravagantly so.
You are not a trained actor. What makes you good at it? (Laughing) I love this question, because it feels like a trap! As in, if you try to answer it, the followup question will no doubt be — “Ah ha! So you THINK you’re a good actor, but the real question is, how could you be so delusional to even think so?” And yet, from an empirical point of view, I see that I have been nominated for two Jessie awards for acting. Sooooo maybe I am? If I am, and yes, I do in fact think I am, maybe it’s because I don’t really act, I skip that part, and just leap straight into being.
Your name means ‘philosophical thinker’ and you say you’re prone to ponder philosophy’s most basic issues: ‘How does one live?’ and ‘What is a good death?’ Surely the first question could take pages. But can you briefly espouse on the second? Here’s an outtake from my show, 1 Hour Photo that answers this question: "As for me, when they lay me on the funeral pyre, may the soles of my feet be calloused from the folly of always trying to reach new horizons. May my knees be bruised not from worshipping the gods above but worshipping a goddess here on earth. May my heart be enlarged from being crowded with too many people. May my vocal chords be raspy. May the skin on my shoulders be peeling from too much time in the sun and not enough sunscreen. May my skull be crammed with dormant memories I never revisited because I was too busy making new ones. May my face be deeply etched with laugh lines and crows feet. May I revel in the blessing of growing old, because not everyone gets to."
After Empire of the Son, you say you felt compelled to create 1 Hour Photo. Will there be another play? My next play is Suicide Forest, an ensemble piece that takes place in Japan and explores the phenomena of hikikomori — people who don’t leave their rooms for years — and the rent-a-relative industry.
What’s your favourite part about being on stage? Knowing that I was born to do this, and now that I’m finally doing it, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.
Three words to describe yourself? I think one of my former CBC producers, Phillip Ditchburn, once described me pretty well during a story meeting. I wasn’t there, but apparently he said, “That Tetsuro, he’s funny, but deep.”
What is your greatest extravagance? I own a Napoleonic officer’s Hussars tunic. I had it made-to-measure. It cost over a thousand dollars, and I wore it only once, for the photoshoot for my play 1 Hour Photo. If you've ever seen the poster, or the cover of the book version published by TalonBooks, I think you’ll agree: it was worth every penny.
What quality do you like most in others? The quality I ADMIRE most in others is kindness. The quality I LIKE most in others is starstruck admiration.
Favourite place in Vancouver? This will sound like a really bougie answer, but when I’m on the slopes of Grouse Mountain with my daughter, and we can see all of Vancouver down to Washington State through breaks in the clouds, I’ll take a moment.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I would be far more patient with my daughter as I help her with her homework. No scratch that, as I DO her homework. See? Even now, I’m being pedantic.
What does a perfect day look like? Spending a whole day in an exotic locale with my wife Bahareh, and knowing that such things are only possible because someone else had the exquisite taste to fly us in to do our thing.
Last thing you geeked out about? I’ve devised a laptop Baby Björn. It’s basically a standing desk, without the desk. This way I can walk ten thousand steps and write my stories on my MacBook at the same time.
What are you most proud of? My two kids, Mika and Taizo. What surprises me is not how much I love them, but how much I like them. They’re extremely pleasant people. They get that from their mother.