An Interview with 11th Hour Ensemble Artistic Director Allison Combs and Cloud Flower Creator Ryo Harada

An Interview between BOA X Dramaturg Ignacio Zulueta and 11th Hour Artistic Director Allison Combs and Cloud Flower creator Ryo Harada (Cloud FLower, Program 2).

Zulueta: I’m here with Ryo Harada and Allison Combs of 11th Hour Ensemble, in the middle of tech week for the debut of BOA X. I’ve been particularly looking forward to this interview because of the different creative processes at work in CLOUD FLOWER.

Combs: Oh excellent.

Harada: (laughs) Thanks.

Zulueta: Readers will forgive the length of this 3 part interview, but perseverance will be rewarded with depth. Now Ryo, Allison, being your dramaturge is somewhat like being an editor; but without all that the messy editing. I get to focus on the writing and the writer, rather than the audience or on the methods of production.

(beat)

In the case of CLOUD FLOWER, though, that’s a very WIDE focus.

Harada: Yep.

Zulueta: I just referred to writer in the singular tense, which is a relic of the traditional playwright – director – cast model.

(beat)

CLOUD FLOWER’s not traditional, is it?

Combs: Nope.

Zulueta: Who’s the writer, and how many of there are you?

Combs: Ryo is the original writer.

Harada: Well I created the piece.

Combs: A year or so ago he did it as a project in a class at SFSU – Barbara Damashek’s Lyric Theater class.

Zulueta: Theatre, not dance?

Harada: Yeah.

Combs: I was in it, as were many current 11th Hour Ensemble members, though we weren’t a company at that time.

Harada: It’s originally dreamwork.

Zulueta: CLOUD FLOWER is a story from a dream?

Harada: Yep, I wanted to do this piece for a long time.

Zulueta: Longer back than fall-winter 09?

Harada: I always had dreams about it every summer close to the date August 8th.

Zulueta: A recurring dream… August 8th, 1945, is the day the bomb dropped.

Harada: Yeah.

Zulueta: So Ryo conceives the piece 12 months ago…

Combs: Fall semester of 09. in that class everyone shared reoccurring dreams and then created them into pieces, telling them mostly through movement and sound

Zulueta: How does the piece transform between 2009 and now? Unlike scripts which are text-based, it seems as if changes can only be made in physical face-to-face rehearsal.

Combs: Yes.

Zulueta: How long has your rehearsal process been for CLOUD FLOWER?

Combs: We’ve met a total of 9 times.

Zulueta: That’s it?

Combs: Yep. CLOUD FLOWER’S only 10 minutes.

Zulueta: Still…

(does the math)

Combs: That’s approx. 3 hrs a minute. The best thing about this process is its fast.

Zulueta: Even with the live music, prop manipulation, costuming, and more?

Combs: well there’s no dialogue.

The trick is to just make choices.

We start with an outline: an idea of the story, how it progresses, and how we might create that through movement and sound.

Zulueta: And it’s a short outline – two pages max are the versions I’ve seen.

Harada: Yep.

Combs: For a piece this size, yes.

Zulueta: When I read scripts for a standard theatre piece, one page is roughly equivalent to one minute of stage time. CLOUD FLOWER’s two pages seem to contain a much bigger world.

Combs: Yeah, so we might have 2 pages for 10 minutes

depends on how much we can write about the moment we want to work on – how much we know about it, given that we haven’t tried it. It really has to happen face-to-face. We’re responding to what the actors are creating in the moment. – Starting from the outline the actors create stuff that you find is much better, or closer to what you imagined, but somehow fuller.

Zulueta: You build your work like choreographers – but with strong theatrical elements.

Combs: Yes, except a choreographer will create it and then teach it to dancers

Zulueta: How is your process different?

Harada: The Actors choreograph each movement themselves

Zulueta: Wow.

Combs: We have a general idea and then ask the actors to create what really happens, based on the outline agreed upon earlier, but it can change at any time should something better come along. Then as a director you mold it and make it one picture, one world.

Zulueta: During a live performance?

Combs: No.

Harada: No.

Combs: During rehearsal the performances are set just like traditional theater. For example, when we built the “aftermath” section of the piece-

Zulueta: Ohhh, no spoilers!

Combs: (LAUGHS) We asked everyone to find and bring in pictures that evoked that section of our play for them. so we had a bunch of gruesome pictures on the floor. Everyone looked at them, and then we asked them to find 3 ‘shapes’ based on the images and create a loop out of them…

Zulueta:  How do two directors manage this editing process?

Combs: Well, Ryo and I are co directing, but…

Harada: I am in it.

Combs:  Because he’s in the piece I have taken that role more, but we work together.

Zulueta: Using video, for example.

Combs: Video is the best way to document or ‘take notes’ because it’s all visual.

Zulueta: Like dance. Now then: How do you go about submitting this kind of work to BOA? Do you send a video to Jessica?

Combs: Actually Jessica approached us.

Harada: She came to see Alice.

Combs: She wanted to include physical theater into the mix this year, since its becoming pretty popular…

Or more common. Its not a new thing by any means.

Zulueta: How can a layman distinguish between modern dance and physical theatre? With ALICE, there was dialogue to set it apart. With CLOUD FLOWER, there is… ?

Combs: Music, I guess.

Harada: It’s not modern dance.

(beat)

Harada: I think.

Zulueta: Because there’s no one single choreographer?

Combs: Physical theater can be a full on epic, choreographed thing that is very nontraditional but it can also be a straight play that has been directed with an eye for specific dynamic movement.

Zulueta: CLOUD FLOWER seems to take the form of the previous. Epic scope, nontraditional choreography, intense story…

Combs: It’s closer yes. Dance is maybe ‘pure emotion’ -expressionistic. While physical theater will absolutely have moments of that it also works with behavioral movement…

Zulueta:  Like the gestural loops you mentioned earlier.

Combs:  The physical actor will have rehearsed and selected that behavioral movement with such precision that represents it, rather than being accidental.

Zulueta: So CLOUD uses the tools of dance to tell a theatrical story…

Combs: …but I would not call it dance.

Zulueta: The violin is quite striking in CLOUD FLOWER.

As is the choral singing.

Combs: we’ve got a fantastic violinist – Victoria Perenyi. And we recorded the choral singing, but we still had to learn it real fast.

Zulueta: This gets back to distinctions between modern dance and movement theatre – most dancers don’t provide their own soundtrack, right?

Combs: As far as I know, I’m not a dancer.

Zulueta: Could have fooled me.

Combs: Waa waa

(laughter)

Combs: Dance, I feel, doesn’t always have a story. And Ryo’s story inspired CLOUD FLOWER – which is actually from the perspective of an Old Woman. I believe that Ryo spoke quite a bit to his Grandmother when first working on the piece. I also know he spoke with Hiroshima survivors on his last visit to Japan. I don’t think his Grandmother was a survivor, though she is of that generation. Our piece touches on the ever present effects of the bomb-

Zulueta: What are the present effects?

Combs: Well the health factors. The survivors – most of them were children when it happened – have never known a normal life. In CLOUD FLOWER the Old Woman through whom we tell the story is dying of a cancer that is a residual effect of the bomb, although she was only an infant when it occurred.

Zulueta: Ah, that makes it all click for me. The baby, the dream, the human hair…

Combs:  No spoilers!

(laughter)

Zulueta: How big was the ensemble for the class version of CLOUD FLOWER?

Combs: Maybe around 8 people. That hasn’t changed much. But it went through several different version in that class because the teacher encouraged him to keep working on it through different projects we did in that class.

Zulueta: And BOA X is the first public premiere of CLOUD FLOWER?

Combs: Yes.

Zulueta: Exciting!

Zulueta: So we’re looking at one writer (Ryo), two directors (Ryo & Allison), and multiple actors in 11th Hour Ensemble using choreography instead of dialogue.

(beat)

Zulueta: Ryo, I’d like to ask for three words. Allison, you’ll get these also. But can you cover your ears first?

(COMBS covers her ears)

Harada: Okay.

Zulueta: In three words, not including Hiroshima,

Nagasaki, or Dream: who or what influenced you during the creation of this play?

Harada: Okay…

(as one word)

“loss of Family or valued people”

Zulueta: Can I sum that up as “Isolation?”

Harada: I had this piece in my mind for a long time.

Zulueta: And the other two words?

Harada: Suffer. Universal.

I hesitated to make CLOUD FLOWER here.

Because it’s too Japanese a piece.

Zulueta: You think it would play better in Japan?

Harada: Hmm.

Zulueta: Or to a Japanese-American audience?

Harada: I want very different people to see it.

This is based on Hiroshima’s history but CLOUD FLOWER is not about Hiroshima.

It’s us. I am glad that 11th Hour Ensemble is diversely cast. It’s not only Japanese victims.

Everybody suffers.

It’s about the people who saw Hell.

I don’t want you to think it’s the history of the Hiroshima bomb. I don’t aim to make Americans feel guilty.

It might happen to us.

Zulueta: The bomb?

Harada:  The message is universal.

This is I wanted to say.

Zulueta: I think you’ll get a very diverse crowd to see CLOUD FLOWER.

Harada: Yeah.

Zulueta: Next to last question:

Harada: Sure.

Zulueta: In two words: what unforeseen change is taking place in your show?

Harada: What do you mean?

Zulueta: For example, how is it different from the 09 SFSU piece for the lyric theatre class?

Harada: Okay…

Dynamic. I mean there is more dynamism this time and…

Zulueta: And?

Harada: More personal or individual experience for each actor and character.

Zulueta: “Individuality?”

Harada: Yep.

Zulueta: Thanks. “Dynamic Individuality”. How does that sound?

Harada: Sweet.

Zulueta: And lastly:

Combs: Are you done?

Zulueta: I’m on Ryo’s last question -

Ryo: CLOUD FLOWER is intense, physical movement theatre.

What’s the gnarliest injuries you’ve sustained in making it?

Harada: Allison?

(Allison uncovers her ears)

Harada: What’s gnarly mean?

Combs: Gross.

Zulueta: “Twisted”.

Combs: Craziest.

Harada: Thanks, Al.

Zulueta: So, Ryo…

What’s the gnarliest physical or mental injury you’ve sustained in making CLOUD FLOWER?

Combs: (LAUGHS) Mental.

Harada: It’s totally mental stuff.

Zulueta:  Where did you get hurt?

Harada: (gestures to his chest) Heart.

(beat)

Zulueta: Thank you so much for the interview, Ryo.

Harada: You‘re welcome. Hopefully it will help you.

Zulueta: Yes, it will. Now, I know you have to go, so, shall I finish up with Allison here?

Harada: See you soon.

Combs: Bye Ryo!

Zulueta: Bye! Ok, Allison-

(Ryo Harada has left.)

Zulueta: In three words, not including Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Dream: who or what influenced you during the creation of this play?

Combs: Hm.

(beat)

Ryo & the piece itself. I was in it the 1st time and I saw the potential and impact. we do some visually very striking things which excite me…

(beat)

That was more than 3 words.

Zulueta: (LAUGHS) So your 3 words are: “Ryo. Itself.” and…?

Combs: Are you asking what made me want to do it, or what influenced my choices throughout the process?

Zulueta: Hmmm…. what word is screaming to get out of your mouth?

Combs: A-Bomb.

(beat.)

Zulueta: A potent word indeed.

Combs: (LAUGHS)

Zulueta: Penultimate question:

In two words: what unforeseen change is taking place in your show?

Combs: Tricky questions…. I’m not good at this limited word thing

Zulueta: It’s a little like therapy.

Combs: (LAUGHS)

Zulueta: Let’s narrow it down to recent changes as you went into intensive rehearsals for BOA proper.

Combs: We’re still waiting for rehearsal tonight to answer some major questions

Zulueta: So given that state of flux… Would “Ongoing” be one of your two words?

Combs: Sure, and Adaptation might be the 2nd

Zulueta: “Ongoing Adaptation”. That certainly says a lot.

Combs: Sweet.

Zulueta: Ultimate question:

Combs: Uh oh.

Zulueta: CLOUD FLOWER is intense, physical movement theatre. What’s the gnarliest injuries you’ve sustained in making it?

Combs: No one has been physically hurt, thank god – though I can’t say the same was true for Alice. I never get hurt unless the actors attack, which hasn’t happened – though I can’t say the same for Alice.

Zulueta: I must have missed that particular performance in question.

Combs: Just kidding.

However, I did watch a documentary on Hiroshima in my research, called White Light/Black Rain, and I won’t be able to ever get some of those images out of my head.

One woman said that one of the first things she saw after the bomb was a woman carrying a baby without a head.

Ryo told us a story about a man who ran to find his parents, and upon finding them dead, THEN realized that his arm and part of his legs and feet were missing.

Combs: How he actually ran I have no idea.

Combs: That was one of the most difficult things – getting inside of the horror, as something we’ve never felt an ounce of.

Zulueta: And now I don’t think I’ll be able to get that out of my head, either.

(beat)

So I suppose saying “Break A Leg tonight” is a total understatement.

Combs: (laughs) I could say things, but they’d be inappropriate…

Zulueta: Say them over a drink at the Tempest.

Combs: Good idea.

Zulueta: You’re on. And speaking of post-show activities: will all of 11th Hour Ensemble be at the talkback on March 19th?

Combs: Yep, we should all be there. As far as I know.

Zulueta: Please, make it happen. I’m sure audiences will have a lot to say and a lot to ask about CLOUD FLOWER.

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