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Our Planet: An interview with theater artist Alec Duffy

Published on
November 4

I had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Alec Duffy, founder of the Obie award-winning company Hoi Polloi and current director of the English language world premiere of Yukio Shiba’s Our Planet. The site-specific production will be performed throughout all six floors and over a dozen rooms in Japan Society’s landmarked building from November 20th through December 8th.

I hear that you directed a reading of this play at Japan Society in 2012. How did you decide to direct a full-fledged production of the piece?

Yoko Shioya, the artistic director [at Japan Society], invited us to do a full production of the play after the reading happened. [Our Planet] was chosen by Yoko to be a part of the season, so she invited me to direct the reading. I started reading it after she sent me the script, and within five pages I knew that I wanted to direct it—I didn’t really have to read much more. It was so poetic in its language, and it behaved really differently from a lot of plays that I’m familiar with, and that was pretty exciting for me as a director. And especially in the abstract quality of the play—it gave me a lot of room as a director to fill in with my own imagination. A lot of plays that I read are pretty much successful only if they’re staged exactly as the playwright intends, and the playwright will often make a lot of notes on the set design, even the blocking and what happens on stage. And so as a director that kind of play doesn’t excite me so much. But this play was so open and flexible that I thought it would be a lot of fun to collaborate with some artists to create a full production.

So open and flexible that you decided to stage the play throughout the whole Japan Society building! What were the factors in that decision?

Well, the play is called “Our Planet.” It’s a very hard play to describe—it views this one girl’s life from birth to death, but the girl is also representing the planet earth. The other characters correspond to other elements of our galaxy—the moon is her neighbor, for example. It’s pretty wild. So I thought that it’d be cool to make the entire building a stage, to create this universe in this building as opposed to being limited to a stage in a traditional theater. I thought it really begged for something as ambitious and big as the play itself. And I’d worked at Japan Society for a year prior and fell in love with the building, so I thought it would be a nice opportunity for us to share the space with those that might have been here before, but always just come in the lobby and go directly down into the theater. They’ve never been upstairs to the atrium and of course haven’t had a chance to go through the offices—even though the offices are just offices, as a theater experience I thought it would be fun to lead people into spaces that aren’t traditionally theater spaces.

Yukio Shiba has noted that he drew original inspiration for “Our Planet” from the iconic “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. How has the source material been reflected and refracted in Yukio Shiba’s play? How has it informed your approach to the production, if at all?

I think that for [Shiba] the things that are most connected to the original Our Town are mostly the themes of life and death, of stepping outside of life. There are moments in the play where someone has died, and the main character is talking to them after they’ve died—and that happens in Our Town, too, when the main character dies and we see her with other dead people, talking about the people on earth, the living. But there isn’t much of a structural correspondence between the plays. They’re quite different in style. In any case, I think also the style of performing in the original production of Our Planet was very similar to the intended production of Our Town in that there weren’t really any props, there wasn’t really a set—it was just actors on the stage performing, not pretending that they’re not performing.  And it was a very revolutionary play in American theater history because it did strip away all the falderal. So maybe that’s another connection between the two productions.

In changing the title from Our Town to Our Planet, it really widens the scope and I think that resonates with the fact that this is an international collaboration. What has it been like to participate in such a cross-cultural artistic endeavor? What have been the challenges and rewards? Have you ever worked with a translated piece before or Japanese collaborators?

No, this is the first time for me, and it’s been really nice. We [Shiba and Duffy] haven’t had a whole lot of contact, actually. We’ve mostly just sought to clarify some things that are in the translated script, going back to him [Shiba] and saying “What exactly is this supposed to mean?” The translation sometimes wasn’t necessarily clear, but we weren’t sure if it was clear in the original. So mainly just for clarifying remarks. But I’m working with a motion graphics designer [Nobuyuki Hanabusa] who lives in Japan as well. I’ve had more contact with him that I have with Shiba. Shiba has kind of let us alone to do what we want! Necessarily because we’re doing such a differently staged version, some of the ideas or concepts in his original script that really fit for what he did, don’t quite work for what we’re doing, so he’s allowed us to adapt some things, to make some changes. Especially in terms of the cast—since it was written for eight actors originally and we just have two actors, that changes a lot of the rhythms of some of the scenes, and he’s allowed us to make some changes there.

What sort of impact do you expect the motion graphics designer [Nobuyuki Hanabusa] to have? What will that add to the performance? And he lives in Japan, right?

Yeah, he lives in Japan, so he’ll be here for the last week of rehearsals basically. And he’ll be sending stuff in the meantime. He’s very busy; he’s a pretty hot commodity right now in Japan. But the idea was—and we’re going to have to see what he provides—but the idea was to take advantage of his talent for creating video that looks like the actors in front of the projection are actually controlling what’s happening on screen, but that’s not the case, it’s just very tightly choreographed. So there’ll be an image behind the actor and the actor will go like this [swings his arm in the air] and it’ll look like he’s swinging a huge twenty foot flag in the air, or it might look like birds are attacking his head, so we’re hoping to incorporate some of that, so that the actors will be interacting with the video.

Do you have any other final thoughts?

Yeah, I would say that the success of a project for me is always dependent on with whom I’m collaborating. And in this case, we’ve assembled a pretty amazing team of artists to carry this out. And that means a composer [Tei Blow] who’s working on music for the piece and has a burgeoning indie music career, specializing in a kind of electronic and pop, weird ambient music. He’s working with us on creating a soundscape that goes throughout the entire building.

Oh, wow—I didn’t realize that music would have such a prominent role in this production.

Yeah, it will definitely play a large role in the piece. We also have a really excellent lighting designer named Jiyoun Chang and we’re working on making things as dark as possible in here, in the entire building, and light will come from really specific places using the architecture and the lighting of the building as much as possible—it should be a very transformed building. And then we have our two actors, Julian Rozzell, Jr. and Jenny Seastone Stern. Julian I’ve worked with a lot, and I chose them because they’re really kind of out-there performers, willing to go into very strange territory. What I told everyone on the team is that we want to make this weird play even weirder. And so that’s everyone’s task, to create a really unexpected world for an audience, and to really take them onto a journey that is full of surprises—to create something so unusual that it’ll be hard to forget.

Click here to learn more about Our Planet from Director Alec Duffy.

Our Planet runs 13 performances November 20 – December 8 at Japan Society 333 East 47th St. Visit here for more info and tickets.

Top Photo: © Nobuyuki Hanabusa  

Bottom Photo: Our Planet actors Julian ​Rozzell, Jr. and Jenny Seastone Stern.​