‘Finely Tuned’ Solo Show Examines Father-Son Relationship

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Tetsuro Shigematsu is alone on stage in Empire of the Son. (Photo by Raymond Shum)

As a theatre-goer, Tetsuro Shigematsu admits he’s “actually quite leery” of solo work.

“I think no matter how good you are as a performer, the challenge of keeping an audience fully engaged for the length of a movie — by just being up by yourself on stage — is quite a lot to ask for any performer and, certainly, the audience,” he said.

Yet Shigematsu is alone on stage when he performs Empire of the Son, his acclaimed one-man show that will open at Persephone Theatre this week. However, Shigematsu’s show is different from other one-person plays; for example, his multi-media production combines live performance with the cinematography of a film that is being screened at the moment it is shot.

“One of the things I had in mind, in terms of creating the show, is I didn’t want it to feel like a typical solo work,” said Shigematsu.

“One of the things I threw out to my team of designers was any chance we could have to give the audience a different modality of experiencing the show, we should try to explore that. So there are times when I’m certainly in direct address – in conversation – with the audience; there’s other times when I’m playing multiple characters.

“There are also moments . . . whereby the audience is able to have a very cinematic experience of seeing miniatures that I manipulate – a kind of puppetry – before a cinema camera. Those images of those miniatures and those toys are writ large on a screen behind me. So the audience is not watching something pre-taped; they’re watching something created before their very eyes. But it’s a very different experience of storytelling than what maybe they were expecting.”

Shigematsu, a former writer for CBC Television’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, has a celebrated background in broadcasting. In 2004, he became the first person of colour to host a daily national radio program in Canada when he took over The Roundup on CBC Radio. Shigematsu’s late father, Akira, was also a public broadcaster – and it is their complicated father-son relationship that is the focus of Empire of the Son.

Akira, who was born in Japan, shared a profession with his son, yet the two had an acrimonious relationship. When Akira’s health began to decline, Shigematsu sought to bridge the gap between them by interviewing his father and telling his life stories. Empire of the Son debuted in 2015, just two weeks after Akira’s death, and the show was also the focus of Shigematsu’s PhD dissertation.

“When I began looking around for a more artistically-inflected project, during that time my father’s health was beginning to falter,” said Shigematsu.

“I thought, ‘Oh, well, this might be an opportunity to interview my father – which was actually somewhat of a novel idea within the context of my family. Because I often say within my whole life, I never had a conversation with my father that went beyond ‘pass the soya sauce.’ ”

Shigematsu’s distant relationship with his late father has been repeatedly brought to life in Empire of the Son, which has received rave reviews from numerous publications. In a 2016 review, for example, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper described it as a “finely-tuned show,” while a review from The Theatre Times in 2018 noted the drama’s “bracingly simple theatricality, paired with Shigematsu’s honest performance, give the production its emotional power – a deeply personal examination of a father and son relationship across cultures, generations and lifetimes.”

To Shigematsu’s surprise, Akira agreed to be the focus of the show and to be interviewed for the PhD project. While he’s not a religious person, Shigematsu said he feels his father’s spirit while onstage.

“Knowing that I have his blessing allows me to channel his memories with abandon,” Shigematsu said.

Although Empire of the Son is about a Japanese-Canadian family and the story of migration from Japan to Canada by way of England, universal themes emerge within the context of what Shigematsu refers to as the show’s “cultural specificity.” He said audience members have told him “over and over” that they relate to the show.

“A woman from Germany will tell me, ‘This is the story of me and my mother.’ Or a man from Lebanon will say, ‘This is the story of me and my father.’ So it’s quite extraordinary to have the realization that this is not a culturally-specific show, but this is a show about generations – about our generation, and our parents – and the differences there are in terms of how we relate to trauma and memories, and what gets passed down despite the fact that stories may not be shared, and all those things that are left unsaid but deeply felt.”

Empire of the Son, a Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT) production, is directed by Richard Wolfe and produced by Donna Yamamoto. It runs March 27 to April 10 in Rawlco Radio Hall in the Remai Arts Centre. Tickets are $30-$54 and can be purchased by calling 306-384-7727 or by going online to persephonetheatre.org.