Tetsuro Shigematsu, writer of and performer in 1 Hour Photo and known for his smash hit Empire of the Son, is concerned with the methods in which we as humans engage with narrative, and how memories can be accessed and sensorialized. For Tetsuro, the stage is no longer a space of illusion, where we are expected to suspend our disbelief, but rather a transparent space of dialogue and exploration where the mechanics of the performance are exposed and vulnerable in the present moment.
The stage feels comfortable, like a living room. There is a long chest of drawers at the back and several small post-like tables with objects perched upon them: a sleek, modern recorder player and a miniature model of a house. Tetsuro commences the piece by candidly introducing himself and laying out the story that is about to unfold, in a casual, unscripted manner. My years of writing school and traditional ideas about theatre come barging in; when is the performance going to start? When will the curtains draw and the acting begin? I soon realize that this isn’t a red velvet curtain masquerade. I’m not here to see a re-enactment, neither am I here to witness a reproduction of memories. I’m here to see how Tetsuro interprets, responds to, and shares the fascinating life of Mas Yamamoto in real time.
Mas Yamamoto is a nikkei, a Japanese-Canadian, who Tetsuro met when friend and current boss Donna Yamamoto gracefully offered up her home to Tetsuro and his family while his father was on his death bed. However, Tetsuro doesn’t share any of this information through simple exposition. Rather, he shows the audience in unique and delicate ways. For example, we enter this house not through a verbal description or projected image, but through the lens of a GoPro camera that Tetsuro places inside a maquette house, carefully constructed by stage manager Susan Miyagishima. This live footage is projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, framed like a photograph. We see the small room with French doors that Tetsuro’s father spent his last days in, the chairs where Mas and Tetsuro would sit and talk every Monday, and even the small microphone that Mas would speak into while Tetsuro recorded their conversations.
Tetsuro doesn’t tell this story alone—in fact, there is very little that Tetsuro tells himself. He acts as a conductor of sorts, orchestrating visuals through small models and GoPro projection as well as the many hours of interviews with Mas that he has put on a long play record to be manipulated and manually operated throughout the piece. Photographs, video both pre-recorded and live, as well as musical sound and dialogue, all contribute to the moving portrait that Tetsuro paints. In this way, Tetsuro utilizes the terrifying immediacy of the stage to give us something so authentically live and in the moment.
The story of Mas has many magnitudes, like any life, but socially and politically speaking Mas’ story has great gravity in this current moment. Mas spent a significant amount of his youth in the Japanese Internment Camp Lemon Creek, in the Slocan Valley region of southeastern British Columbia. Tetsuro engages with this portion of Mas’ life in such a graceful way, letting Mas’ recordings tell the story, whilst projecting images of the internment camp onto the screen. But it is Mas who gives these images of explicit sites of racism a very human perspective. Mas, who was just a teenage boy at the time he was interned, illustrates that no matter what hardship or obstacle you throw at a group of people, they are still humans, who will continue to live to the best of their ability—Mas was still an adolescent boy with hormones who develops a love for a young girl, reminding us of the humanity amongst discrimination and hardship.
As I left the theatre, teary eyed and thoroughly impressed, the art historian in me couldn’t help but think of Roland Barthes. Although the piece was titled 1 Hour Photo, in reference to the 1 Hour Photo Franchise Mas and his wife had operated, I feel as though Tetsuro has critically engaged with Barthes’ notion of remembering. Mas is never physically present on the stage in blood or flesh—he is only present in photographs, in the recordings of his voice, and other artifacts that Tetsuro has collected to orchestrate this narrative. Mas’ story is very much real to me, but also becomes so attached to and memorialized by these objects: the microphone, the record, the photograph. We know that Mas is alive today, yet his narrative will live on past death in this snapshot and archive that Tetsuro has created. Let’s leave it to Barthes to wrap up: “When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.” 1 Hour Photo sets free Mas’ butterfly, beautifully.
1 Hour Photo will have its last performances at The Cultch on October 13 to 15. Tickets for those shows can be found here. Don't miss it!