Maeda’s work isn’t limited to her original and stunning puppet theater; she has an M.F.A. in scenic design and can be found creating anything from sets for a new play, props, costumes, even a cardboard car to fit over a bicyclist for a bike-awareness television spot.
Q: You are involved in so many different aspects of the arts. How do you define yourself as an artist or define what you do?
A: I often joke (or lament) that I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. But since tax forms and such require labels, I settled upon the title “theater artist.” The vagueness gives me the freedom to do all of the things that I love: writing, designing, building, painting, research and critical thinking. How many other fields, other than theater, would allow this? While there are times when I struggle a bit because my title is so open-ended, I think the thing that pulls every thing together for me is my desire for change; both by raising the artistic bar and improving people’s understanding of each other or the world around them.
Q: How did you become interested in puppetry?
A: During my first year of college, Peter Schumann from Bread and Puppet Theatre came and led a month-long intensive workshop. After reading a book about a band of Amazonian warriors who were fighting big oil companies and trying to preserve their way of life, we made masks and developed short skits that Schumann wove together into a full-length production. I hadn’t done enough traditional theater at that point to understand how unusual his approach was. I’ve since met so many theater practitioners who get so caught up feeling like they never have enough money to do what they want to do. But what I appreciate about Schumann is that he feels so passionately about the messages he wants to communicate to the world, and he does it so effectively and quickly with just some cardboard, butcher paper and cheap paint. Regardless of whether you agree with their political messages or not, you can’t deny Bread and Puppet Theatre’s performances have a special kind of raw energy.
Q: What was the inspiration behind The Crane Wife?
A: During my graduate program I went to Spain and studied there for three months. The Spanish classes I had taken six years earlier in high school were just enough to help me ask simple questions, order food, agree with whomever I was speaking with, and not much else. I was really struck by the importance of language in developing thought, as well as the extreme disparity between my image of myself and the way the Spaniards perceived me. I kept thinking about my mother and the strength and determination she must have had to choose to stay in the United States and leave behind her home in Japan as a grown woman.
The stories that I wrote at the time kept echoing traditional Japanese folktales my mother had told me as a child, in which animals transform into humans and back into animals. What better way to describe the experience of moving from one country and language to another? The Crane Wife is one such traditional story, but I took it and applied to not only to my mother’s experience as an immigrant but my own experience growing up as a Japanese-American in a very white New England town.
Q: Have you always been a performer in addition to your more "behind the scenes" design work? What was it like to be on stage -- to be the performer rather than the designer/creator?
A: I am an intensely shy person and would much rather be a designer/creator, but a piece like The Crane Wife is so deeply personal it necessitates my presence. Being on stage is terrifying for me, but as a puppeteer I feel as though all of my attention is focused on the puppet, and that the audience’s attention is focused on the puppet, and somehow that makes it easier.
Q: What is your next project, and how did the idea for that come about?
A: I received some funding this year from the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties to develop a new show called The Homecoming. I want to deepen my investigation of the transformation of those things we consider most ordinary and everyday: our Home and our bodies. I’m going to use shadow puppets to create a piece that highlights the ephemeral nature of human life through nostalgia, death and the Internet. The performance will be split into four parts mirroring the four seasons and will be loosely based on the Japanese folktale of Urashima Taro, similar to Washington Irving’s tale of Rip Van Winkle.
Q: You create such beautiful images in your work - what's a place (or places) in South Carolina that you find aesthetically beautiful?
A: One of the most beautiful places I have found in the state of South Carolina is the town of Bishopville. Not only is it home to Pearl Fryar’s inspiring topiary gardens and the Lizard Man -- the abandoned cotton silos in the center of town are some of the most amazing structures I think I have ever seen. Standing inside them, I feel this enormous hushed power and history, from the shreds of cotton hanging on to the rusty ladders scaling the curved sides of the buildings to the oculus-like openings at the top. It would not be an understatement to say that perhaps the closest comparison I can think of would be the Pantheon in Rome.
For more information about Kimi Maeda, visit her website.