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CurtainUp' s E-Mail Interview with Sharon Ott
the Director of the forthcoming Public Theater Presentation of
Ballad of Yachiyo by Philip Kan Gotanda

Now that we've interviewed a translator, (James Magruder) and a playwright (Peter Zablotsky), we turn to a director. That director, Sharon Ott, has arrived in New York from her post as artistic director of the Seattle Rep to direct, not one but two plays--Alligator Tales which we've already reviewed, (our review), and now Philip Kan Gotanda's Ballad of Yachiyo set in Hawaii, circa 1915.

The letters SO in the interview that follows precede Sharon Ott's exact words. The letters CU precede the questions of Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp. A review of the play will be posted after its 11/11 opening. --e.s.

CU: To give readers a bit of a picture about who you are? Could you tell us where you grew up, your age and how and when you became a director?
SO: I grew up in western Pennsylvania and received my B.A. from Bennington College majoring in theater and anthropology. I started my theater career as an actor (in the same company as Bill Irwin and Julie Taymor) and became and director in my mid-twenties. I'm 47 now and am currently the Artistic Director of the Seattle Repertory Theater.
CU: The people in Alligator Tales live a tranquil existence. Unless you count the man who wants to profit from an unfair deal for the two sisters' camp, there are really no villains--just a colorful cast of characters letting us see a locale and life style with which most of us aren't familiar. Could you tell us a bit how Ballad of Yachiyo, which is billed as a love triangle, differs in the sense of having more of a conventional plot?
SO: Alligator Tales comes from more of a story-telling tradition than a conventionally dramatic one, so its conflicts exist in a more narrative fashion. Characters battle the weather and their own mortality as well as the traditional "bad guy." Ballad of Yachiyo, in some ways, has a more conventional plot in that it tells the tragic story of a young girl who falls into a doomed romantic relationship and becomes trapped by the strictures of her culture in a certain period of time (the early 1900's). The basic plot, the story of a love suicide, form the basic structure of the famous plays of the Japanese Kabuki and Noh dramas, but Philip Kan Gotanda puts some very interesting spins on this very ancient story form.
CU: To continue the comparison between Alligator Tales and the forthcoming play, the only major threat to the "Alligator" characters' tranquility come from natural forces. Ballad of Yachiyo, on the other hand, is set in an idyllic natural environment but, if I remember my history right, its characters may, also face turbulence beyond their immediate sphere. Could you talk a bit more about the social significance of the 1919 time frame?
SO: The Hawaiian Islands in 1919 were far from the idyllic paradise we see now in the tourist brochures. American plantations were just springing up usurping much of the land from the native Hawaiians. Japanese, Chinese and Filipino workers labored in the planation almost as indentured servants, and labor unrest was brewing.
CU:. After directing a play with a single player and a very minimal set, it must seem luxurious to work with a cast of ten. Could you address the pleasures (and problems?) Of this more expansive type of production?
SO: As artistic Director of Berkeley Rep, a position I held for 13 years until the spring of 1997, I developed a reputation or highly visual, highly theatrical productions. Ballad of Yachiyo was one of these. In 1996, I chose to direct two one woman shows. The touring production of Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Anne Galjour's Alligator Tales so that I could get back to the roots of drama - one person with a story to tell. The whole point of Anne Galjour's piece is that it exists as the story teller, her chair, and the audience's imagination.
CU Tell us a little about what it is about a playwright that particularly attracts you to his or her work. Galjour's script seems very rich in imagery. One of Ballad of Yachiyo's pivotal characters is an artistI sense that you feel a strong pull towards that touch of the poet? BLOCKQUOTE> SO: I suppose it's true that I am attaracted to work that has a strong, imaginative feel and writing that pushes the limits of naturalism and realism.
CU: Ballad of Yachiyo has been performed previously in California. Are any members from there in this production? Has the play undergone any other changes?
SO: Ballad of Yachiyo has had three west coast productions at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and South Coast Repertory Theater in 1996 and Seattle Repertory Theater in 1997. Many of the New York cast members are veterans of all three productions. There have been changes for each production including the current one in at The Public Theater in New York.
CU:. The press information describes Ballad as a love triangle but doesn't say whether it's comic or tragic? Is it either or both? Also could you explain the title--is Yachiyo a place, the name of a character?
SO: It's a poetic, tragic love story based on the true story about a young girl named Yachiyo, who was the playwright's great aunt.
CU: Could you tell us a bit about any themes and stylistic elements that connect Mr. Gotanda's plays?
SO: Philip Kan Gotanda has had his work produced extensively throughout the country during the last 17 years. In the process, he has created one of the largest bodies of Asian-America themed work and has played an important role in shaping and sustaining the Asian-American arts movement of this country. In theater, Mr. Gotanda has successfully worked to bring this under-represented American perspective to the stages of larger mainstream venues while maintaining his support of the smaller ethnic specific theaters. The Wash was a play that Philip wrote and I directed at Manhattan Theater Club and Mark Taper Forum. Yankee Dawg You Die, which I also directed, was presented at Playwrights Horizons.
CU: The list of your directing credits is impressive not only because you've done so much, (you could probably give a course in time management!), but because of the enormous scope of what you've done. What do you see as the different challenges in directing new and contemporary plays and classics? Since I'm an opera fan and we've recently added some opera coverage to CurtainUp, I'm particularly curious how your helming The Conquistadore came about, what kind of an experience it was for you and if any future operas are on your horizon?
SO: I enjoy working in both classics and new plays. That's the primary reason I'm running a regional theater rather than living in New York. I can get great actors to do great plays in Seattle as well as premiere new plays like Ballad of Yachiyo and Alligator Tales. It is very rewarding to go from Philip Kan Gotanda to Henrik Ibsen.

I am hoping to direct more opera. The Conquistador at San Diego Opera last spring was my first major operatic work. It was a world premiere featuring Jerry Hadley and 120 other singers, so it was a major challenge and a big success. My next opera venture will be Vanessa at the Seattle Opera in the Spring of 1998. The Conquistador came about somewhat as a result o Ballad of Yachiyo, as the compose had seen that production and loved it.

©November 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

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