Tetsuro Shigematsu has done almost everything. He is or once was: a playwright, a TV writer for CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and host of CBC Radio’s The Roundup. He has also worked as a stand up comedian, filmmaker, actor (once with George Takei), Huffington Post columnist, samurai descendent and in-house expert for the MTV/SpikeTV show, Deadliest Warrior, TedTalk presenter, and MC/host/presenter for numerous organizations, festivals, and events across Canada. He wrote his play, Rising Son, an autobiographical one-person show about his relationship with his father, when he was 23 and performed it in cities around the world. The sequel to that play, Empire of the Son will have its world premiere at The Cultch in October of 2015. He is a Vanier scholar and current PhD student at UBC, examining the intersection of race and social media.
Shigematsu also acts as the Artist-in-Residence for Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, and was a member of the selection committee for 2015’s MSG Theatre Lab. It was through this opportunity that I got to meet Shigematsu. We talked over the phone about advice, some of the worries emerging writers face, and being an Asian-Canadian writer.
How did you begin this cross-genre career of yours?
I went to art school in college and did my undergrad in fine arts, but the feedback I continuously got from my profs was that the explanations I gave for my artwork were actually more successful than the art pieces themselves. In other words: my artwork wasn’t that good but I should keep talking. At my profs’ encouragement, in lieu of bringing in finished artwork, I would just talk about what happened with my family over the weekend.
Some of these stories were painful to share but I found it therapeutic. What was surprising was that my classmates were laughing a lot. Doing self-reportage and monologues about my personal life was the beginning of my particular practice. I didn’t have any intention of taking it further until I met the couple renting my sister’s place in Montreal. The man was Paul Dervis, who at the time was the artistic director of 21st Century Theatre. After hearing my artsy monologues he said to me, “I’ll tell you what. You’re Japanese. Let’s do a show about that.” That became Rising Son.
Wow, so your first really big project was a kind of off-hand commission. What happened after that?
Paul Dervis had to go back to Boston but he said to me, “Just fax me a story every night. And if you miss a single night, the show’s off. I’m gonna cancel it.”
That’s a lot of pressure.
But it was exactly what I needed. I began writing because I had to. That’s how things got started. As a consequence, I was able to perform it in a couple places. I performed an excerpt on CBC radio and Michael Donovan, who was the CEO of Salter Street Films, which made shows like 22 Minutes, heard me. That led to other opportunities in broadcasting. I was plucked out of theatre and some of the right “industry” people heard it and thought it was funny and fresh. That gave me some momentum to do other things.
It seems like a lot of people who’ve made careers out of writing have had them because of luck or random connections like that. But what happens when you can’t wait for luck? Or when you’ve run out of it?
Luck is a funny word. A lot of artists kind of have this infantilizing fantasy of, “Oh, I’m just gonna be an artist and I’m just gonna focus on the artwork, while I wait for an adult to take care of business.” That’s an attitude you find with artists who want a father or mother figure to come along and save them. Mature artists realize that your talent and your destiny are in your own hands. No one is coming to save you. You have to save yourself.
Talent is a kind of constant, with a particular currency and value. This might be akin to your experience with Homecoming. The moment you put your play out there, people were talking about “Kamila Sediego” with a level of interest and excitement. Our responsibility as artists and writers is to take our talent and risk putting it and ourselves out there. Art isn’t really complete until you put it out there. The Greeks defined character not so much as who you are, but what you do. I don’t think luck really comes into the question.
You could say it was lucky that Michael Donovan of the CBC happened to be listening to the radio the moment I was on. But, I think, when you put yourself out there as a target, and that target gets larger by virtue of repetition because you’re doing it again and again, it’s a statistical inevitability – a mathematical probability that –
…more arrows are going to land.
Yeah! People are gonna hear it, they’re going to respond, opportunities are gonna come. People are going to attend your next Homecoming reading because they heard about the last one. Right now, you may not be a known quantity per se, but there are question marks and interest around your name. But not necessarily because people are benevolent and benignly fascinated. Maybe its because people look at you with dollar signs in their eyes. And that’s not such a bad thing. Because if you’re going to be objectified, it might as well be for your talent.
To me, it all comes down to having that philosophical disposition, that willingness to accept the risk of humiliation by putting yourself and your work out there.
You said in your TedTalk, “The Awesomeness of Your Contradictions” that you used to have debilitating shyness. Fast forward years later, I read one of your Huffington Post articles and you come off as very strong and confident. Is that real?
[Laughs.] From one Asian writer to another, writers are, by definition, introspective. Add to that: growing up in Asian cultures where you’re socialized not to attract attention to yourself. Plus being polite Canadians. That’s a trifecta of shyness. There’s also that paradox: we want to connect with people, and yet we also want to hide.
But as writers, one of the things we do really well is create characters. I’ve realized in retrospect and tried to suggest this to others, “Why not create a character for yourself that’s like an alter ego? A version of yourself that is capable of doing all the things you wish you could do, but presently can’t?” There is that old cliché that you should be careful of the mask you choose to wear because eventually, you become the mask. It’s usually intended as a cautionary aphorism, but for me, I’ve found it really useful as an artist. If you believe that your personality and disposition is malleable, then you can sculpt who you are over a progress of seasons, years, days, whatever. That leads to a “pluripotent” sense of possibility: new ideas you’ve never had before, things you’ve never tried. For me, that’s really exciting.
A lot of your writing is autobiographical. One of your main subjects is your Japanese heritage, and growing up Japanese-Canadian. What is that like for you?
It’s all in that truism: “Write what you know.” But it didn’t occur to me until I saw Amy Hill, a Japanese-American performer, perform at the Montreal Fringe Festival. Up until then my imagination, my plays, and even sense of identity was pretty colonized. Pretty white washed. When I closed my eyes to conceive characters, it was only white people looking back at me. It was a real revelation when I saw her telling stories detailed with innocuous things like a rice cooker. That kinda just blew my mind. My sisters and I found it hysterical: “Oh my god, she’s talking about our family.”
It was so affirming as an audience member and so vindicating as a human being, being accustomed to being invisible within the dominant culture. I became instilled with this notion that I can tell my own stories about my family, and that it can find a wider audience than just my own family. That was a huge game changer for me.
The more I continue to write along those lines, the more I realize in terms of social justice that it fulfills a really important function. When I put stories of my family out there, I know as a Japanese-Canadian, as an Asian-Canadian, that there are people who can make that connection. Whether they’re Asian or not – but perhaps especially if they’re not Asian. It breaks down barriers. When I was doing The Roundup on CBC Radio, I never explicitly talked about my race or ethnicity. But listeners across the country were able to relate to this Asiatic guy with a multisyllabic name, and I think for many rural Canadians I became their first Asian friend. Being an artist, being a writer and saying your piece as a member of a marginalized community has such value. It began as an epiphany for me, but now I believe it to the point where I actively try to support the same things.
From my experience it seems like whenever shows or movies or stories are set within a particular culture and produced, it’s only the people who are in that culture that go out to see it. That worries me a lot as someone who writes about her own cultural heritage.
That’s a really important point. I think one of the dangers of being only covered and only reviewed by the people in your community – those people who come out to support you – is that that kind of love is unconditional. We’re supporting you because you’re one of us. And the danger there is that you worry about whether you’re becoming culturally ghettoized. But that kind of experience as a young artist is so important because it’s an incubatory stage of your development. It’s really important to be surrounded by community.
There’s also the danger of being so circumscribed within a small circle, whereby your writing requires a kind of cipher to understand all the nuances and intricacies. That could be seen as a potential problem, but I also think that kind of friction, when there isn’t that smooth translation – that’s what I call a speed bump. You’re slowed down, in a good way. A really pedestrian example would be IKEA furniture names. They’re impossible to say, pronounce, spell, and yet that’s what we like about them. When shows like The West Wing and ER first came out, what made those shows ground-breaking was that they were using the languages of the profession as the professionals themselves would use them. The friction of miscommunication, the arcane acronyms gave the language texture. And the fact that we didn’t understand everything that was being said lent the proceedings a verisimilitude. An authenticity.
As a consumer of culture, there’s thrill there. You watch that and think, “Oh, this is actually the cutting edge, the stuff that happens on the margins.” This is the way culture evolves. The worst thing an artist can ever do is try to second guess what the mainstream or a popular audience will really go for. By the time you figure it out, the culture has moved on.
So what you’re doing, for example, writing about Filipino culture – the fact that, “Oh, we don’t understand all of these values, customs, whatever,” is an indicator your play represents a kind of vitality of that which is new, by virtue of being true. And not attempting to be so-called “original” or “nouveau.”
When someone belongs to a community that is marginalized, it speaks to a personal reality.
And why do you think that’s important? Speaking to a personal reality?
Because in those moments of art, especially when we’re laughing or crying, those are spontaneous responses that we can’t control. The fact that I sent out my intention, and that you responded, it’s like striking a match in the darkness. It’s a moment of connection as a writer. It’s that sudden flare of light. These moments are so powerful, especially in theatre as a kind of public sacrament, because they’re momentary reassurances of Yes, we’re alone but we’re also capable of flashes of understanding. And then the veil drops again and we’re unsure.
What happens when your intentions aren’t met in the way you expected?
If you put out shitty work and there’s no response? Good. A punch in the gut; lesson learned. It helps you later because, in Pavlovian terms, the shock and pain of that punch in the gut will help you calibrate your artistic instruments. “I’m not gonna be half assed about my writing after that.” If you have the kind of masochism that’s required to really investigate your failure, then that is such a great teacher.
But what if you put out shitty work and the audience loves it? Then you’re in trouble. You may be a person no longer in sync with your time. That’s when you really have to worry.
That’s related to what a lot of emerging writers have to learn: how to face and handle rejection. How to get over the thought that whatever I do isn’t good enough. But I also want to know: how do I handle success?
I’ve heard it said that it isn’t failure we have to fear, it’s success. Because the wrong combination of prestige, money, and profile can lock you into things that you maybe, really shouldn’t be a part of. Sociologists have suggested that we often attribute success to the wrong things. You think of athletes who rely on pregame rituals to win championships. It’s called magical thinking. When we do really well, the reason why we think we did well is often wrong. When we screw up, the causes are often pretty clear. Does that answer the question?
Well, to put myself into this, I’ve gotten to work with you guys at VACT. And as happy and grateful as I am, I don’t want to let that get to my head. I’m still living it, so I’m not sure how to handle it. Are there things I should or shouldn’t be doing or staying away from?
I loathe to say what I’m about to say, but I really like models of four for some reason. They’ve been helpful to me. There are four types of people in this world, and I’ve found it especially applies to artists.
1. Self-Aware Ignoramus
They know that they don’t know. They don’t necessarily have talent, but at least there’s hope for them because they know they don’t know. They’re still going to make some progress.
2. Arrogant Ignoramus
This person is annoying to be around because they don’t take criticism or feedback well and the worst thing is they don’t know that their work is crappy. So for them there is no hope.
3. Arrogant Expert
This is someone who has some skill and they know it. Which is okay, but the challenge is they believe that their level of expertise somehow puts them above criticism. They’ve usually plateaued.
4. Enlightened Self Entitlement
This is someone who knows he or she is good, but is willing to accept feedback from anyone, qualified or not. This is who you want to be. This is how you want to think. “Maybe I do have a kind of gift that can be refined.”
When you’re met with success, you should be confident. Savour that moment. That kind of confidence will enable you to continue to put out work and write grants and to fail in interesting ways. And then my avuncular advice to you is: never let go of that part of yourself that believes that even someone for whom you have no respect for as an individual, as a person, they still might have something to teach you about your craft.
And finally, to summarize all of that insight, what is a piece of advice that you wish you had heard at the start of your writing career?
I think there was a stage in my life when things were happening very quickly for me, where I was kind of an arrogant asshole. I thought I was some kind of self-styled enfant terrible. I was fashioning this rock and roll persona of this ferociously talented person who was so idiosyncratic that I wasn’t very nice to people I worked with. I was harsh and/or impolite in my criticism because I was the arrogant expert. In retrospect, I realize that all of us are all just feelings.
One night I was in the boardroom where my sketch comedy group was writing, and an Asian man about our age came in to collect the garbage. I realized that a lot of the reason I’ve gotten to where I’ve been is because of privilege: male privilege, the privilege of speaking English, being in Canada, etc. The first generation works so the second one can make art. So I think, I wish I had known better to own my privilege. I wish I had maintained that perspective all along. There were times when I was an arrogant little shit and I wish I could take that back.
If you’re able to do something creative, you’re in the top 0.00001% of the history of humankind. And that’s humbling.
Kamila Sediego is a graduate of Langara College’s Film Arts Writing program, and of UBC’s Creative Writing BFA program. She was shortlisted in the 2012 Canadian Short Screenplay Competition, was part of the 2014 and 2015 Brave New Play Rites Festivals, and is the finalist of VACT’s 2015 MSG Theatre Lab. She likes ice cream and cats and tattoos.