Sundance Lab is theatermaker's best friend

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NORTH ADAMS — When silent films first came to Japan in the 1920s, a new genre emerged to bridge the gap between the country's oral storytelling tradition and the new, foreign technology. A narrator — called a benshi — would sit to the side at a podium with a microphone, and describe the story flickering on the screen, adding commentary and sound effects along the way. Many benshi became the featured attraction themselves.

"Depending on who the benshi was became how you decided which movie to see," said Saori Tsukada, a performance artist originally from Japan and now based in New York whose new theater work features silent film, benshi narration, and other kinds of traditional storytelling techniques from east and west. "Club Diamond" is a work-in-progress she is developing with filmmaker and theater director Nikki Appino and violinist/composer Tim Fain, who were all at Mass MoCA this week as part of the Sundance Theatre Lab's annual residency at the museum.

The show is close to finished and will premiere next month as part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater in New York.

The performance begins with a silent film, starring Tsukada, and with live violin and recorded music from Fain. The film is "from" 1927 and tells the story of a young Japanese woman who travels from Tokyo to New York to seek her fame and fortune.

As the story continues another layer is added — a screening of the film from 1937 with a benshi, who narrates and comments on the action. Then another layer comes in 1947, with the story via Kamishibai, or "paper play." This is a kind of street performance — usually performed by bicycle-riding storyteller for children, and would sell candy to them as the price of admission for a good seat. The storyteller weaves his tale with a sequence of sequence of printed images.

In an interview early this week as they were settling down to work, the artists explained that their interest began in ways of storytelling, and used Tsukada's own story as a place to start.

"We were interested in what silent films of that era could do, their style and their nature," Appino said. "And then I asked Saori her story about coming to the United States when she was in her 20s."

As they gathered momentum, they brought in Fain, who splits his time between New York and Montana, and a busy touring schedule. In addition to his work playing with the likes of Philip Glass, he has collaborated on major film scores including "Black Swan" and, more recently, "12 Years a Slave."

"Music for me is less about the sounds themselves and more about the story," Fain said. "As a performer I often find myself returning to the arc of the story."

Fain said he appeals to "music's power to transcend without the power of language." For this piece, that includes the themes and variations that draw from a variety of sources.

"I wanted to disguise the initial theme and subsequent iterations, sometimes almost to the point it becomes unrecognizable," he said. "I hope that somehow creates a thread through the piece, even if we are responding to unconscious cues."

The framework gives them a way to include a number of themes about modern life. Tsukada said part of it is about the immigrant experience in America, and how American culture adapts and is adapted to other cultures. Appino mentioned that exploring layers of storytelling let's them consider "the delight of hearing a story being told." Fain described it as something like a detective story, and about "the need to tell and build on what little knowledge we have of actual events," and how that can be lost over time.

"To me it's about that desire to make sense of things that ultimately don't make sense," he said.

The trio met in 2011 at the Days and Nights Festival in Big Sur, Calif., which they all attended as part of different projects.

"I already knew them and was familiar with their work," Fain said. "We were all really hungry to do something that broke out of the mold a bit. We're all interested in doing things that are just on the edge of our comfort zones."

Over time the piece evolved. Appino, who is a theater artists and filmmaker who has worked in New York and the West Coast, and is now based in Philadelphia where she has hosted development sessions at a performance space she runs in a former warehouse

"It developed slowly because it is self-produced," Appino said. "We'd do a piece whenever we could get together, at what Saori affectionately called her `Philadelphia residency.'"

Pieces of the work have appeared around the country over the past few months, and they've enjoyed the support of the Sundance Theatre Program, including a residency Tsukada and Appino spent over the summer.

Philip Himberg, artistic director of the program, said they were brought to MoCA to take the next step.

"Part of our mission is to provide ongoing support for select projects, and this was an opportunity to bring them together with Tim, and to make this the next chapter in their development."

Presenting some work in a showcase manner is an important part of the program at MoCA, particularly as the artists work out the mechanics of their production. For example, how much do they have to explain to a western audience the nature of benshi or kamishibai?

"Normally at Sundance we don't do public performances," Himberg said. "But because the museum asks us to do something and because these folks need a little more information, the audience is a really important part of this."

This is one of four projects at work in North Adams this year. One is a stage adaptation of the 2007 indie-horror film "Teeth," about an evangelical teen with a secret.

Also here this week are writer and performer Raeda Taha and director Junaid Sariddeen, who are working on "36 Abbas Street, Haifa," the story of two Palestinian families and a building with meaning for both.

At an early stage of development, songwriter Duncan Sheik and writer Steven Sater, who collaborated in the acclaimed 2006 musical "Spring Awakening," are in the early stages of developing a stage adaptation of the film "Ma Vie en Rose."

Reach correspondent Christopher Marcisz at cwmarc@gmail.com

ON STAGE

What: "Club Diamond." A work-in-development for theater created and written by Saori Tsukada and Nikki Appino with music by violinist Tim Fain

When: Friday evening at 8

Where: Mass MoCA, Club B10, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

Tickets: $10 advance; $15 day of; $21 preferred; $8 students

How: 413-662-2111; massmoca.org; in person at Mass MoCA box office on site


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