Furumoto: 'University Theatre is a place where people can see pieces that might not ordinarily be done.'
"The theater is our laboratory. It's where our students do their work, where they learn. Our audiences are doubly important in that regard."
So says David Furumoto, the new head of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's University Theatre, and a tenured associate professor of acting in the department of theater and drama.
It's safe to say there's never been another UT director quite like Furumoto. How many kabuki experts do you know who are also accomplished bagpipers?
Cultural fusion comes naturally to Furumoto, 55. Born and raised in Hawaii, he's one of seven kids born to a Japanese American dad and Scottish American mom. Yet his parents did not foist their cultures upon him.
"It was odd growing up," he observes. "My mother was the one who wanted to send us to learn Japanese at a language school. My dad said, 'They're not going to need that.' I didn't study the Japanese language until college."
As he begins his three-year stint as UT head, Furumoto wants to bring greater variety to the two stages within Vilas Hall. "I'd love to see more world theater happening - playwrights from different countries and different cultures - rather than the traditional canon of Western plays. There's a lot of exciting work coming out of Africa and Asia, and I've been reading a lot of interesting Canadian scripts. There's a lot of material out there that would be good for our audiences and challenging for our students."
Furumoto's own college days were spent at the University of Hawaii. It turned out to be the perfect setting for a thorough grounding in Asian theater traditions, Furumoto's specialty.
"I got involved in kabuki because, every year, we did an Asian theater piece as authentically as possible. We'd have great master teachers for a semester or even a whole year to prepare us for the performance.... It was kabuki, Noh, Chinese opera, Indonesian dance-drama, Indian kathakali," he says, reeling off the many forms in which he was trained.
Yet Western theater wasn't neglected, and having instructors from both England and New York showed him different approaches to that canon.
Furumoto left Honolulu with a B.A., an M.F.A. and a voracious interest in world cultures. And while no one talked about "mashups" in those days, his interest in fusion was set. For his master's thesis, he daringly adapted Shakespeare's Richard III for kabuki.
There are some in the theater world who consider themselves purists, who don't want to see novel or wacky interpretations of classic plays, harrumphing instead about the playwright's intentions.
While Furumoto understands where they're coming from, he believes theater can be reinvigorated through fresh takes on well-known works.
"I have great respect for traditional theater. I enjoy performing in a traditional style of kabuki. But I tend to believe, especially when it comes to classic works like the Greeks or Shakespeare...that the pendulum of realism and trying to make these relevant has swung so far, we've killed some of the theatricality in those plays."
As a successful example of revamping a classic, he cites fellow UW-Madison professor Norma Saldivar's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream from last season. Saldivar set Shakespeare's play in the Caribbean. "So long as you're trying to follow the ideas of the playwright, it's wonderful to reenvision some of these things. It adds to the vitality," Furumoto says.
University Theatre's current season, chosen mostly by committee, offers several examples of reimagining and reworking.
The season kicked off with The Revolt of the Beavers!, a Depression-era children's play that had been updated by graduate students John-Stuart Fauquet and Pete Rydberg. References to iPods, the Nintendo Wii and current pop music made the show more accessible to kids.
Next was a stop in 17th-century France for a new adaptation of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid. Rather than using an existing English translation, grad student Arrie Callahan went back to Molière's original text and did her own.
But that's not the only element that made UT's production fresh. Invalid was done with a "steampunk" esthetic, "very strange, but a very rich and kind of sexy world, too," says Furumoto. The steampunk approach came out of meetings between director Patricia Boyette and her design team of graduate students, who are pursuing MFAs in areas like lighting and set design.
Next February and March, Furumoto will direct Narukami - The Thunder God. It's a rare chance to see kabuki, a highly stylized form of Japanese theater, on a Madison stage.
"It's a good first-time kabuki play for people," he notes. "People think of kabuki as formal, rigid and not that exciting. This play bursts all those bubbles. It's funny in almost a bawdy way, much like a Shakespeare."
Narukami - The Thunder God is actually one section of a much longer play; it would take six to eight hours to stage the full work. Says Furumoto, "We're doing a stand-alone act. Even today in Japan, you'll see this part of the play being performed by itself."
When the play begins, Narukami is a simple Buddhist abbot, but by the end he's become a demonic character. Furumoto calls it a classic aragoto-style play, meaning "rough stuff" or "rough business" in English. It's an acting style used by kabuki superheroes and villains.
By the evening's end, says Furumoto, Narukami is "consumed by anger and a touch of lust as well. He just blows up and turns into a strong, demonic force out for revenge and retribution."
While the tale of Narukami is very old and actually originates in India, not Japan, this kabuki version of the story dates to about 1670.
Furumoto calls Narukami a good example of the kind of fare that sets University Theatre apart from other local theater companies, particularly community theater.
"Madison has a very vital and energetic community theater world, and such diversity within that world. But University Theatre is a place where people can see pieces that might not ordinarily be done. We can do a play that may not be attempted by other groups." He cites Federico García Lorca's Blood Wedding, on tap for this weekend.
Says Sarah Hoover, managing director of the Bartell Community Theatre Foundation, "The University Theatre is so necessary to the theatrical landscape of downtown. It provides an entrée for a lot of people who wouldn't necessarily be attracted to theater. The U.S. has not really supported the arts in school for several generations, so anywhere that's left where we can attract that younger audience is important."
While Hoover wishes UT would do more experimental shows like last season's avant-garde play for tots, Falling Girls, she praises UT's production quality and caliber of talent.
University Theatre, as part of the UW at large, has to cope with a tough state budget environment, but it also has the benefit of drawing upon the talents of faculty and students in three key areas: acting/directing, design/technology and theater research.
Serving as director of University Theatre is, as much as anything, about balancing the needs of those three areas so that UT can truly function as a learning tool for students.
Furumoto's other goals include getting improved facilities or possibly staging plays outside of Vilas Hall, which houses the 130-seat Hemsley Theatre and the 321-seat Mitchell Theatre. While he's interested in the Overture Center's Playhouse, he knows it is likely cost-prohibitive for UT to produce there.
He'd also like to bring the summer season back to its former state. While UT used to do two fully staged summer productions, lately it has been doing only one.
Another aim is less tangible: greater recognition on campus. "Sometimes we suffer the fate of not being looked upon as the really great theater-producing organization that we are," Furumoto laments. "I still find it amazing that, as far as coverage in the school papers, we get very little room in the press there."
When he's not in the classroom (he's teaching two classes in Asian theater techniques this semester) or tending to University Theatre duties, Furumoto enjoys bagpiping, road trips and good food and drink. "Being able to jump in the car and drive to another state - that's huge for someone from Hawaii!" he laughs.
Anything that reflects local culture grabs his attention, from a tasty local beer to the folklore of a particular place or culture. "I love ghost stories and mysterious things. I've got shelves full of collections of ghost stories from various areas of the country."
Furumoto also takes on an occasional non-UW directing gig. He helmed Michigan State University's production of Euripides' Trojan Women, which ran in October.
It's all part of a varied career for a theater artist and scholar who has acted, directed, written plays and lectured in many areas, particularly on the West Coast. His résumé includes work for everyone from the San Francisco Mime Troupe to Seattle Children's Theatre.
Aside from a love of world cultures, Furumoto is driven by a larger mission. As he told UW-Madison's University Communications in early 2001, "I hope that people from different cultures can enjoy each other, instead of kill each other. One good way we can do that is through music and theater."
Presented by University Theatre in UW Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre, Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 12-14, 7:30 pm, and through Dec. 5