Elaine Tse in 36 Views
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Elaine Tse in 36 Views
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
The "36" in 36 Views, a new play being presented by the Public Theater, has many meanings for its author, Naomi Iizuka. The number refers to a 36-piece set of woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai known as "Mt Fuji Views." It also refers to the fact that the play itself unfolds in a series of 36 scenes and moments. And the final visual image of the play is a work of art that is created when 36 pieces come together.

"I think the series of prints by Hokusai was probably the first element that went into the play," explains Iizuka. "Those prints triggered a whole series of characters and stories." She asks me if I'm familiar with Hokusai prints and I have to answer that I was not until I saw her play. "Aren't they beautiful?" she then asks. (They are.)

36 Views, which chiefly concerns the discovery of a priceless Japanese pillow book, looks at the art world from many different perspectives. Artists, art dealers, collectors, enthusiasts, historians, and restorers are all involved and all have their say. Iizuka says that she drew much inspiration from the Hokusai prints in her creation of the piece. "The way they make woodblock prints in Japan, in order to get the multiple colors, it's a multiple step process," explains the playwright, whose father is Japanese. "That sense of building something over time was hugely influential in how I was thinking about building this theater piece: You put a layer and then you put another layer and then, suddenly, there's this work that appears before your eyes."

The authority with which she writes on the subject of Asian art and antiquities makes Iizuka sound like an old pro, but she claims little background in the subject. "My parents have a very modest selection of art from Asia," she tells me. "Very modest. Nothing compared to the character in the play." The character to whom she is referring is the appropriately named Darius Wheeler, a real wheeler-dealer in the world of Asian art. He is the one who "discovers" the pillow book (a sort of ancient diary) which sends him, his associates, and half the art world into a frenzy; it seems the discovery may completely alter the beliefs of experts in the field of Asian antiquities. Meanwhile, Wheeler's assistant, John, and an artist named Claire are stuck in a web of philosophical questions and elaborate lies.

One of Hokusai's 36 "Mt. Fuji Views"
One of Hokusai's 36 "Mt. Fuji Views"
"I did a lot of research," says Iizuka, "some of which involved interviewing people. We spent a lot of time with a jade dealer in San Francisco. He was a real character, very blunt and candid about the whys and wherefores of the business, and he was generous about letting us into his world." This fellow sounds like the inspiration for Wheeler, who opens the play with a long monologue about his adventures in the foreign black market where he procures many of his treasures; but, Iizuka says, "That's pure creation on my part," though she acknowledges that Wheeler's methods are based on the ways that dealers once went about getting art from other countries before laws against such pilfering began to be enforced. "There was a point in time when it was very illegal, unethical," she explains. "People would come in and actually take sacred objects. Not just in Asia; the British did it in Greece and Italy, too."

Iizuka, who has been writing for about 10 years, began 36 Views four years ago: "I had been thinking about it before then but I actually started writing in '98, and then I was able to do a series of workshops to refine story elements and to work more deeply with character. Then other people began to enter the picture, saying 'I have a question about this' or 'That part seems to be going on too long.' I really welcome that because I'm sort of a rewriting maniac."

The workshops led to a production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. "We learned a lot in Berkeley," says Iizuka. "The designers refined certain elements and changed a few things, and I did some rewrites. Two of the actors are different because [the actors who played those roles in Berkeley] were unable to do the show in New York." Still, she says of 36 Views at the Public, "it's essentially the same production" as the one on the West Coast.

Even as she is enjoying the first major New York staging of one of her plays, Iizuka is spending time instructing others in the art of writing and rewriting at the University of Texas in Austin. She enjoys talking about her approach to teaching playwriting ("Nobody ever asks me about that!"), which she regards as a craft more than an art. "I think it's not that different from building a cabinet or planting a garden," she says. "There's a lot of real nuts-and-bolts stuff involved. [Teaching playwriting] is figuring out how to free up whatever crazy genius inspires a person but also giving them the tools to articulate that genius to a room full of strangers."

Iizuka studied playwriting herself at University of California-San Diego. "Because it's far away, at the edge of the country, they bring in a lot of guest directors," she says. "They brought in Anne Bogart and Robert Woodruff and Andre Serban. I think I learned the most from my fellow classmates and doing productions with them, but watching how those incredible directors work was revelatory."

36 Views is a play that demands a lot of its director (Mark Wing-Davey) and its designers. "I knew there needed to be screens," Iizuka says in discussing her vision for the production's design. "There also needed to be a projection component because, for example, the Hokusai print must turn brighter and brighter in color [during the play]. That's called for in the script. But then Ruppert [Bohle, the projection designer] brought so much else to the production that I wouldn't have thought of. The other thing that was called for in the script is at the beginning: 'Japanese Kana [a type of lettering] etches itself into the void,' I think, is the way the stage direction reads. That, too, is something that I don't know how you would do without some kind of projection. I'm a big believer in writing unstagable stage directions!" As it turns out, Bohle and fellow designers Douglas Stein (sets), David Weiner (lighting), Myung Hee Cho (costumes), and Matthew Spiro (sound) have been very creative in terms of realizing the theatrical special effects called for by Iizuka's script.

Playwright Naomi Iizuka
Playwright Naomi Iizuka
According to Iizuka, the main theme of 36 Views involves the concept of originality. "One question is: If you have an incredible 'fake' that is virtually identical to the original, then what is the essential difference? Claire, the young artist who restores masterworks, is a really intriguing character to me. She's dealing with the question of what is 'originality' and how to break out and make work that is her own."

Asked if there are themes that run through all of her work, Iizuka replies, "Only now, having written 36 Views, do I see a pattern. I think it has to do with how we deal with either our own personal history or with a history of literature, a history of art, and find the connections. I think that the plays I've written are quite different, at least in their surface appearance. I wrote a play called Polaroid Stories, which is actually an adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the ensemble is made up of street kids. So it's a very different kind of play than 36 Views in some ways but, in other ways, it's not that different: It really is about being lost and trying to figure out how you connect with a world that is sometimes not what it seems."