Ground Control To Major Tom-BBP! Speaks With The 39 Complex & Yokohama Theatre Group’s Andrew Woolner

Science fiction has always been a genre of storytelling that fires the imagination but, more importantly, sheds a light of truth on the state of the human condition. We have greater knowledge of who we are, how we are, and, perhaps, why we exist because of the exploratory themes and motifs that writers and artists explore through sci-fi books, films, television, and even stage productions.

The upcoming release of the Yokohama Theatres Group’s fascinating, The 39 Complex, is one such stage production that delves deep into those storytelling truths. Follow us after the jump for a revealing interview with the YTG’s Artistic Director and their latest stage creation.

YTG 39 banner imageThe Yokahama Theatre Group of Yokohama, Japan, under Artistic Director and Canadian ex-pat writer and actor, Andrew Woolner, premieres its latest stage offering, The 39 Complex, later this month. Through three distinct, but linked, offerings, the productionexplores the themes of isolation and alienation as a means to shed light on our own interconnectedness – an aspect of humanity that is rapidly evolving via the technological marvels and shifting demographic and geographic boundaries of this twenty-first century.

One of the three segments that make up the The 39 Complex is the codex piece, The 39 Redux, a stage play written and performed by Woolner, which tells the story of an astronaut, returned to earth from a long-lived space mission. Here, he finds a world drastically different from the one he had left behind.

Biff Bam Pop’s JP Fallavollita got a chance to speak with Andrew Woolner via email about the Yokohama Theatre Group, the trials and tribulations of mounting a production, The 39 Complex and the crowd funding initiatives that the collective has employed to move the production forward in an effort for global reach.

JP Fallavollita: Andrew, tell me a little bit about the Yokohama Theatre Group (YTG). You’ve got quite a history that goes back over a century! As a Canadian ex-pat, how did you become involved?

Andrew Woolner: Well, the company started out in 1900 as a dramatics club for foreigners, so being a Canadian didn’t hinder me in that regard. Getting involved was pretty easy and just took a few emails. I was somewhat surprised, though, to become the Artistic Director within one or two months of signing on. I know this sounds like I’m some kind of theatre “super king”, but there wasn’t exactly a large field of candidates. The company had been in a slow decline for a long time due to changing demographics in the foreigner community, so it was more a case of “last man standing”.

JP Fallavollita: You’ve got an interesting philosophy on theatre performance right now, the use of technology, and the differences between fact and truth in your art. How does that philosophy shape you students, your creators, and the works you present?  

Andrew Woolner: Jesus, you actually read the website? If I’d known that would get thrown at me in an interview one day I would’ve kept it to myself! Okay, here we go.

I thought it was important to have some kind of “manifesto”, so to speak, to let potential members of the group, students, and audience members know what we are all about.

Good god– I’m trying to keep this answer short– the page you refer to covers a broad range of things, from “what is theatre?” to “embracing technology that lets us tell good stories” to “truth vs. fact in art”. I think with any group like ours, where there is so much creative freedom (we don’t tend to work from scripts, but create our own), there do need to be some parameters. The same applies to the people I bring in to teach theatre.

At the end of the day, though, the type of work we do at YTG now means that until we have a few more shows under our belt, it’s going to be hard to see the effects. The company is old, but the current artistic direction is so new– it’s hard to say.

YTG The 39 Complex imageJP Fallavollita: Your latest offering, The 39 Complex, is made up of three linked performances: A People Apart (a), A People Apart (b),and The 39 Redux. Collectively, this is a show about a number of human experiences including alienation, change, and identity. How did The 39 Complex come into being and what do the three performances bring to its’ overall vision?  

Andrew Woolner: So, the plan was to do a remount of my show 39 (renamed 39 Redux for this production), which hadn’t had a full production in Japan yet, just a workshop. But the current version of the show is only about an hour long, so rather than bring in an outside group to mount a companion piece, it made sense to use the rest of the ensemble to create a couple of new shows to go with it.

One of the themes in 39 is isolation. Before the story begins, the main character escapes the community he grew up in, a sort of luddite colony, similar in a way to our present-day old order Mennonite and Amish communities. We decided that the idea of a group of people who purposely isolate themselves from the rest of society was interesting enough to use as a jumping off point for the two other shows. “A People Apart”, the title, comes from a book about old order Mennonites called People Apart.

JP Fallavollita: The 39 Redux segment first premiered in 2010 as 39. As the writer and actor of this particular piece, what’s changed in the actual production or the way you express it since it was first performed? You’ve got a new director in Graig Russell, for one, and, personally, you’re also four years more established in Japan. Have recent experiences, or a new hand at telling the story, changed your view of The 39 Redux?

Andrew Woolner: Without going into excruciating detail, there was a workshop performance in Yokohama. At that time, the show was a two-hander (two actors) and ran 90 minutes.

The 2010 touring version of the show was, by necessity, compact. Fringe festival requirements meant that we couldn’t overrun our 60-minute time slot, so I cut and rewrote the show into its current one-man format, dropping several characters and subplots along the way. Even with this slimmer re-write, in performance a lot of the moments were a bit rushed. One of the biggest differences this time, as an actor, is that I get to live in the moments a little bit longer. I get to slow my thought process down at crucial moments. This gives the show a more varied and more interesting pacing.

Technologically, we’ve changed the still images in the background to HD video that now cover the entire rear wall of the set. It’s much more immersive. That’s the biggest change. And of course, a real lighting design– on the Fringe festival circuit we were really at the mercy of what our venues had set up. We were lucky if we got one dedicated spotlight.

Look, I loved the touring show, and I loved being on tour, but I’m grateful this time, for moving closer to the show I had in my head.

As an expat, four years hasn’t really changed my perspective. I’ve now lived in Japan for almost 11 years and consider it my home. But there remains the feeling that other people, Japanese and foreigners, don’t consider it to be my home, if that makes any sense. That hasn’t changed, and that’s one of the core, uh, feelings, if you will, in the show.

JP Fallavollita: Since the YTG embraces technology, you’ve begun an online sponsorship of The 39 Complex. Although we see Kickstarters and the like for so many things these days, it isn’t often you see it for theatre. Why this decision, why now, and what are the plans for the funds you raise?  

Andrew Woolner: There are actually a fair number of crowd-funding campaigns for theatre. You maybe don’t see them a lot, because they tend to focus on their local supporters, and their project “perks”, the items you get for backing their campaigns, are usually only good for locals, like show tickets, and the like. The difference with our campaign is that we’re trying to have a global attitude to getting people involved as backers.

This is actually our second campaign. We tried out indiegogo in 2012 when some jackass backed a truck into our tiny storage building where we keep all our costumes. That time we had to raise about 100,000 yen (approximately $1000) to repair the damn thing. That campaign went well, and I realized that we actually did have supporters all over the world who were willing to support what we do. I won’t have a chance to do an in-depth analysis of the current campaign until the show is over and struck, but my guess is that more than 50% of the money raised will have come from people who do not currently live in Japan.

As for “why now”, it’s simply because this show is bigger than I can finance out of my own pocket.

I should mention here that we’re not using Kickstarter, but IgnitionDeck, which is an independent platform that we actually host ourselves. This means more of the money actually gets to us, and we can accept alternate forms of payment, not just Paypal, which is really important in Japan, where online payments are still viewed with a bit of suspicion.

The funds we raise go straight into the show. The bulk of the money we raise will go into theatre and rehearsal space rental. It’s about 5-10 times more expensive to rent a theatre here than in Canada, and as far as rehearsal space goes, we tend to have a long rehearsal process.

The rest of the money we raise is going into equipment rental (projectors, lighting dimmers, queuing software), having the show filmed professionally (really important if we apply for festivals or grants in the future), editing equipment (cheaper than paying an editor by the hour), and, of course, the costs of the perks themselves.. If we were to hit our original 1,000,000 yen goal (~$10,000), then cast and crew would have their transportation costs covered, among other things, so that nobody would be out-of-pocket for the show.

JP Fallavollita: You’ve got so many great items available for public sponsorship, from artistic jewelry to original The 39 Complex music to tickets to actual DVD’s of the performance. You’ve got some committed partners and believers in your group, don’t you?

Andrew Woolner: It’s amazing how artists will work for nothing. We shouldn’t, but some of us do, because if we don’t, then projects don’t get done. Bottom line: we would all like to be paid, but sometimes making art is more important.

YTG is very lucky as a group, and I’m very lucky, personally, to have the kind of support that we do. It’s not just the people who are donating some of the more interesting perks, but also the folks working on the shows themselves. The ensemble members, the directors, the composer, etc. An ensemble member probably spends like 2000 yen ($20) a week in train fare alone to come to rehearsals– and our rehearsals last 6 months! The composer or a director may have put paying work on the back burner because he or she was inspired by the show or by what we do in general.

I have had some artists say to me: “Look, I’d love to do this for free, but I can’t, I’ll do it at cost” or a reduced rate or whatever, and I’ve had to say “No”. Not because we don’t want to pay them, or it’s not a generous offer, but simply because the money isn’t there. “So that usually costs $2000 and you’d do it for $200? That’s a great price, but I don’t have $200 either.” (That’s me talking). So yeah, we’re very grateful for the true believers who are able to donate their work and their time, but as we grow, my goal is to start paying people, even them.

JP Fallavollita: With your embrace of technology, you open up your works to an audience outside of the cities you actually perform in. For me, based in Toronto, Canada, I think that’s great. Still, it requires a lot of communication and legwork on your part, doesn’t it? How has this particular The 39 Complex experience been for you?

Andrew Woolner: No kidding. This has been… I guess “intense”? Don’t want to say anything negative, but next time I want to run the campaign a few months before we start work on the show. This time we started late due to technical reasons, and I really wish that I could focus more on the show. It’s going to be great, but I’m not going to get a lot of sleep between now and closing night.

Unless you’re working on something with serious mass appeal or have a celebrity involved, the thing to realize is that the people who are going to back your campaign are people you and your team know. So there is going to be a lot of emailing, and a lot of Facebook messaging. On the plus side, I’ve caught up with a lot of old friends! That was a great side effect. Also, I was really astonished as to where some of the most serious support came from… sometimes from people who I really liked and respected, but don’t actually know all that well.

JP Fallavollita: What’s next for you and the Yokohama Theatre Group, Andrew?

Andrew Woolner: A break. From shows, anyway. I have a bag full of paperwork in Japanese I’ve been putting off that I need to work my way through after The 39 Complex is over, as well as making sure all the perks for the campaign make it out by the deadline.

The next show will start rehearsing in June and open in August. We have a guest director coming from Holland who will create the show with us in rehearsals. It will be small scale and will probably not require a campaign to fund it, thankfully.

YTG will keep moving away from its roots as a club and edge closer to being a professional theatre company and school.

JP Fallavollita: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Andrew. Good luck with the fundraising – and best of luck with The 39 Complex – I look forward to seeing the show!

Andrew Woolner: I look forward to sending you the video… I’ll try not to think of the days and weeks of editing I’ll have to do first.

The 39 Complex is playing four shows at World Peace Theatre, Yokohama, Japan, on April 11, 12 and 13. Visit The 39 Complex fundraiser webpage, where you can support the show up to April 5 by purchasing various gifts including tickets, jewelry, music and a copy of the performance itself. You can find more information at Yokohama Theatre Group.

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