Shigematsu reflects on the parent-child relationships in his life, and his trajectory as an artist.
Your play is about your strained relationship with your father. How has this relationship informed your own role as a father?
Tetsuro Shigematsu: “It’s the central premise of the show. As much as I respect and love my late father, it’s a cautionary example.
One time I was dining with my kids [then 11 and 7], having pizza on a patio. They’re usually very open with me, but for once I could see they were reluctant to broach a topic. Then one of them says, ‘Have you ever cried before? A real cry?’ I said, ‘Yes, many real cries.’ ‘Well we haven’t seen you! As an adult?’ my daughter asked.
And I realized that I don’t cry because my father never cried, and he never cried because his father never cried. And so, this inability to cry or even to tell my father I loved him before he died, these are some of the constraints that generations of Shigematsu men have passed down to other Shigematsus after them. This show is an attempt to break this chain between my son and myself, as well as my daughter.”
You used to write for CBC comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, but your current work sounds quite serious. How has your relationship to comedy changed over time?
TS: “The show has been marketed as quite serious, but audiences are surprised by how funny it is. One review described it as ‘hilarity and heartbreak.’ I do like making people laugh, but as a genre there aren’t too many other emotional timbres that you can hit.
In Empire of the Son, what I do is almost more performance art. I play myself, it takes place within a theatre and everything I tell the audience is true.
I propose to the audience: ‘My father died and donated his body to science and I don’t know when we’ll get his ashes back, but on that day I’d like to be able to cry. I’m going to go over some difficult material tonight — challenging for me — and maybe if I can cry in front of you, in public, on that day it won’t be a big deal and I can finally be free.’ This show is a rehearsal for real life.”
In your 2010 TedX talk, The Awesomeness of Your Contradictions, you encourage people to embrace their oxymorons, saying how being the "funny Asian" helped create interest. Do you personally have new contradictions?
TS: “I feel like they’re always evolving! We were the cover story of [Vancouver arts weekly] the Georgia Straight and the headline read: Tetsuro Shigematsu has proven that diversity can bring big returns at the box office.
There’s been a conversation about theatre and diversity across the country and we have this moral obligation to be more inclusive in how we present our Canadian stories on stage. But for those cultural decision makers who might not be interested in diversity, we want to give them another reason to program our shows. And that is simply that our shows do incredibly well at the box office.
Empire of The Son sold out the entire run before it opened. For a world premiere of a Canadian play, to the best of my knowledge, that’s unprecedented. For diasporic Asians, where English is our first language and we’re as Canadian as the next person, but we look the way we do, for that to be a box office hit? The contradiction I’m inhabiting now is a "Bankable Asian-Canadian playwright!”
How did your time at Concordia contribute to your success?
TS: “[Studying in an interdisciplinary arts program], I was granted a great deal of autonomy and able to build my curriculum based on my own curiosities. I always found the Faculty of Fine Arts to be extremely open-minded and very collaborative.
My instructors encouraged me to explore performance as well. They had a very hybrid approach to thinking about how different kinds of knowing could intersect. I was always asking myself ‘What is possible? What hasn’t been done before?’ Not only did I get that mindset from attending arts school, but from the wide-open possibilities that Concordia University itself offers.”