Jun 15, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 466: Daniel Akiyama
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawai‘i
Current Town: Honolulu, Hawai‘i
Q: Tell me about A Cage of Fireflies.
A: A CAGE OF FIREFLIES is about three sisters of the kibei generation -- sent as children to be raised in Okinawa, then returned to Hawai‘i as young women to live and work. The play is set in the year 2000, when the sisters are quite elderly, in a small Honolulu apartment where two of the sisters live and the third visits. A disagreement over a kimono collection forces them to confront the dreams and regrets they’ve carried with them since childhood, the long-hidden hopes and resentments that unite and divide them.
This is my first full-length play. I started writing it because I wanted to understand certain relationships and incidents from my own family’s history -- I suspect a lot of beginning writers do that. I slogged through a first draft in a playwriting class in 2006. Since then, it’s had so many revisions that it bears almost no resemblance to anything that happened in real life, and I’m fine with that.
A CAGE OF FIREFLIES will be developed in July 2012 at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab and will have its world premiere at Kumu Kahua Theatre in Honolulu, in January 2013.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m trying to devote most of my time to A CAGE OF FIREFLIES, getting ready for Sundance and Kumu Kahua. I have an idea for a second play, but it’s in such an embryonic stage that I don’t feel like talking about it.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I love this question, but I just can’t seem to think of a story with that eureka! moment. Instead, here is a family tradition that’s been part of my life for as long as I can recall.
Every Thanksgiving my family and I fly to the town of Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, where my grandmother lives. Thanksgiving morning after everyone arrives, we all pile into cars and drive to Saddle Road, a narrow strip of pavement that snakes through miles of uninhabited ‘ōhi‘a forests between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, the largest mountains in the Hawaiian islands. We spend the day picking flowers and plants along the roadside -- ‘ōhi‘a lehua, false staghorn ferns, club moss, pūkiawe -- being careful to only take tiny cuttings from each plant, and only the plants near the path. Then we go back to my grandmother’s house and get ready for Thanksgiving dinner. The adults take the rest of the weekend to make wreaths out of the cuttings, which we bring back with us to Honolulu to give to friends and neighbors as early Christmas gifts.
I’m not sure why I wanted to share that with you. And I’m not sure what, if anything, it says about me as a person or a writer. Something about family, maybe? About continuity? About tradition?
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: A few names come to mind: Stephen Sondheim, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, August Wilson, Bernard-Marie Koltès, Lee Cataluna. Actually, I have a hard time answering this. “Hero” is a strange word, and the writers I really admire are those whose work -- the larger body of work as much as the individual pieces -- I find meaningful, whose career and style continue to fascinate me over time, whose attitude towards writing and the theatre resonates with me. There are a lot of writers whose plays I like or even love, whose careers have heroic episodes or a heroic trajectory, but whom I don’t consider my “heroes.”
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theatre in general excites me. I like plays that have a lot of clarity and thought, plays that are built on a solid foundation and assume their audience is smart and aware. I tune out when there’s a lot of shouting, or when I feel like I’m being talked down to.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Well, I’m just starting out myself. As I said, A CAGE OF FIREFLIES is my first big play, and I still have a ways to go before I’m done, so I’m not in a position to offer advice. However, I can tell you what seems to be working for me so far.
Here’s one great thing: I found the right director. Phyllis S.K. Look has been helping me shape and re-shape the play for over a year. She directed the play’s first workshop and public reading in Honolulu in 2011, she’ll be directing the workshop at our 2012 Sundance residency, and she’s going to stage the world premiere in 2013. It’s exciting and stimulating to work with Phyllis, a director whose ideas are rich and vivid and incredibly detailed, but who is always committed to the integrity of the play itself. I know the production will be in good hands.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: A CAGE OF FIREFLIES was a finalist for the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference and will be workshopped at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, under the direction of Phyllis S.K. Look and the dramaturgy of Mame Hunt. It will have its world premiere at Kumu Kahua Theatre in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, on January 24, 2013, again directed by Phyllis S.K. Look.