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Death in a Vacant Lot

Ivana Catanese in "Death in Vacant Lot!"
Photo by Kali Dermes
by Jonathan Slaff

A Stage Adaptation of Terayama Shuji's Landmark 1974 Film, "Den'en Ni Shisu" (Death in the Fields. Performed By The South Wing, production debuts October 4-14 at LMCC's Swing Space; was developed at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center.

Terayama Shuji's avant-garde film masterpiece, "Den'en ni Shisu (Death in the Fields)," has been adapted for the stage as "Death in Vacant Lot!" a play with music, by The South Wing, an international theater company now working in New York. The adaptation is by The South Wing's artistic director, Kameron Steele, who is noted for his adaptation of the Suzuki method to American theater. After development at the Watermill Center, avant-garde visionary Robert Wilson's theater laboratory in Southampton, NY, the piece will have its world premiere run October 4 to 14 at Swing Space, 15 Nassau Street, Manhattan, co-produced with The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

The South Wing is comprised of musicians, actors and dancers who have previously worked with Cirque du Soleil, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, Mabou Mines, Anne Bogart's SITI company, The Flying Machine, and the Suzuki Company of Toga. The company was founded in 2003 by Kameron Steele and Ivana Catanese during their residency at the Unlversidad de Guadalajara, Mexico and has toured extensively in the U.S., Mexico and Europe.

The bulk of The South Wing's development process for "Death in Vacant Lot!" has taken place at the Watermill Center, avant-garde visionary Robert Wilson's theater laboratory at 39 Watermill Towd Road, Watermill (Southampton), NY (www.watermilcenter.org). This is the first time that Wilson has opened the doors of his Long Island Center to nurture the work of a young, leading-edge theatre company. A preview event will be held there on Sunday, September 24, 2006 at 3:00 pm. News and feature coverage are invited.

Terayama Shuji's 1974 film, "Den'en ni Shisu" (Death in the Fields)," depicts an adolescent boy in prewar Japan who runs away from home. The boy's coming of age is an allegory for Japan's loss of innocence during WWII. The piece is wrought with conflicting pastoral images which are alternately romantic and sexually brutal, realistic and fantastic. It makes particular use of the traditional Japanese tanka poetic form filled with very modern and often taboo or grotesque imagery. Terayama grew up in the era when Japan was occupied by US forces, far away from his mother, who worked as a prostitute for US enlisted men. The character representing him in the film endures a loss of innocence as his mother is lost to an invader or rapist figure. The historical metaphor is clear: just as loss of innocence is something that is forced upon the young, it was also forced on Japan as a whole in consequence of its egregious imperialism leading up to WWII.

In "Death in Vacant Lot!" Kameron Steele is adapting the film as a "Tommy"-style rock opera employing modernist music and a 21st Century American "post Global Village" context. Terayama's text, translated into English by Steele, is staged with choreography, choral and solo song, tanka poetry, live and occasionally pre-recorded electric and acoustic music. Steele and The South Wing are one of a small handful of Western artists to be given permission by Kujo Kyoko, executor of the Terayama estate, to translate, adapt and direct Terayama's work.

Steele believes that societies, like individuals, undergo a loss of innocence, usually resulting in either self-realization or self-destruction. The idea, therefore, is that Japan's loss of innocence during the 30 years surrounding WWII points to the imagined loss of innocence that will happen over the next 20 years for the United States.

Using J.A. Ceasar's extant soundtrack to "Den'en ni Shisu" (Death in the Fields) as context, four composer/musicians--Kevin McWha Steele, Jill Samuels, Kameron Steele and Katie Down--are collaborating on a new musical score, which will juxtapose '60s Japanese folk-rock and contemporary electronic experimental music. Selections of Caesar's score that were unused in the film will be employed, as will a combination of acoustic sounds and electronic, computer-driven music, to underscore the timelessness of the conceptual themes.

The actors are Ivana Catanese, Gillian Chadsey, Craig Dolezel, Catherine Friesen, James Garver, Jessica Green, LeeAnne Hutchison, Cecile Monteyne, Chris Oden, David Ponce, Jill Samuels, Nate Schenkkan and Andrew Shulman. Musicians are Katie Down, Nadia Mahdi and Kevin McWha Steele. Dramaturg is Nanako Nakajima. Costumes and props are by Nazanin Fakoor and Carlos Soto. Scenic and lighting design are by Mariano Marquez. Projections are by Nathan Guisinger and Scott Piscitelli. Choreography is by Nixon Beltran.

"Death in Vacant Lot!" is made possible by Swing Space, a program of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), generously supported by the September 11 Fund. Spaces are donated by Silverstein Properties. This program has also been made possible through the sponsorship of The Field and the Watermill Center.


Kameron Steele received his theater degree from Northwestern University's School of Speech in 1991. He then moved to Tokyo and studied at the Kita School of Noh and Waseda University, through which he met Tadashi Suzuki and joined his SCOT company, appearing in a variety of Suzuki's productions through 1994. As translator and assistant director for Mr. Suzuki, he helped Suzuki form the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI) company with American director Ann Bogart in 1992, and organized the first training sessions of the company in Saratoga Springs, NY. He helped develop American director Eric Hill's Suzuki Method of Actor training program at StageWest in Springfield, MA.

Disillusioned with the direction Suzuki's work and training was taking in the West, Mr. Steele left the SCOT company in 1994 and moved to New York, where he appeared at CSC and The Culture Project and won critical acclaim in Will Pomerantz' adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's "Prater Violet" and Joanna Settle's production of "Penthesilea." In 1998, he became involved in Robert Wilson's Watermill center, and from 1998-2002 performed in Mr. Wilson's "Persephone," "The Days Before" and "Woyzeck." He also played the title role in the Iannis Xenakis opera "Prometheus" at the Megaron Mousikis in Athens.

In 2003, he completed a six-month residency at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico where he, with Ivana Catanese and Nathan Guisinger, formed The South Wing company. He has also developed a unique style of presenting the Suzuki method which has been taught in Argentina, Japan, France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Greece as well as New York and has recently become part of the regular curriculum at several leading theater institutions in Europe and Argentina.

As a first time director, Mr. Steele opened the New Teatro Mendoza Opera House in Mendoza, Argentina with Euripides' "Las Bacantes" in 2000. The South Wing's first production, Mr. Steele's translation/adaptation of Yukio Mishima's modern Noh play "Hanjo," was presented at the Teatro Degollado Opera House in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2003 and took the best play of the year prize from El Mural magazine. It toured to New York in 2004 as part of the MexicoNow Festival. In 2005, he presented "Saudade," an original work based on Jorge-Luis Borges' "The Circular Ruins," in HERE's American Living Room series, and remounted Hanjo in a revamped version, "Hanjo Redux," at CRS Studios in Union Square. He will stage his own translation/adaptation of Mishima's Noh play, "The Lady Aoi," at The Japan Society in May, 2007.

His first major film appearance, playing Charlie Sherman in Mayu Nakamura's independent feature, "The Summer of Stickleback" (Hariyo no Natsu), will premiere in Tokyo in October, 2006.

His translations include sections of Tadashi Suzuki's "What is theatre?" appearing in Paul Allain's book, "The Art of Stillness: The Theatre of Tadashi Suzuki," along with several interviews between Mr. Allain and Mr. Steele. Other publications include essays on Suzuki and Wilson for Los Rabdomantes in Argentina.


Terayama Shuji (12/10/35 - 5/4/83) was an avant-garde dramatist, writer, director, and one of the most productive and provocative creative Japanese artists of the twentieth century. He was the only son born to Terayama Hachiro and Terayama Hatsu in Hirosaki City in the northern Japanese prefecture of Aomori. At the age of nine, his mother moved to the town of Kyushu to work at an American military base while Terayama went to live with relatives in the city of Misawa, also in Aomori. It was during this time that Terayama lived through the Aomori air raids which killed more than 30,000 of his countrymen.

Terayama entered the prestigious Waseda University's Faculty of Education in 1954 to study Japanese language and literature. He soon fell ill with nephrotic syndrome and left the University, choosing instead to learn on the streets of Tokyo's Shinjuku district, working in bars there. His oeuvre consists of numerous essays claiming that more can be learned about life through boxing and horse racing than by studying hard in school. Accordingly, he was one of the central figures of the "runaway" movement during the late 1960s in Japan as depicted in his book, play, and film "Throw Away Your Books, Run into the Streets!"

In 1967 Terayama formed the theatre troupe Tenjo Sajiki. The name is taken from Marcel Carné's 1945 film "Les Enfants du Paradis," which translates in English to "Children of Heaven," but can also mean "The Peanut Gallery." The troupe was dedicated to the avant-garde and staged a number of controversial plays tackling social issues from an iconoclastic perspective. Some of their major works include "Bluebeard," "Yes," and "The Crime of Fatso Oyama." The troupe experimented with "city plays," a type of fantasy performance based on a satire of daily life within the civic life itself.

Terayama published nearly 200 literary works and produced more than 20 films. His experimental cinema and gallery - Universal Gravitation - is used today as a resource center in the town of Misawa. The Terayama Shuji Memorial Hall, also in Misawa, contains a large collection of plays, novels, poetry, photography and personal relics from the Tenjo Sajiki theatre productions.

In addition to the stage and screen, Terayama was a master of tanka poetry, an ancient 31-syllable form. At the age of 18 he won the Tanka Studies Award, and continued to compose in the form until his death. He was also famous for his radio plays, for which he received many prizes including Ministry of Education Art Encouragement Prizes.

He was married to Tenjo Sajiki co-founder Kyoko Kujo, but they later divorced, although they continued to work together until Terayama's death in 1983 from cirrhosis of the liver.

Terayama's films include: "Farewell Ark" (1984), "Grass Maze" (1983), "Third Base" (1978), Boxer (1977), "Les Chants de Maldoror" (1977, Reele's International short film festival critic great prize for experimental film), "A Woman of Two Heads- Shadow Film" (1977, Benalmadena International Short Film Festival Special Prize), "The Labyrinth" (1975, Silver prize of Experiment Film in Overhauzen for experimental film), "A Journal of the Plague Year" (1975, Benalmadena International Short Film Festival Special Prize), "Death in the Country" (1974, Benalmadena International Short Film Festival Special Jury Prize, Japan Ministry of Education Art Encouragement Prize for New Artists), "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" (1972, Festival International du Film Maritime et d'Exploration Special Jury Prize), "Throw Away Your Books, Go Out into the Streets!" (1971, Festival di Sanremo, the Grand Prize), and "Mothers" (1967, Grand prix in the short works section of Venetian Film Festival).

Terayama presented his theatre performance in many countries including US, West-Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Poland, Yugoslavia. He served as a committee member in Nancy Theatre Festival with Robert Wilson and Jerzy Grotowski.

October 4 to 14
LMCC Swing Space, 15 Nassau Street, Manhattan
Presented by The South Wing (www.thesouthwing.org) and Swing Space, a program of The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council
Wednesdays through Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 7:00 pm and 10:00 pm
Tickets: $20; Box office SMARTTIX (212) 868-4444.


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